A Hell of a Performance by Paul Manafort

The man who once made strongmen and oligarchs look good is now tasked with rehabilitating his own image before a jury.

Paul Manafort, pictured here in 2017, was an active participant in the courtroom on Wednesday—constantly scribbling notes and whispering with his lawyers. (Alex Brandon / AP)

Paul Manafort lumbered into the courtroom, his movements as stiff as you would expect of a man who now sleeps on a concrete bed. Over the years, Manafort constantly explored novel methods for preserving his youth, for tending to the details of his appearance. In his mid-60s, he took to receiving regular manicures. And to any casual acquaintance, it was clear that he carefully managed the tint of his hair.

The correctional facility in Alexandria, Virginia—which now counts as his fourth and primary residence—doesn’t apparently offer the services to which he has grown accustomed. His head has suddenly sprouted gray. While his hair maintains the same sweeping part, the edges are jagged in an imprecise jailhouse-barber way that the unincarcerated Paul Manafort would never abide. Sitting at the defendant’s table, he not infrequently combs his finger through his mane—a tic that suggests both his vanity and his nerves.

A week ago, while lawyers futzed with pretrial motions, Manafort arrived in court wearing a green jumpsuit. But the trial is the show of his lifetime. His oversize frame is once again permitted to occupy a suit—a fact that everyone in the courtroom incessantly noticed, given how much of the afternoon’s testimony came from his former clothiers, one of whom described submitting Manafort invoices that exceeded $800,000.

Whatever the outward signs that Paul Manafort is experiencing public torment, the presence of other men in tailored suits seems to have allowed Manafort to elevate himself into a strange sense of ease. The most compelling drama of the trial so far is watching Manafort comport himself. And the spectacle is pure Manafort.

He stands trial for abusing money he received as a world-renowned political consultant. Jurors have heard from witnesses who have described him as a master craftsman of public image; old colleagues have testified to his narrative gifts. These talents were so often used to smooth over the reputations of awful men—the kleptocrats, strongmen, and oligarchs whom he ingratiated with the American elite. Now, it’s his own image and his own narrative that he must manage, with an audience of expressionless jurors tucked away at the side of the room. And as the jury of his peers comes and goes from the room, Manafort makes a point of flashing his well-buffed smile. It’s the look of a man projecting confidence. It’s kind of convincing.

Many decades ago, Paul Manafort suffered a public drubbing that seared itself in his conscience. In 1989, he testified before Congress about a public-housing scam that he’d orchestrated. Using his Reagan-administration connections, he and partners won a $31 million federal subsidy to rehabilitate public-housing projects in Seabrook, New Jersey. It was an incident, one among many, that prefigured his current troubles: Manafort was blasé about the consequences of his greed; the promised rehabilitation never happened; his apartment blocks he’d promised to rebuild remained “strictly Third World,” in the description of one Washington Post columnist.

As Manafort testified about the scheme, he choked. He turned in a gaffe-ridden performance. Most memorably, he told Congress, “I would stipulate that for the purposes of today, you could characterize this as influence peddling.” It was a phrase played over and over on TV—and Manafort was raging mad about his slip. It was the last time, before his current troubles, that Manafort found himself pushed into the public spotlight, staring into serious trouble. And he seems determined to manage his image far more carefully this time around.

I’ve spent years reporting on Manafort’s past, and have consistently found a man who has prioritized influence peddling over integrity again and again. Manafort’s early clients were senators—and that seems to be the ostentatiously dignified style he has adopted for the trial. He has the senatorial habit of excessively tactile behavior. When he entered the court, he put his arm on the back of his attorneys; he shook hands with Biden-like gusto. At one moment, he clasped his own hands and moved a raised forefinger to his lip as if in deep thought. When he rises from his chair, he tends to stand with hands tucked into his pants pockets, cutting a perfectly Kennedyesque silhouette. When lawyers refer to documents, he studiously picks up his reading glasses, showing how seriously he takes it all.

There’s nothing passive about Manafort’s presence in court. He is constantly turning to his lawyers, whispering them his thoughts, just as he might turn to an aide perched over his shoulder. He consults with lawyers on strategy, passing them notes scribbled on a yellow pad. After a lawyer returned a note, he carefully tore it up and submerged it in a coffee cup.

When Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors laid out their case in opening arguments, they correctly diagnosed Manafort’s sense of impunity. He’d kept right on scheming, they argued, because he believed that he would get away with it. Today, the presiding judge in the case, T. S. Ellis III, made a point of constantly chiding the government. He blamed prosecutors for describing Manafort’s clients as “oligarchs,” a term he called unfairly “pejorative.”

The Republican-appointed judge warned Mueller’s team against trying Manafort for “his lavish lifestyle.” As Manafort heard these arguments, I watched him from across the room. I saw him gazing ever so thoughtfully and detected a flicker of something else, too. In that moment, it wasn’t hard to imagine him believing that he might just get away with it one more time.