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Americans love nothing more than a tantalizing fall-from-grace story. Yet, they seem curiously unmoved by the unfolding tragedy of Paul Manafort. Perhaps because Manfort, like so many of the other young Republican zealots trained in the House of Reagan, was from the beginning a man unadorned by any detectable sheen of grace.
Manafort is what might rather antiseptically be called “a fixer.” Someone you call when you’re in political trouble. Someone who’ll only answer the phone if you’re in deep trouble and you’ve got deep pockets. As far as anyone can tell, this career as an influence peddler was what Manafort intended for himself when he set off for Georgetown University in 1967. When other students were mobilizing against the war, Manafort was already plotting ways to capitalize on global slaughter. Any war, anywhere.
Where there are war crimes being committed, there’s money to be made. It’s a lesson that Manafort learned early on and propelled him to run point for some of the world’s top rank butchers, including Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos and Jonas Savimbi. He took the calls few others had the fortitude to answer. Manafort knew that most of his high-risk clients weren’t long for the world. He could cash their checks until they were deposed or killed, deposit the blood money in some off-shore account and then walk away without looking back. There will always be new clients. The world isn’t running short of despots in crisis.
Swathed in $5,000 suits and $1,500 cap-toe dress shoes from the trendy Brion boutique in Los Angeles, Manafort has always worked the dark side of K Street. In the 1980s, Manafort made his mark whitewashing the reputations of thuggish subcontractors of American imperial foreign policy during Reagantime, often for a fee of a cool million a year. He once impersonated a CNN reporter, of all occupations, as part of project to obscure Pakistan’s funding of terrorist groups, a contract that was reportedly financed by the ISI, Pakistan’s grim intelligence agency.
As his global operations expanded over the years, Manafort amassed multiple passports, off-shore bank accounts, cut-outs, overseas apartments and shell companies. These are all elementary parts of a spy’s toolkit and there’s been buzz in DC for some time about Manafort’s possible dalliances in spookworld. Perhaps he learned these tradecraft techniques from a close reading of John Le Carré’s The Honorable Schoolboy, but it’s worth noting that many of Manafort’s most notorious clients were on the Agency’s payroll for decades. Did some of that dark money end up in his accounts?
Manafort was never the slickest operator around, but he has a keen sense for the financial opportunities presented during times of political tumult and distress. When the Soviet Union splintered apart, Manafort was quick to circle the wreckage with predacious intent, seeking ways to profit from the shock privatization of the former socialist economies. After prudently assessing the state of play in Eastern Europe and Caucasia, Manafort wasted little time. He cut deals in Estonia, Latvia, the Republic of Georgia, Russia and, most lucratively, Ukraine, where he may have walked off with more than $50 million in payouts for his feats of influence. Recall that the average per-capita income in Ukraine is less than $9,000 a year. That’s neoliberalism for you.
Still, the money flowed in. Enough to set up offices in Moscow and Kiev. Enough to buy a house in the Hamptons and a condo in DC. Enough to purchase a $3.7 million apartment in Trump Tower, where he and Trump gossiped and plotted during rides on the lurid skyscraper’s VIP elevator.
If we are to believe Robert Mueller’s briskly written 31-page indictment of Manafort and his underling Rick Gates, the fixer laundered more than $18 million dollars through a variety of shell companies and accounts in the oligarch-friendly banks of Cyprus. The money came largely from his work for the government of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was paying Manafort $600,000 a month for his services. In their years of labor for the embattled Ukrainian regime, Manafort and Gates failed to register themselves as foreign agents, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act or FARA. In order to evade paying taxes on their enormous earnings, the payments were moved through a labyrinth of account so as to conceal the loot from IRS scrutiny and then brought back into the US through purchases of high-ticket luxury items, including a $950,000 rug (a carpet not a new hairpiece for Trump), $1.5 million on clothes, $800,000 to landscape his rather tiny yard in the Hamptons, $420,000 to renovate his pool and $1.3 million on lighting and a home entertainment system at his home in Palm Springs.
All of this is pretty much standard operating procedure for the Beltway’s elite tribe of lobbyists, fixers and consultants. FARA is one of those high-minded laws that almost everyone ignores, even the prosecutorial class, in the hopes that they too will one day be able to evade its strictures for their own advantage. While schlepping for a dictator-on-the-ropes might burnish your secret resumé, it’s not necessarily a credential you want open for public inspection. Everyone in the game understands that.
Imagine, then, Manafort’s surprise when armed FBI agents invaded his condo in Alexandria in the pre-dawn hours of July 26, 2017, packing a search warrant for his computers, documents, cellphones, data drives and bank accounts. The impunity he had enjoyed for decades when servicing the needs of global tyrants had abruptly ended. Three months later he would be hauled before a federal judge in Virginia faces stacked charges of conspiracy, money laundering, tax fraud and violating of the rarely enforced FARA. Manafort, who had been safely mining a rich tradition of corruption, wealth and power, was finally ensnared, largely because of his fateful relationship with Donald Trump.
Manafort’s arrest also sent a sharp shiver of panic down K Street. Had the old rules suddenly changed? Did this mean the gig was up? It didn’t take long for Democratic fixer Tony Podesta, brother of HRC’s campaign manager John, to step down from his position as head of the Podesta Group, fearing the exposure of similar shell games from his firm’s work in Ukraine.
Given the frothy hysteria over Russia these days, there’s some juicy irony in the fact that Manafort was apparently introduced to Trump by the maestro of McCarthyism, Roy Cohn. Cohn encouraged Trump to hire Manafort’s lobbying shop, which he co-ran with Roger Stone, to get Trump an exemption from federal environmental laws allowing Trump to dredge the marina channel at Atlantic City so that he could dock his mammoth yacht, the Trump Princess. A few months later, Trump was flirting with the idea of running for president and consulted with Manafort about what it would take to run. Trump demurred, but kept Manafort on retainer to smooth the political ground for some of Trump’s more grandiose real estate schemes.
The fact that Roy Cohn mentored both Trump and Manafort, who years later saw themselves as commercial envoys to the former USSR and its breakaway republics, illustrates how much both the American right and Russia have changed in the last 30 years. Yet, the indictment of Manafort is refreshingly free of any wearisome references to the grand Russian conspiracy to humiliate Hillary Clinton and elect President Bonespur. Instead, we have been presented with one of the ripest inside accounts of the sinister practices and profligate habits of a Washington swamp creature since the arrest of Jack Abramoff. And we should note, even if Mueller does not, that Manafort, like Abramoff, sharpened his claws as a young fixer by exploiting tribal casinos, often on behalf of his former client Donald Trump.
The question is why Manafort pressed so hard to step out of his customary shadows to work in the spotlight for Trump’s campaign, first as a top advisor for the convention and later as campaign manager. By all accounts begged for the job, using Trump’s pal Tom Barrack as intermediary. Even a man as arrogant as Manafort must have sensed the risk. After all, the FBI had been sniffing around some of his firm’s more pungent enterprises since 2014. The reason seems to be that Manafort was desperate. He had ruptured his relationship with the Russian aluminum tycoon, Oleg Deripaska, and was anxious to exploit his position in the Trump campaign to repair the damage and cancel his $17 million debt to the testy oligarch. Or, as Manafort put it in an email, “get whole.” To sweeten the pot, Manafort offered to give OVD, as he called him, private briefings on the progress of the campaign. As always with Manafort, his motives were transactional, not political. Like Trump, Manafort’s politics is guided solely by his own self-interest.
It’s hard to summon much sympathy for Paul Manafort, who so concisely encapsulates the debased political culture of the Beltway, except, that is, for the obligatory solicitude we owe to any prey of a merciless prosecutorial machine that is using him as bait for other targets. But who are the more fearsome beasts here? In Trumpworld’s gallery of villains few, if any, have as much blood on their hands as Manafort. Could it be that Mueller is starting at the top and working his way down?
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A Girl’s Gotta Eat
What I’m listening to this week…
Four Lost Souls by Jon Langford
Black Notes From the Deep by Courtney Pine
639 Madison by Susan Marshall
Sex & Sadness by Madi Sipes and the Painted Blue
Kind of Blue (Grass) by Modern Bluegrass Quintet
What I’m reading this week…
Cuba’s Revolutionary World by Jonathan Brown
Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly
They Slaved for Nothing
Nathanael West: “Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.” (Day of the Locust)