The Ultimate Betrayal of Paul Manafort

When Rick Gates turned against his former boss, he described a parallel ethical universe where lying and cheating were as comfortable as a well-tailored ostrich suit.

Bill Hennessy / Reuters

You know what would be surprising? If Rick Gates and Paul Manafort had suddenly suspended their apparently deeply ingrained habits of fraudulence and thievery during the three months they ran the Donald Trump campaign.

Other chapters of their recent history—the chapters bracketing the campaign—include alleged episodes of witness tampering, lying to federal prosecutors, bank and tax fraud, as well as the failure to register as agents of a foreign government. Therefore, given all that has emerged about their shared ethical framework, it’s hard to imagine that the public has received the exhaustive account of those months.

To understand just how ingrained their slippery habits had become, consider a defining moment from Monday’s proceedings of the Manafort trial. In the course of turning state’s witness against his old boss, Gates, a former lobbyist, admitted to the court that he had repeatedly defrauded Manafort by inflating the expense reports he submitted to him. It wasn’t a trivial sum that he had siphoned. He described his take as amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or put it this way: Gates defrauded Manafort, who was, in turn, allegedly defrauding banks and the United States government (with his Potemkin tax returns).

Nor was there anything necessarily spiteful about Gates filching a little cash on the sly. Based on everything I’ve ever heard or read in the course of my reporting on Manafort, Gates worshipped his boss. He felt a sense of subservience, love even. And the warmth was mutual, and could be described as filial. But that bond was never going to get in the way of bilking Manafort. They had spent nearly a decade in Ukraine, working for oligarchs and politicians. During those years abroad, the pair adopted the business practices of the Ukrainian political elite.

We know how Manafort and Gates were paid—a method that was revealed in a memo prosecutors introduced in the course of the trial. According to court documents, Manafort would ask Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych for a massive sum of money. (The tone of one memo he wrote to Yanukovych is strangely confessional; Manafort described his precarious financial position to the president, even as he thanked him for getting paid millions.)

The president would then ask his chief of staff to collect contributions from the financial patrons of his political party. One Manafort associate told me that in the course of passing the hat to oligarchs, the chief of staff would collect more money than the bill required. The chief of staff would pocket some of that surplus cash for himself, a small tax for his efforts. In Ukraine, the rich excel at finding novel ways to exact fees, to skim money, to capture rents. Having participated in the system for so long, it seems Manafort and Gates internalized these techniques themselves.

So what? One strand of conventional wisdom holds that the Manafort trial has little to do with Trump, let alone Russian collusion. Indeed, there’s a strong argument to be made that this case stands on its own as a significant moment in political history. But we’re still staring at a highly incomplete version of the full narrative—and it’s too soon to foreclose the possibility that this trial is merely prologue, filled with foreshadowing and suggestive hints of how everything might ultimately tie together.

Last week, I argued that Manafort needs to be understood as a symptom of a global epidemic of kleptocracy—a virus that he imported into the United States. We know that his tenure in the Trump campaign contains at least some evidence that he infected the campaign, too. According to Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, Manafort promised a job on the campaign to a Chicago banker in exchange for $16 million in loans. The banker ended up as one of the Trump campaign’s 13 official economic advisors. Could it be possible that that’s the only instance of Manafort and Gates applying their Ukrainian education to the Trump campaign?

With Gates’s testimony, Mueller has orchestrated an important demonstration project. He’s shown how he can turn protégé against mentor, how he can weaponize a devoted underling to destroy his beloved boss. How once he can get a campaign insider talking, what flows is damning beyond expectations. The question is now whether Gates’s testimony represents the culmination of a long and corrupt story, or the opening pages of a much more complicated tale.