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.
Decades before he ran the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort’s pursuit of shady deals laid the groundwork for the corruption of Washington.
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.