Updated on August 19 at 1:57 p.m.
Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was already in the midst of a rough spot when The New York Times published a story Sunday night, detailing millions in cash payments to Manafort listed in a secret ledger in Ukraine.
By Friday, Manafort had resigned from the Trump campaign, two days after the Republican nominee effectively sidelined him by hiring a new campaign chief executive and a new campaign manager.
“This morning Paul Manafort offered, and I accepted, his resignation from the campaign,” Trump said in a statement Friday morning. “I am very appreciative for his great work in helping to get us where we are today, and in particular his work guiding us through the delegate and convention process. Paul is a true professional and I wish him the greatest success.”
The Times story kicked off a string of reports that detailed Manafort’s ties to a Kremlin client regime in Ukraine, and pointed to possible violations of the law. For example:
- Secret, handwritten ledgers that the Times reviewed showed $12.7 million in cash payments that were meant to be sent to Manafort by the Party of Regions, Yanukovych’s political party. Investigators argue that the cash was part of an illegal, off-the-books scheme. Manafort says the money was simply payment for his political consulting business.
- However, investigators in Ukraine also believe that Manafort was involved in the construction of shell companies—including business with Oleg Deripaska, a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin—that allowed Yanukovch to siphon off state resources to fund a lavish lifestyle.
- Meawhile, Fusion noted a series of pricey acquisitions Manafort had made since beginning his work for Yanukovych.
- Michael Isikoff reported that Manafort personally recruited lobbyist Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman, to participate in a $2.2. million campaign to influence U.S. policy toward Ukraine.
- A pair of Associated Press stories on that effort indicated that Manafort may have violated federal laws that require anyone lobbying on behalf of a foreign government register as a foreign agent, which Manafort did not do.
Those revelations made Manafort politically toxic. (Rick Gates, a longstanding Manafort aide who was also implicated in the stories, is moving to become the campaign’s liaison to the Republican National Convention, the campaign said.) But Manafort’s demise may have been driven by Trump’s floundering standing in polls as much as by the bad press. Trump, after all, likes to win, and he hasn’t been doing much of that recently.
Manafort’s term on the Trump campaign began in March, when he was hired to lead delegate-counting efforts. A veteran operative—Manafort cut his teeth working for President Gerald Ford in 1976, beating back a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan—he brought essential expertise to a Trump campaign that had proved adept at winning primaries and motivating a certain segment of the GOP base. Despite those wins, however, Trump was failing to place his own delegates at state conventions, and it appeared he risked a floor fight at the Republican National Convention.
Ultimately, Trump was able to lock up the delegates to avoid a floor fight, but his then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was fast becoming a liability. Although Lewandowski had gotten Trump that far, he seemed perhaps overmatched on the national scene, and moreover was garnering bad headlines for grabbing a Breitbart reporter at a rally in Florida, then claiming he had not done so, despite eyewitnesses and video footage proving it.
Manafort adeptly maneuvered himself into a promotion to campaign chairman in May. But he and Lewandowski feuded constantly, with Manafort pushing for a more moderate approach, following a more typical political playbook. Lewandowski, in contrast, argued for a more unorthodox “let Trump be Trump” strategy, pointing to its success in the primary. Finally, Trump fired Lewandowski in June, reportedly at the urging of his children and also of Manafort. For many observers, this marked a milestone in the Trump campaign, the moment when the candidate turned away from the motley bunch of amateurs he’d begun with and began to professionalize his campaign.
Any such illusions proved to be short-lived. Manafort was no more able to get Trump to stay on message than anyone else, and his attempts at moderation went nowhere. A classic example was Trump’s infamous tweet of himself eating a taco bowl on May 5, Cinco de Mayo. “I love Hispanics!” he wrote. Howard Fineman reported this week:
Manafort was in the office with other aides when a member of the family suggested they tweet a picture of Trump enjoying his “Mexican” lunch. Manafort politely suggested that this might be seen as condescending and cautioned against it. The tweet went out. Trump himself was delighted by the resulting controversy. “The people who were offended were people we wanted to offend,” he later said.
Trump stumbled through June and July in a pattern of occasionally straightening up and sticking to a teleprompter, only to return to his old ways with ad libs or ill-advised feuds. The Republican National Convention in late July was widely viewed as a bust: Not only was it poorly run and timed, it produced a small and ephemeral polling bump, and Gallup found that for the first time in more than 30 years, voters had a less positive impression of a candidate after the convention than before.
The Democratic convention, in contrast, went well, especially after Trump managed to pick a damaging fight with Khizr Khan, the father of a slain American soldier who had spoken from the dais. By early August, Trump Tower was turning into a leak factory. Anonymous sources said the staff was “suicidal” and that a despairing Manafort had quit even trying to wrangle the nominee. Hillary Clinton built a commanding lead in national polls as well as in key states, as the Trump campaign continued to lag behind on organization and campaign building. The one lone success was a huge fundraising haul.
Trump’s decision to hire Stephen Bannon, the chief of the Breitbart media empire, as new CEO, and pollster Kellyanne Conway, as campaign manager, seems to represent a turn back toward Lewandowski’s old strategy to “let Trump be Trump.” Bannon’s Breitbart has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for Trump’s alignment with the “alt-right” and “nationalist” causes. It’s hard to say for sure whether Manafort’s reported strategy of moderating Trump was really a failure, because there’s no evidence that Manafort was ever able to get Trump to give it a try—perhaps a more damning indictment of his efforts on the campaign.
With growing speculation, likely premature, that Clinton may have built an insurmountable lead in the polls, the Trump campaign faces many questions over the next week, and in the remaining 80 or so days of the campaign. Here are a few directly tied to Manafort.
First, Trump has been exceedingly friendly to Russia throughout the campaign. He has praised Putin’s leadership, argued that NATO is antiquated and a drain on American resources, and suggested he would recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Many observers have connected many of these stances to Manafort, and his connections with the Kremlin through Yanukovych. Will Trump stick to his positions now that Manafort is out, or will he adopt a stance on Russia closer to the U.S mainstream?
Second, what will happen to Trump’s fundraising? He got off to a painfully slow start, in part because he for many months was claiming (falsely) that he was self-funding his campaign. Over the last two months he’s made up ground, and while he still lacks in advertising and infrastructure, Trump raised $80 million in July, nearly as much as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Much of that came from small-dollar donors, and Trump will need to tap major GOP donors to keep pace. Manafort, with longstanding ties to the Republican firmament, might have been an asset. Will Trump be able to keep raking in dollars under the leadership of Bannon, whose media company has made a niche out of lambasting the Republican establishment that includes major donors? (Bannon is, however, close to the Mercer family, major donors who have recently become close to Trump.)
Finally, is Manafort really gone? A consistent pattern with the Trump campaign has been that no one is ever really, truly fired. Trump broke with strategist Roger Stone way back in August 2015, but Stone has remained in close touch with the campaign and often drives its narratives. Lewandowski got the axe, but he has become an important Trump surrogate through his perch at CNN, even as he continues to receive severance payments from the Trump campaign and has shown up at campaign events. (He continues to take an interest in his rivalry with Manafort, too, tweeting the original Times story as well as laudatory tweets after Manafort’s resignation.)
It will be interesting to watch whether Manafort maintains any influence from afar, or whether Trump has finally decided he’s going to run the campaign the way he likes—win or lose.