Adapted and abridged from The Black Ledger: How Trump Brought Putin’s Disinformation War to America, Chapter 1 “All Decided in the Back Room” and Chapter 3, “Red Erie.”

Paul Manafort Jr. was a lobbyist, one of the best. Manafort was also a political strategist, one of the best. He had advised the Presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. Roger Stone said it succinctly: Manafort was “charming, entertaining, well-tailored” and “certainly understands power and how it works.”

In his guise as lobbyist, Manafort pushed the agendas of both U.S. and foreign interests. Donald J. Trump and his Trump Organization were clients. Manafort pushed back on Indian casinos in Congress for the New York real estate mogul. In front of a Congressional committee, Trump famously boasted “nobody likes Indians as much as Donald Trump” but “there is no way Indians are going to protect themselves from the mob.” 

But Manafort was touched by scandal. After advising George H. W. Bush’s successful campaign in 1988 he convinced Bush’s Department of Housing and Urban Development to approve taxpayer money for a low-income development in New Jersey. For his efforts, Manafort received $1,000 per unit approved. After the funds came through, Manafort bought the property.

Caught, Manafort responded: “You might call it influence-peddling. I call it lobbying.” Manafort’s business soon began to tend more to foreign clients, often disreputable ones.

The most important amongst these foreign clients was the pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, the Party of Regions. But when its leader, President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted by a pro-Western revolution in 2014, Manafort went into the political wilderness. Stone wryly emailed mutual friends: “Where is Paul Manafort?” A mock multiple-choice quiz followed: “Was seen chauffeuring Yanukovych around Moscow,” was one option. The other two were “Was seen loading gold bullion on an Army Transport plane from a remote airstrip outside Kiev and taking off seconds before a mob arrived at the site,” and “Is playing Golf in Palm Beach.”

In reality, Paul Manafort was out of money and looking for options. In 2015, one came up. Donald Trump was running for President of the United States. Manafort began reaching out to the Trump campaign for work in January 2016. 

Suddenly people close to Ukraine’s pro-Russian bloc were confident that Paul Manafort was going to be named the campaign manager of the Trump effort. When GOP lobbyist Sam Patten met with his new client, former Party of Regions stalwart Serhii Lyovochkin in Kyiv, he was surprised to be asked if Trump was going to hire Paul Manafort to run his campaign. Patten thought the idea was fanciful.  A bigger surprise awaited: Konstantin Kilimnik, a man rumored to be a Russian agent, told Patten it was “likely” that Manafort would be Trump’s campaign manager.

At a January 30, 2016 meeting with Trump confidant Tom Barrack, Manafort asked Barrack to try and get him on to the Trump campaign.  After all, they lived in the same building.

Barrack obliged, bringing Manafort up twice in February to Trump.  Manafort prepared strategy memos to convince Trump. Barrack forwarded them to Trump’s longtime personal assistant Rhona Graff, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner. In the email, Barrack explained why they should make the hire: “Manafort is a genius killer,” he insisted. Ivanka printed out a copy of the email from Barrack and attached a note: “Daddy, Tom says we should get Paul.”

After being carefully briefed by Tom Barrack and told that Manafort would be “non-paid,” the candidate was convinced. According to Barrack, Manafort offering to work for free “were the magic words.”

On the evening of March 16th, Donald Trump personally called Manafort and asked him to run the delegate process for him.  Manafort emailed Barrack that evening: “You’re the Best!” read the subject line. “We are going to have so much fun and change the world in the process” Manafort gushed.  Immediately after the public announcement of Manafort’s hire on March 28, Konstantin Kilimnik emailed Sam Patten and rubbed it in. Manafort was running the Trump campaign. By early April, Manafort’s daughter texted her sister: “Dad and Trump are literally living in the same building and mom says they go up and down all day long hanging and plotting together.” 

Out September, 2020.

The Black Ledger–September 2020

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