When future historians seek to compile a Top Ten list of people who brought about the political, economic and moral collapse of the United States, they will undoubtedly want to take a long and loving look at Paul Manafort. Until a few months ago, when he was named to run Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he was largely unknown to the U.S. public. But there are few among us who can better claim to encapsulate the money worship and general amorality of contemporary times than Manafort.
Tragically, Manafort was humiliated and forced to resign from the Trump campaign today. “Tragically?” you may be saying to yourself right now. Well, Manafort’s resignation was good for the country, one might well argue, but for me personally it’s a disaster.
“Why?” you’re wondering. During the past two days I’ve published two stories about Manafort at Fusion, co-written with the excellent Adam Weinstein. I was working on a third story but now, because of Manafort’s resignation, Fusion’s interest has, quite understandably, diminished significantly. In other words, I am out some serious coin as a result of this development.
Furthermore, adding to my pain, I had significant piles of information about Manafort in my files so I could have been writing about him through November, at minimum. Now that he’s out of the campaign and effectively a smoldering political corpse, I can no longer milk his sordid tale for additional cash. The 2016 presidential campaign is a complete and utter shit show with two horrifyingly awful candidates, but I’m doing my best to monetize it as much as possible. Now, a lucrative angle for me is gone.
Anyway, enough about my personal tragedy and first hand account. Let’s get back to the main story, which should be of great interest to future historians when they are seeking to compile their Top Ten List.
Manafort is a virtual Zelig of American decline. He helped elect both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and during the latter’s years in office, and ever since, he lobbied for some of the contemporary era’s worst corporate criminals, international gangsters, and blood-drenched dictators.
Back in 1992, Spy magazine ranked his lobbying firm as the “sleaziest” of all in the Beltway, giving it a “blood-on-the-hands” rating of four. That was a full bloody hand more than the rating accorded to runner-up Edward von Kloberg, whose clients – listed in his Rolodex under “d” for “dictators” – included Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, and Liberia’s Samuel Doe. It’s no surprise that when asked by the Washington Times what historical figure he’d like to meet, Manafort replied Machiavelli.
Born to modest wealth, Manafort monetized his misdeeds at every step of the way. He traveled the globe and took up sailing and summering in the Hampton so he could mingle with the monsters he represented. He also compiled a vast real estate portfolio at home, worth at least $20 million, and quite a tidy sum more in Europe. He owned an apartment in Paris and he has been known to brag to friends about having a house on the Cote d’Azur.
Among Manafort’s U.S. holdings are estates in Manhattan — including one in Trump Tower — Palm Beach, and Bridgehampton, on Long Island. Two people loaned him money to purchase the latter property: Tom Barrack, Trump’s major campaign funder, and an arms dealer named Abdul Rahman El-Assir, who is suspected of paying kickbacks to secure French weapons deals to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Those two countries are accused of having illegally funded the 1995 presidential campaign of France’s Édouard Balladur, which was run by Manafort; the entire affair is currently under investigation by French authorities.
In more recent years, Manafort has worked to advance the cause of Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian leader who was forced to flee for Moscow a few years ago in the face of popular protests. He’s also offered financial and political advice to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch whose criminal activities in post-Soviet left him banned from the United States, and to a Ukrainian gangster and gas billionaire named Dmitro Firtash who is currently wanted by the FBI for bribery and organized crime. As Fusion has reported previously, both Firtash and Deripaska have personal or family connections to shell companies revealed in the Panama Papers investigation.
To be fair, Manafort is very good at what he does. He’s not stupid. And even if Trump’s campaign was still quite turbulent, it was generally smoother after Manafort came in to replace the buffoon Corey Lewandowski, the now legendary CNN political analyst.
Manafort has worked closely with his longtime business partner and friend of Trump’s, Roger Stone, a Nixon-era dirty-tricks operator. Stone, an informal Trump advisor who has represented The Donald as a political advisor since the 1980s, recommended that Manafort be brought in to replace Lewandowski.
Stone has been involved in some of the stranger moments of modern political history. During Campaign 2016 he leaked to the National Enquirer the “news” that Ted Cruz had multiple mistresses, prompting Cruz to publicly state that Stone copulates with rodents. Stone replied via the National Enquirer, stating that, “Knowing what a couple of these women [Cruz’s alleged mistresses] look like, I actually feel like he’s the one who has been copulating with rodents.”
Manafort himself has been the target of at least one criminal probe. During the George H.W. Bush presidency, Congress investigated a firm Manafort co-founded that allegedly obtained millions of dollars inappropriately from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to rehabilitate low-income housing. Manafort forthrightly described his business model to congress Congress, telling lawmakers that “for the purposes” of their investigation, “you could characterize this as influence peddling.” (More than a dozen federal officials were convicted in the scandal, but Manafort was never charged.)
Manafort was raised in New Britain, Connecticut. His father, Paul Manafort Sr., was a three-term Republican mayor and one-time State Public Works Commissioner, who also served as an executive with clan enterprises such a, Family Realty, Manafort Brothers, LLC, a construction firm that was founded in 1919 and Schultz Salvage Inc., a junkyard that was later found to be a filled with hazardous waste. His mother, Antoinette, was a regular churchgoer and worked for a number of civic and fraternal organizations, such as the American Legion Auxiliary, the Salvation Army, and the Elks.
But there were a few flaws in this Norman Rockwell painting. After leaving office as mayor, Manafort Sr. was arrested by the police over allegations that his administration had sold city jobs and promotions, and that the mayor was in bed with illegal gambling interests. (In the end, Manafort Sr. was not prosecuted.) Meanwhile, some suspected that the Manafort Sr. used his political influence to win state contracts for Manafort Brothers, which allegedly had close relationships with mobsters involved in the construction industry.
In 2014, the year after Manafort Sr.’s death, Manafort Brothers LLC settled with the Justice Department for $2.4 million for making false statements over contracts it received from a state public works program. The fine resulted from a joint criminal and civil investigation that found the company had won a Connecticut Department of Transportation road-building contract by erroneously claiming that a minority-owned firm was the main subcontractor on the deal. The state DOT gave preference to bidders with minority partners to make up for years of official discrimination against economically and socially disadvantaged small businesses. “Manafort Brothers Inc. sought to circumvent, misrepresent, and outright deceive the U.S. government,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Patricia Ferrick.
Manafort went to Georgetown University, graduating (with a B.S.) in 1971 and receiving a law degree three years later. This was the apogee of the Nixon era, and through Young Republicans, Manafort met many future friends and GOP dirty-tricks specialists: Stone, Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, and Charlie Black.
A veteran of Nixon’s White House staff who met Manafort during this time recalled him fondly to me, saying they worked together on various congressional campaigns and conventions. “He was very reliable and aggressive when it came to lining up delegates,” the veteran said. “He’d assemble and brief 40- to 60-man squads and send them out to the floor to work the delegates. If there was a problem with the Texas delegation, he knew exactly who needed to be talked to to make the problem go away.”
Manafort’s first White House job was as the associate director of the Presidential Personnel Office for Gerald Ford. He was still relatively unknown in the GOP political world until 1976, when he worked under James Baker and furiously sought to line up delegates at the bitterly contested Republican presidential convention between Ford and Ronald Reagan.
The outcome came down to which side could sway a small block of wavering delegates. Manafort compiled files on Reagan delegates whom he wanted to win over with either the carrot or the stick. “He was like a Soviet spy,” one source who had knowledge of Manafort’s modus operandi told me. “He used information as leverage.”
I spoke to a second person, a Reagan delegate, who said that a member of Manafort’s team called him into his office just days before the floor vote and very unsubtly offered him a good job with a DC law firm if he’d support Ford. In the end, Ford defeated Reagan by just 117 delegates (and then narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter in the general election that fall).
When Reagan ran against Carter in 1980, Manafort coordinated the Republican juggernaut’s campaign in the south and expertly pushed racial buttons to dredge up support from poor, conservative whites. Reagan famously kicked off his campaign with a speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi — a spot Manafort had picked with care. In 1964, three civil rights activists were murdered there, and the area still had a significant Ku Klux Klan presence. Days before the event, the Klan firebombed a black church and beat worshipers not far from the town.
Reagan worked the audience into a frenzy by promising them he was a firm believer in “states’ rights” — time-tested language coding everyone understood. “We want Reagan! We Want Reagan!” the crowd bayed, in eerie similarity to some of the scarier moments at Trump rallies this year.
Reagan won the 1980 election in a landslide. After helping run the incoming president’s transition and distributing jobs to friends and cronies, Manafort and Stone — who’d run Nixon’s campaign in the northeast — opened Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly so they could cash in on their years of political work.
BMSK brought together some of the most notorious fixers in the history of modern politics.
The firm’s other partners included Charlie Black, whom former Fox News president Roger Ailes once described as “the kind of guy who if he came home and found somebody making out with his wife on a rainy day, he’d break the guy’s umbrella and ask him to leave, then have him killed a year later.” When serving as John McCain’s senior adviser in 2008, Black wistfully told a reporter that a terrorist attack inside the U.S. “would be a big advantage” to his candidate and was just the sort of thing to revive his faltering presidential bid against Barack Obama.
Lee Atwater became a senior partner at BMSK the day after Reagan was re-elected in 1984. He became famous four years later for creating the racist “Willie Horton” TV ads that helped George Bush Sr. destroy the presidential bid of Michael Dukakis. BMSK’s token Democratic partner was Peter Kelly, who simultaneously served as the finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee and later worked as a political advisor to Al Gore and Bill Clinton.
BMSK’s team supplemented their growing influence by making eye-popping political contributions. Clients were dying to sign up. Early customers included Salomon Brothers, the Wall Street investment bank that at the time was dreaming up mortgaged-backed securities and other instruments of future financial doom; Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.; and the Tobacco Institute, whose chief message was that smoking looked good, tasted great, wasn’t addictive and wasn’t particularly harmful to your health, either.
But the firm’s domestic lobbying was actually pretty tame next to its overseas adventures. Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), who even today is considered to be a veritable model of kleptocratic rule, signed a $1 million deal with the firm in the 1980s to help win continued U.S. economic aid. Mobutu had worked with Von Kloberg for years but he was favorably impressed by Manafort’s congressional testimony about “influence peddling” and BSMK was able to poach him.
In 1985, BMSK signed up Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, another of the era’s most profligate kleptocrats, who had ruled under martial law for more than a decade. Unfortunately, popular protests forced Marcos to flee to Hawaii just a few months later. Black Manafort reported receiving its final payment on record from the Chamber. But the company managed to get paid by the dictator, including $258,000 for reimbursements “for all manner of pricey meals and travel,” according to Politico — just as the dictator was heading out of town with every dollar he could stuff in his suitcases.
A lobbyist who once worked at BMSK said that the firm made outlandish promises to prospective new clients about how quickly it could help them change their image — without, of course, having to change their behavior. “At the end of a year or two the clients figured out they were getting ripped off and would drop them, but they didn’t care,” the lobbyist said. “They’d just sign up new clients. It was churn and burn.”
I heard from other sources about a general Mad Men type atmosphere at the firm with the top partners spending lavishly on expense account. Few women got hired by BMSK and the workplace environment was widely reputed to be sexist. Divina Westerfield worked for BMSK for a year and helped handle its Saudi Arabia acount. BMSK “were the worst womanizers I had ever experienced,” she noted in a now-scrubbed blog post she wrote in 2008. Manafort repeatedly hit on her but when she complained to Black about his advances she got fired, she wrote. (“I have no comment,” Westerfield said with more than a trace of annoyance when I called her seeking additional information.)
Manafort racked up serious cash when he began lobbying and consulting for post-Soviet Eastern European despots and oligarchs in the mid-2000s. He netted millions of dollars in fees from Oleg Deripaska, a metals magnate who had been barred from entering the United States due to his alleged ties to Russian organized crime. Manafort helped Deripaska set up a Cayman Islands-based investment company named Pericles and tried, unsuccessfully, to get the FBI to lift Deripaska’s visa ban.
In 2006, Manafort and Rick Davis, another Reagan administration alum, were paid by Deripaska and other oligarchs to win U.S. support for Montenegro’s independence referendum, which was narrowly approved by voters. Whatever one thinks of Montenegro and its right to self-rule — and most of us think nothing at all — the oligarchs were not motivated by goodwill. They favored independence because Montenegro is a beautiful spot to vacation and party and it has a year-round port where the oligarchs could register and dock their yachts. Furthermore, as The Nation reported, Vladimir Putin wanted Montenegro to become a separate state because it would be easier to promote Russian objectives there, including the takeover of a huge aluminum plant.
What’s curious is that Sen. John McCain, who is reflexively anti-Russia and anti-oligarch on virtually every issue, came out in favor of Montenegro’s independence after talking things over with Manafort and Davis, who are two of his largest historic campaign fundraisers and allies. (Indeed, Davis ran McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign into the ground.)
At the same time Manafort was retained by Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire Ukrainian oligarch who, according to a New York Times account, “is reputed to have emerged from a bloody power struggle among organized crime groups in the 1990s that sought to control the mighty coal and steel assets of the Soviet Union.” The Forbes-listed plutocrat allegedly retained Manafort to run strategic communications for one of his many companies, but sources say Akhmetov’s chief interest was repackaging the image of his major political tool, Viktor Yanukovych, who planned to run again for president in Ukraine’s 2010 election.
So how did Trump pick Manafort — who had pretty much disappeared from Washington ever since McCain was crushed by Obama in 2008 — to run his campaign? Well, it turns out the two men had a longtime friendship and business connections, and much of it intersects in shady real estate deals and the Ukraine.
Manafort was introduced to Trump by attorney Roy Cohn, Nixon’s notorious communist-hunting hatchet man. Cohn worked for Trump and his father back in the 1970s when the Trump Organization was considered to be one of New York City’s worst slumlords. Trump and his father, Fred, retained Cohn to defend the family against a housing discrimination suit filed by the Justice Department, saying that it discriminated against African-Americans. This came after the Urban League had found that black apartment-seekers at Trump-owned complexes invariably got turned down.
Trump became an early client at BMSK because he feared Indian gambling would eat into one of his core businesses. The firm lobbied Congress to reject Indian license applications and once deployed Trump, not to great effect, to testify before a congressional committee on the topic. Trump had nothing against Native Americans, he told Congress — “Nobody likes Indians as much as Donald Trump” — but he expressed concern that the mob would move into casinos on Indian reservations and take advantage of the tribes.
In the summer of 2008, when he was working on McCain’s unsuccessful presidential campaign and promoting Yanukovych as the George Washington of Ukraine, Manafort formed a company called CMZ Ventures, putting together what the New York Observer later dubbed as one “of the more bizarre development teams ever assembled” in the city’s real estate history.
Key players in CMV were Manafort; his close friend and majordomo Rick Gates, who he hired to work for the Trump campaign; Brad Zackson, a top aide to Trump’s father; and, according to a 2011 civil racketeering suit, the oligarchs Deripaska and Firtash, the Ukrainian currently being sought by the FBI.
The racketeering lawsuit was filed by Yulia Tymoshenko, a then jailed Ukrainian opposition leader. It was dismissed by a New York court on procedural and jurisdictional grounds, but documents submitted during the case suggest that Manafort’s role in the real estate scheme was to line up cash to secretly buy a string of luxury New York properties through anonymous shell companies. Firtash agreed to secretly provide money to make the purchases. Zackson was to carry out day-to-day operations.
The U.S. has sought Firtash’s extradition since he was arrested in Austria two years ago. Like Akhmetov, he grew rich under Yanukovych and financed his political career. According to Wikileaked cables authored by American diplomats in Ukraine, Firtash was worth as much as $10 billion and had business ties to Semyon Mogilevich, who the FBI considers to be one of the worst of all post-Soviet oligarchs. Mogilevich is “involved in weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale,” according to the Bureau.
A native of Queens, Zackson was convicted of robbery, attempted robbery and criminal possession of a weapon in the early-1980s and served time in prison. When he got out, he began working for a rental agent in Forest Hills and somehow caught the eye of slumlord Fred Trump, who hired him to manage and run more than 45,000 residential units in the New York area. “I received a tremendous amount of learning on how to run a building from Fred Trump,” Zackson recalled later. By the early-1990s Zackson formed The Dynamic Group, which managed all of the Trump Organization’s Queen’s properties.
In 1995 Zackson appeared on Crain’s’ “40 Under 40” list in one of his few media appearances. The 34-year-old had become a multimillionaire and gained access “to society’s inner circle through the Trumps and by dating actress Lori Singer.”
Success followed success for the ex-con. He broadened his business to Florida, Latin America and the Far East. In China he formed joint ventures with major companies and advised the Communist government on real estate issues, including condominium conversions and maintenance management. One of his Chinese communist clients was apparently arrested for laundering stolen government money through a Hong Kong offshore to invest with Zackson in the 1980s.
CMV looked at billions of dollars’ worth of real estate in New York but never bought a single property. But the plan, according to documents from the Timoshenko lawsuit, was to set up a billion-dollar US-based property-investment vehicle to launder Firtash’s cash.
Deripaska also apparently was targeted as a potential investor. In emails to two of the oligarch’s top associates, Gates discussed Manafort’s recent meetings in Moscow with Deripaska in which he briefed him on developments. In one email, Gates said that CMZ was moving forward with great speed and needed to know as soon as possible if Deripaska — referred to as Mr. D. — planned to invest through Pericles, the Cayman Islands vehicle Manafort had helped set up.
Meanwhile, some of Zackson’s former employees at Dynamic sued him on the grounds that they were required to also work on the CMZ scheme, which their lawsuit describes as “an elaborate smoke-and-mirrors act.” Christy Rullis, one of the former employees, alleged that a main part of her job was to set up offshore bank accounts for CMZ investors.
(Zackson, incidentally, is a registered Democrat though he hasn’t voted since 2004. I sought comment from him and Manafort but never heard from either of them.)
Anyway, that’s about it because I published the rest of the best information at Fusion so make sure to check those stories out. And remember, you may be having a bad day but mine, clearly, is worse.