Perhaps one of the most unnerving political developments over these last few days has been the beginning of the reluctant acceptance of Donald Trump among the Republican establishment. Watching the likes of Senator Bob Corker on television praising his "foreign policy" and seeing influential House members like Bill Schuster endorse him is more than a little bit unsettling. It stands to reason that this would happen now that Trump is looking more and more like the winner, but considering just how unpopular Trump is among the political establishment, it's more likely due to the hard work of his recently hired senior adviser, Paul Manafort.
According to this fascinating, must-read profile by Franklin Foer in Slate, Manafort "is among the most significant political operatives of the past 40 years, and one of the most effective. He has revolutionized lobbying several times over, though he self-consciously refrains from broadcasting his influence." He's the most important Republican campaign consultant and lobbyist the general public has never heard of.
Manafort was mentored by Bush family consiglieri James Baker and partnered with the notorious political operative Lee Atwater. He ran Republican campaigns and conventions for decades, including Reagan's legendary "Morning in America" convention in 1984. Everyone assumed he was hired by Trump to perform the specialized task of suppressing a convention insurgency, which he performed on behalf of Gerald Ford in the 1976 convention. But this man is so much more than that.
He went on to run Reagan's southern operation in 1980, remembered for its clever racist dogwhistle of opening the campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, famously known as the murder site of three civil rights workers 16 years before. After the campaign, Manafort and Roger Stone (along with another successful GOP operative Charlie Black) then opened their campaign consultant/lobbyist firm, perfecting the dubious business of electing politicians and then lobbying them on behalf of their corporate clients. Trump was one of them, using the firm to help him stave off the threat of Indian gaming. It was an ugly, racist campaign that culminated with Governor George Pataki fining Trump and Stone $250,000 and requiring a public apology.
So Manafort and Trump are a match made in heaven for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is Manafort's long association with oligarchs, despots and tyrants all over the world. As much as he's been a GOP operative, his real business is selling evil men to American politicians and power brokers.
Manafort first drew public attention during the Reagan era, when he and his lobbying partners represented Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a world-class kleptocrat whose theft of enormous amounts from his country’s treasury I helped to expose in The Village Voice more than 30 years ago (with my esteemed colleague William Bastone, who later created The Smoking Gun website). Few official criminals in the 20th century were as audacious and greedy as Marcos and his shoe-fetishist wife Imelda, but when their image cratered after our investigation, Manafort gladly took nearly a million dollars to apply lipstick to those pigs.
Not content with the tainted Marcos lucre, Manafort and company also advocated on behalf of international gangsters such as Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic dictator known as the “King of Zaire”; Jonas Savimbi, the reputed cannibal and blood-diamond purveyor who tried to seize power in Angola; Said Barre, the authoritarian crook who left the failed state of Somalia to pirates and jihadis; and Ukrainian overlord Victor Yanukovych, the corrupt, Kremlin-backed autocrat thrown out by massive street protests two years ago for fixing a national election.
Foer's account of the Savimbi lobbying campaign is mind boggling:
On a Friday in 1985, Christopher Lehman left his job at the National Security Council. The following Monday, he was flying with Manafort, his new boss, to the bush of Angola to pitch the Chinese-trained guerilla Jonas Savimbi, who wanted covert assistance from the U.S. to bolster his rebellion against Angola’s Marxist government. Savimbi briefly left a battle against Cuban assault forces and signed a $600,000 contract.
The money bought Savimbi a revised reputation. Despite his client’s Maoist background, Manafort reinvented him as a freedom fighter. He knew all the tricks for manipulating right-wing opinion. Savimbi was sent to a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute, hosted by the anticommunist stalwart Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a reception thrown by the Heritage Foundation, and another confab at Freedom House. (Kirkpatrick introduced Savimbi, who conscripted soldiers, burned enemies, and indiscriminately laid land mines, as a “linguist, philosopher, poet, politician, warrior ... one of the few authentic heroes of our time.”)
That was some time ago. But Manafort's more recent work in Ukraine with Victor Yanukovych and other former soviet bloc oligarchs is no less shocking. His relationship with Yanukovych wasn't unique -- Bernie Sanders' consultant Tad Devine worked for him too -- but Manafort became known as his closest adviser. Indeed, he apparently has an unusual affinity for leaders who are close to Vladimir Putin which may explain why he's also such a good fit with Putin's favorite American politician, Donald Trump.
Foer concludes his piece by explaining how Manafort's special talents will be of use in this coming campaign:
Manafort has spent a career working on behalf of clients that the rest of his fellow lobbyists and strategists have deemed just below their not-so-high moral threshold. Manafort has consistently given his clients a patina of respectability that has allowed them to migrate into the mainstream of opinion, or close enough to the mainstream. He has a particular knack for taking autocrats and presenting them as defenders of democracy. If he could convince the respectable world that thugs like Savimbi and Marcos are friends of America, then why not do the same for Trump?
Donald Trump is a wealthy, proto-fascist demagogue who has hired the man whose firm the Center for Public Integrity once called "The Torturer's Lobby" to get him to the White House. If anyone can do it Paul Manafort can. It's his specialty.