Washington, D.C. (January 28, 2017)—Paul Manafort has become a central villain in perhaps the central scandal of our times. But before he was charged with conspiracy and money laundering, and decades before he would join then-candidate Trump’s presidential campaign, Manafort was instrumental in creating the very Washington swamp Trump vowed to drain. In The Atlantic’s explosive March issue cover story, “The Plot Against America,” Franklin Foer wades deeply through Manafort’s murky past to chronicle precisely how he corrupted key Washington institutions, weakened the capital’s ethical immune system, and paved the way for the kind of foreign influence that now haunts the Trump administration.
Foer’s reporting, the result of a year-long investigation, shows Manafort as a launderer of reputations and a lifetime corrupter of the American system, offering the most complete picture to date of his character, his career, and the shadowy figures surrounding it. Whatever his personal involvement with the Russians—and Foer shows clearly his close relationship and heavy debts to key Russian figures and sympathizers—his story is crucial to understanding how the forces that threaten to subvert American democracy grew strong.
Manafort’s is a story of naked ambition and shadowy influence-peddling that lined bank accounts, aided far-flung despots—from Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych—and rotted the business of Washington lobbying. It is also a story of desperation and desire. Foer reports that when Manafort approached the Trump campaign in 2016, he was recently out of rehab and in financial crisis, and saw in Trump a golden opportunity to regain his losses and return to relevance. To a person, his friends and former colleagues dissuaded him from entering the fray of the campaign, urging him to shy away from unnecessary attention. Last year, when it came time to assemble a group of friends and colleagues to publicly defend Manafort from the allegations against him, nobody raised a hand. Someone contacted by the group tells Foer, “Nobody could be sure that Paul didn’t do it.” “In fact,” writes Foer, “everything about the man and the life he chose suggests that he did.”
“Helping to elect Donald Trump, in so many ways, represents the culmination of Paul Manafort’s work,” observes Foer. “The president bears some likeness to the oligarchs Manafort long served… It wasn’t so long ago that Trump would have been decisively rejected as an alien incursion into the realm of public service. And while the cynicism about government that enabled Trump’s rise results from many causes, one of them is the slow transformation of Washington, D.C., into something more like the New Britain, Connecticut, of Paul Manafort’s youth”—a place marked by casual corruption and shady political deals.
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