The Dictator Whisperer Who is Now Running Donald Trump’s Campaign
(#2 in a series…)
The horrifying selection of Mike Pence as Donald Trump’s running mate is not an aberration. In recent weeks, Trump has prepared for this fall’s general election by surrounding himself with the people he wants to work with should he be elected to the most powerful job in the world. It’s a disparate lot, but the one thing they all have in common is that they have no business being in positions of such power and influence.
The transition to Trump’s power team meant the June firing (“YOU’RE FIRED!”) of the controversial campaign manager who somehow managed to steer Donald Trump to his improbable victory in the Republican primaries. Corey Lewandowski was cut out of the same bullying, misogynist mode as Trump – even being charged criminally at one point in the campaign for allegedly assaulting a female reporter from a conservative outlet that had been critical of Trump. (The charges were later dropped; one benefit of working for Donald Trump is having access to high-priced lawyers that can ensure you never have to apologize for anything.) Despite the remarkable accomplishment of helping secure a major party presidential nomination for a reality TV star, Lewandowski was shown the door (controversially landing on his feet as a political “analyst” for CNN). To become President, Trump needed a different set of skills.
Enter new campaign manager Paul Manafort.
In two months on the job, Manafort has become the most visible campaign manager in modern presidential campaign history. (Quick: who’s Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager? If you correctly answered Robby Mook, you really need to get a life.) Manafort has drawn attention because since Trump has relatively few political allies willing to speak for him, Manafort has become a fixture on Sunday morning talk shows. But Manafort has also drawn attention because most campaign managers are like Mook – young, obscure, but smart and high-energy for an all-consuming job. Manafort’s skill set is different. He’s spent over 40 years moving back and forth between the worlds of far-right Republican electoral politics and, even farther to the right, advising the perpetrators of some of the worst crimes against humanity in the 20th Century. And he is neck-deep in Trump’s controversial alliance with Russian strongman and KGB alumnus Vladimir Putin.
In his domestic endeavors, the two Reagan strategists a younger Manafort cut his teeth with were Charlie Black – best known as the architect of the ongoing electoral success of Sen. Jesse Helms, who clung to his North Carolina senate seat and his unapologetic segregationism for a full quarter-century after it fell out of political favor – and Lee Atwater, who popularized the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” of relying on white racial resentment, especially in the South, as an enduring recipe for electoral success.
It was Manafort, then working with Atwater and Black, who came up with the idea of having Ronald Reagan kick off his 1980 post-convention presidential campaign as the Republican nominee in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, notorious at the time for the 1964 Ku Klux Klan murders of three young Northern white civil rights activists. Reagan’s speech, in which his coded appeals to state rights and federal overreach made “dog whistle” a political term, was probably the single most pivotal moment in the embrace of overt racism that has defined modern Republicanism for the last two generations. It was Manafort’s idea.
Manafort found his true calling, however, after Reagan became president. In the name of anti-Communism, the Reagan administration aided and abetted human rights violators around the globe, from the dictatorships of Central America to apartheid South Africa to any number of African and Asian kleptocracies.
Somebody had to actually work with these bad actors, to ensure that they did America’s bidding and that America did theirs – and that the resulting cozy arrangements weren’t threatened by unnecessary outbreaks of democracy or freedom. That somebody couldn’t be too close to Reagan or the State Department because even by Reagan’s low standards, some stenches were just too unsavory for direct contact. But for a young, newly minted “lobbyist” named Paul Manafort, working with some of the most notorious names in 20th Century human rights abuses became a highly lucrative business.
Manafort set up shop with the lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly – usually referred to as “Black, Manafort,” but the “Stone” in the title is dirty tricks operator Roger Stone, who has also resurfaced for the Trump campaign. (About Stone, much more in a separate article.) Black, Manafort had a fair number of unsavory domestic clients – most notably the Tobacco Institute, in an era when Big Tobacco, like oil and coal companies today, was trying to cast doubt on the irrefutable science showing the extraordinary harm caused by their product.
But Manafort himself focused on international clientele. Manafort’s clients in the following years included:
* The apartheid regime of South Africa, in an era of unprecedented domestic and international pressure to end the regime. The Reagan administration resisted repeated Congressional demands to enact sanctions against Manafort’s client.
* The Angolan rebel-turned-grifter Jonas Savimbi, who in the name of anti-communism found willing partners in Manafort and fellow (and later much more notorious) Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff for his efforts to seize power in the former Portugese colony of Angola in southwestern Africa. The resulting pipeline of American weapons – and, eventually, apartheid South African assistance as well – wound up drawing Cuba and the USSR into the conflict on the side of the Angolan government. Even after the USSR pulled out of Angola and it became clear that Savimbi’s rebels were perpetrating wholesale massacres of civilians, the US kept sending weapons and forestalling peace talks for several years. By peppering the Angolan countryside with US-provided land mines, Savimbi and his UNITA guerillas left behind a generation of Angolan kids missing limbs.
* As with apartheid South Africa, the brutal Filipino dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos held out against concerted international pressure for much of the ’80s due to support from the Reagan administration, lubricated by…Paul Manafort. When Marcos rigged early 1986 elections that had been demanded by the international community, the resulting protests and international outcry drove Marcos and his closest allies and family into exile…in Hawaii, in a compound arranged for him by Manafort. (Upon his abdictation, when protestors stormed Marcos’ presidential palace in Manila they famously discovered the 2,700 pairs of shoes belonging to his wife, Imelda.)
* Not all of Manafort’s clients were driven from power in the ’80s. The kleptocratic dictator Mobuto Sese Seko lasted as the ruler of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – which Mobuto renamed Zaire – for over 30 years, from his role as a colonel conspiring with the Belgians in the post-colonial coup and execution of the charismatic leader Patrice Lumumba, to his overthrow during the First Congolese Civil War, a multi-party war fueled by valuable mineral resources that killed a staggering four million people. At the time of his overthrow and exile, Mobuto had stolen an estimated $4-5 billion from his country. Some of it was used to hire Paul Manafort to polish his reputation in the United States.
* Speaking of multi-party civil wars, the most notorious failed state in the world is Somalia, paralyzed for two decades by the struggle for power that came after the overthrow of U.S.-backed dictator Siad Barre…another Manafort client.
* The Indonesian dictator Suharto, who made Mobuto look like a petty pickpocket; by the end of his bloody 30-year reign, along with two separate internal purges labeled genocide by international critics, he had appropriated for himself an estimated $30 billion of his country’s wealth.
* The repressive Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spreads its oil money liberally among DC lobbying firms, but Manafort, not surprisingly, has been a frequent beneficiary.
* Other clients included human rights abusers in the Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, and Nigeria. Manafort’s Nigerian client, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, handed power over in 1993 to the general and dictator who oversaw the notorious 1995 execution of nonviolent activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.
After various buyouts and mergers, Black Manafort became the BKSH Group, an agency that continued to court unsavory clients. Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi double agent and would-be leader whose lies helped the Bush Administration sell its 2003 invasion of Iraq to the American public, was a satisfied client. When the invasion didn’t go as advertised, BKSH was commissioned BY The Lincoln Group, a firm managing the U.S. military’s public relations during the Iraq War, for a psyops campaign, planting upbeat and often wholly false stories about the war and occupation in Iraqi media. Those stories, in turn, often found their way back into sympathetic US media outlets as well.
All of these lobbying efforts were, under U.S. law, perfectly legal, if sleazy and morally repugnant. But on several other fronts, Manafort has skirted the edges of legality.
In 1995, Manafort was a key figure in a scandal that became known as The Karachi Affair. Manafort was reportedly the go-between between Pakistan’s ISI, a secret police with both a terrible human rights record and a history of abetting the Taliban and other Islamist groups, and French then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. Balladur allegedly secretly sold three high-end French submarines to the Pakistanis, and used proceeds from the sale to help finance his election campaign. When Balladur lost the election, he cancelled the contract for the sale – enraging the Pakistanis and allegedly leading to a 2002 terrorist attack in Karachi, Pakistan, which killed 11 French engineers and reportedly had ISI involvement. Manafort was investigated by American authorities for his role in the secret money transfers, but was never charged.
Manafort was also investigated in the late ’80s for his role in a HUD contract for housing in the town of Seabrook, New Jersey, in which his connections with aides of Reagan’s HUD Secretary, Samuel Pierce, were allegedly used to win the contract. A number of Pierce’s aides were eventually convicted in connection with corruption and political favoratism, but neither Pierce nor Manafort were ever charged.
For the last decade, Manafort has again courted both controversy and investigation due to his longtime association with Ukrainian dictator and Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort was initially recommended to Yanukovych by one of his major political patrons, Ukraine’s wealthiest oliogarch, an iron and steel magnate named Rinat Akhmetov, worth an estimated $6.5 billion. That, in turn, came about because Manafort was introduced to him as a protege of Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska, in turn, has been investigated by authorities in Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States in conjunction with money laundering, but has never been charged.
Akmetov wanted Manafort to help rescue Yanukovych’s foundering 2004 campaign for prime minister. Yanukovych had already won the election after the poisoning of his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko; but protests and widespread accusations of fraud led to a re-vote, and Yanukovyh was losing. Manafort came in late in the campaign and failed, but the partnership continued, kept secret by a confidentiality agreement due to Ukrainian fears that the involvement of an American strategist would undermine Yanukovych’s pro-Russian base.
When Yanukovych ran for prime minister again in 2010, on a platform of closer Ukrainian ties with Russia (and Putin) and a pivot away from NATO and the US, Manafort was his chief strategist – operating directly against the foreign policies of first the Bush and then the Obama administrations. When Yanukovych, with Manafort’s guidance, won that election, he consolidated power and set himself up as dictator – sparking a civil war between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians that tore apart the Ukraine and eventually led both to the revolution that overthrew Yanukovych in 2014 and the Russian annexation of a key strategic Ukrainian peninsula, the Crimea, that allowed Russian naval access to the Black Sea. Throughout, Manafort was a key player behind the scenes, working directly against U.S. foreign policy. He was, once again, investigated but not charged by U.S. authorities for his role in undermining the U.S. and NATO on behalf of what is widely regarded in U.S. policy circles as a hostile power.
Manafort is hardly unique in his unsavory resume. Since the end of World War II, both Democratic and Republican administrations have had their Manaforts, shadowy operatives who can help do their administration’s less publicly appealing work. Manafort remains well-connected in this work; his then-lobbying partner, Rick Davis, was the campaign manager for the bellicose Sen. John McCain in 2008. But for the sheer length and breadth of his career, having someone like Manafort run a presidential campaign is in itself unprecedented. And having his candidate so nakedly embrace his lobbying priorities is not only unprecedented, but reckless and dangerous in the extreme.
It is Manafort’s connections with not just Yanukoyvch, but Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, and through them Vladimir Putin, that raised so many eyebrows when Donald Trump not only contravened bipartisan, long-standing U.S. policy toward Russia, expressing his admiration for Putin in the process, but also invited Russian intelligence to hack the e-mail of not just the Democratic National Committee, but his opponent and the U.S. State Department she once ran. Given the nature of his career, Manafort has almost certainly worked both with and against the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. He has the connections not only to advance Donald Trump’s business interests in Russia, but to get Russian or other foreign intelligence agencies to intervene directly in the American presidential election on Trump’s behalf.
Trump has taken to opining that the only way he can lose is if the election is rigged. But Hillary Clinton has not named as her top advisor someone with a history of election fraud. Trump has – in the Ukraine, in the Philippines, Indonesia, the Congo, and many other countries. It’s Trump who, when he suggests the assassination of his chief political rival, has an advisor whose previous bosses have done just that – as Yanukoych tried to do with his 2004 rival, Viktor Yushchenko, and as several of Manafort’s previous dictator clients did with numerous political rivals.
It’s Trump who has hired for his political circle Manafort, Roger Stone, and other advisors who are sociopathic encyclopedias of how to use dirty tricks to gain political power. And it’s Trump whose repeated statements and actions invite comparisons to fascist dictators of the past – the sorts of people his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has spent a lifetime advising.
Corey Lewandowski was hired for his ability to win elections. Paul Manafort was hired, by all appearances, for his ability to circumvent them.