Donald Trump’s Campaign Manager Worked for Warlords, Arms-Dealers and Dictators
Paul Manafort doesn’t care who writes his checks
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
Even the most brutal dictators and the bloodiest warlords could benefit from having a friendly public-relations operative in Washington. Access to high-ranking officials goes a long way in the nation’s capital. There’s always somebody willing to take on the vilest of clients — and one of those somebodies is Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s new campaign manager.
Manafort has worked on behalf of an Angolan warlord, a Lebanese arms-dealer, the Pakistani spy agency that went on to create the Taliban, the Putin-aligned president of Ukraine and a who’s-who of 1980s dictators. He helped enrich clients who left trails of death and destruction in their wakes.
To be clear, Manafort also has extensive experience working as a political operative in the United States as far back as 1976. He worked for the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole, and George W. Bush. His record suggests he’s pretty good at his job.
Manafort got his start delegate-wrangling for Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican convention, where he demonstrated precocious political talents. Tutored by Bush-consigliere James Baker, he went on to manage Reagan’s campaigns in 1980 and 1984.
Manafort founded the legendary lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, or BMSK. The firm had a two-part strategy — it helped politicians to get elected, and then used the access it had gained with those politicians — including Reagan — to influence them on behalf of the rest of their clients.
Manafort preferred to work behind the scenes. Many of his payments from BMSK were made off the record.
BMSK became infamous for lobbying on behalf of the most corrupt and violent of international dictators in order to “upgrade their back channels” in Washington.
Manafort received $950,000 a year from Ferdinand Marcos, the president of The Philippines who plundered more than $5 billion from the impoverished country’s treasury. Marcos’ security forces tortured as many as 34,000 of his citizens and murdered at least 3,000, including Marcos’s last election opponent Benigno Aquino.
Manafort led the lobbying effort in Washington to forestall pressure on Marcos to curb his activities. Marcos was overthrown in a bloodless revolution in February 1986.
In 1989, Manafort also won a $450,000-a-year contract with Somali dictator Siad Barre. “We all know Barre is a bad guy,” an aid of Manafort’s recalled him saying. “We just have to make sure he’s our bad guy.”
After a disastrous war with Ethiopia sparked an in insurrection at home, Barre began a bombing and assassination campaign directed against northern Somali clans that killed an estimated 60,000 people in the year preceding Manfort’s contract. Barre’s paramilitaries tortured and raped and even targeted the water supplies of enemy clans.
When Barre was overthrown in 1991, he left behind a famine-wracked country that has remained mired in civil war to this day.
In 1989, Manafort received $1 million from Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the archetypal African tyrant known for his leopard-skin caps — and for having embezzled billions of dollars from his desperately poor country in order to fund lavish villas in Europe.
Mobutu was overthrown by a rebel army in 1997. Large-scale warfare continued for another decade in what became known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and upsurges of violent insurgency continue today.
When Manafort became embroiled in a House and Urban Development scandal — in which $43 million dollars went to developers to renovate dilapidated old housing for no improvement in value — it did little to tarnish his reputation. “You might call it influence peddling,” Manafort said when compelled to testify before Congress. “I call it lobbying.”
He emerged unscathed. “That just shows how important they are!” a leading Zairian aid of Mobutu’s enthused about BMSK.
BMSK’s activities earned it top honors in The Torturer’s Lobby, a 1993 report by the Center of Public Integrity on law firms representing the interests of regimes infamous for their human-rights abuses. However, the client whose fortunes Manafort most decisively changed was not a head of state, but the leader of a rebel army.
The African state of Angola was one of several Portuguese colonies that suffered violent independence wars in the 1960s and ’70s. Born to the Ovimbundu tribe, Jonas Savimbi was educated in Switzerland — and then received training in Maoist guerilla warfare in China.
When he was unable to gain senior positions in either of the two Angolan Revolutionary movements, the Zaire-backed FNLA or the Communist MPLA, he went on to form his own army, UNITA. Records show that UNITA actually received funding from the Portuguese authorities to help it fight the two other resistance movements.
When the Portuguese withdrew from Angola, Savimbi kept on fighting the MPLA, first securing the backing of the South African Army, which was engaged in several wars destabilizing neighboring states hostile to the Apartheid regime.
Despite his Maoist past, Savimbi declared himself a fervent anti-Communist, and established a capital in Jamba. He was known for his charisma, talent with languages and intellectualism — and also for accusing members of his own movement of being witches and burning their families alive along with women who refused his sexual advances.
His forces recruited child soldiers, planted millions of land mines in civilian areas — giving Angola one of the world’s largest populations of amputees — and launched terror raids targeting health clinics, schools and communal food supplies.
Manafort personally flew to Angola to entice Savimbi into paying him $600,000 a year between 1985 and 1992 in order to burnish his reputation in Washington — a fee Savimbi could afford owing to his sale of blood diamonds.
Savimbi flew to Washington, where he gave speeches at Freedom House, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. At the latter, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick introduced Savimbi as “a linguist, philosopher, poet, politician, warrior … one of the few authentic heroes of our time.”
Savimbi even got a photo-op with Reagan.
Manafort’s fees more than repaid themselves as Savimbi received more than $34-million worth of heavy weapons funneled through the CIA, thanks to a motion pushed by Sen. Bob Dole. UNITA forces and allied South African troops went on to intensive conventional battles against the MPLA, which was backed by Cuban troops and Soviet weapons.
Officials in Washington justified their support of Savimbi on the grounds that he was anti-Communist. But even as Cuba and the Soviet Union withdrew from Angola and Washington sought to bring the war to an end, Manafort’s contract with Savimbi remained active until 1992 — and U.S. money continued to fill the warlord’s coffers.
Savimbi sabotaged several peace deals seeking to end the war and rejected a 1992 election that he lost.
“When Gorbachev pulled the plug on Soviet aid to the Angolan government, we had absolutely no reason to persist in aiding Savimbi,” Sen. Bill Bradley wrote in his memoir: “But by then he had hired an effective Washington lobbying firm, which successfully obtained further funding.”
The Angolan Civil War would last another decade until Savimbi was killed in an ambush in February 2002.
In 1993, Manafort became involved in the longstanding dispute between India and Pakistan over the state of Jammu and Kashmir. When India achieved independence from British rule, primarily Muslim territories to the east and west were separated into the state of Pakistan. However, the Hindu ruler of predominately-Muslim Kashmir chose to join India.
The question of whether Kashmir belongs to India and Pakistan is still the point of contention between the two nuclear-armed states. The two countries regularly exchange artillery fire across the Line of Control dividing them, and Pakistan has infiltrated troops and supplies across the border to support an insurgency in Kashmir in which tens of thousands have died, the majority civilians.
In 1999, Pakistan and India fought a limited war after Pakistani troops infiltrated the high mountains of the Kargil district of Kashmir and Indian forces mobilized to expel them.
In 1993, Manafort was paid $700,000 dollars from 1990 to 1995 to film a documentary supporting the cause of Kashmiri separatists, supposedly for an organization known as the “Kashmiri-American Council.”
In reality, the council was a front for the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence Agency, a shadowy spy agency known for its support of terrorists. ISI played a central role in organizing the Taliban army in Afghanistan, and is widely believed to have supported the insurgency against the American troops during the 2000s.
An FBI prosecutor said Manafort was participating in a “false flag operation” on behalf of ISI. Manafort denied knowing who had funded the film, but accounts from Pakistan indicate he was well aware who the actual sponsors of the film were.
To obtain footage for the film, Manafort traveled to India, where he reportedly lied to Indian authorities and claimed he was a CNN reporter, prompting a complaint from the Indian government.
This was not the only time Manafort was involved with Pakistan. In 1995, conservative French politician Édouard Balladur asked Manafort to devise a campaign strategy to help him win the UPF party’s split presidential primary. The deal was brokered by Manafort’s close friend, the Lebanese arms dealer Abdul Rahman Al Assir, whom Manafort had invited to the elder Bush’s inauguration in 1989.
Manafort later admitted that a payment of $200,000 had been arranged under the table. When the affair came to light in the French media, it turned out his fee came from kickback money Balladur received for having sold three French Agosta-class submarines to the Pakistani navy.
It’s possible that a 2002 terrorist attack in Karachi that killed 11 French submarine engineers may actually have been retaliation for a failure to pay bribes owed to Pakistani officials in the Karachi affair.
When Ukraine became an independent state in 1990 during the collapse of the Soviet Union, its citizens remained politically divided between those favoring continued close relations with Russia, and those who wanted closer ties to Western Europe.
In November 2004, the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych declared victory over his opponent Viktor Yuschenko in an election marred by extensive voter fraud and intimidation.
Prior to the election, Yuschenko had also been poisoned with dioxin, disfiguring him. A series of pro-Yuschenko protests known as the Orange Revolution ultimately forced a second vote in January 2005, which resulted in a victory for Yuschenko.
Yanukovych didn’t give up politics, however. Held back by a record of robbery and assault from his youth, he needed to reinvent his image. One of Yanukovych’s allies, billionaire oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, persuaded Yanukovych to hire Manafort, who had previously been Akhmetov’s business consultant.
How much Manafort was paid is unknown, although his friends estimated it was at least in the seven figures. He became Yanukovych’s personal strategist, to the dismay of many Ukrainians, who couldn’t understand why an American was lobbying on behalf of a pro-Russian party.
Slate reporter Franklin Foer argued that Manafort drew on his experience personally implementing the racist Southern Strategy in Reagan’s election campaign. Similarly, Yanukovych’s political campaign played up the fear that Russians in Ukraine were at risk of violent attack by Ukrainian nationalists.
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor summoned Manafort for a meeting, calling him out for undermining American foreign policy. But Manafort refused to halt his very effective political tactics.
Manafort arranged to have Yanukovych photographed with Obama to make Yanukovych seem more moderate, and taught Yanukovych how to present himself more favorably to the public, even down to sporting a more stylish haircut. A half-dozen additional U.S. political consultants joined his effort, including Tad Devine, chief strategist for Bernie Sander’s campaign.
Paradoxically, the U.S. Republican Party was a big supporter of the Orange Revolution — but that didn’t stop Manafort’s efforts to vote it out of power. Sen. John McCain’s chief campaign strategist, Rick Davis, was Manafort’s partner in a new firm, even though McCain was one of the most outspoken critics of Russian policy toward Ukraine.
Emails indicate Manafort and Davis worked together to arrange a meeting between McCain and Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska in Davos in 2006. Deripaska was infamous for his ties to organized crime and was later involved in a failed attempt to more or less buy out the tiny nation of Montenegro for Russia, starting with its aluminum industry.
McCain considered firing Davis when he learned of his firm’s activities, but ultimately backed down. However, Davis and Manafort appear to have ended their partnership.
In 2010, Yanukovych won the presidential elections against Yuschenko’s pro-Western party, which had become mired by scandals and incompetence. Yanukovych’s ally Vladimir Putin was soon working to form an eastern economic union in order to counteract the European Union. At the same time, the European Union was attempting to entice Ukraine into a rival trade agreement.
Yanukovych entertained the E.U. proposal for a time and then declared he was refusing it in favor of the Russian offer — leading to his overthrow in March 2014 after months of protest in which over 70 Ukrainians were killed by mysterious gunmen. Yanukovych fled to Russia, leaving the public to pick through the remains of his lavish villa.
Shortly afterward, Russian troops seized Ukraine’s Crimea region in a coup de main. Then a pro-Russian insurrection broke out in Eastern Ukraine. Inter-ethnic violence in Ukraine had been very rare prior to 2014, but now the country is consumed by a bloody civil war dividing those of Russian descent and those of Ukrainian nationality.
Manafort later said on Fox News that his goal had been “to help bring Ukraine into Europe, and we did. We succeeded.”
Whether Manafort has anything to do with Trump’s famously warm regard for Putin is debatable — it may simply be a question of shared style or business interests.
Manafort is hardly the only political gun-for-hire who doesn’t sweat the ethics of his clients. For example, Lanny Davis, a Democratic former counsel of Bill Clinton, is infamous for having worked for the dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea, the 2010 coup-government in Honduras and Ivory Coast strongman Laurence Gbagbo, who reignited a civil war in 2011 rather than accept the results of an election he lost.
Still, Manafort has distinguished himself in a field known for harboring the ethically-challenged.
Manafort didn’t cause his clients to commit their bloody and corrupt deeds — but he did enable them, making it easier for international strongmen to secure funding and political influence, while striving to ensure they were seen in the best possible light by leaders in Washington.