He cut deals with dictators, engineered the election of Donald Trump, and set the new president on a path to impeachment. Now, post-prison, it’s clear that his true legacy will far outlast Trump’s assault on democracy.
America wants Manafort 2.0,” I say at my second meeting with Paul Manafort, in early June. “But my impression is that you haven’t changed at all.”
Manafort leans forward in his chair. His eyes widen, then lock with mine. The gesture seems intended not so much to engender trust as to overwhelm me with the force of his conviction.
“That’s not true,” he says.
Physically, Manafort has indeed changed. He is 73 years old. He has spent 699 days behind bars. It’s getting harder for him to keep up the pinstriped, hypermasculine façade that he perfected as an up-and-coming political consultant during the Reagan years. Instead of going the Trump route — corsets, pancake makeup, hair shining like a copper roof over crumbling stucco — Manafort has chosen to make a dignified retreat from the look of his younger self. His feathery anchorman hair is speckled with gray, and his polo shirt, from the Bethpage Black golf course, is muted green.
Manafort is a smooth and persuasive talker. But as we sit on the narrow balcony of his apartment in a suburb of Northern Virginia, his normal speaking voice, a theatrically deep baritone, barely rises above a whisper. I reach across the wrought-iron patio table and push the recorder toward him, to make sure it’s picking up his words.
“What’s different,” he says, “is my unwillingness to incorporate into my life people who have not proven themselves to be — I don’t want to say faithful, because I don’t require people being faithful with me — but being honest with me. That’s the right word. Honest with me. I’ve changed in that respect.”
It’s odd that Manafort, at this late date, has decided to demand honesty from his associates. His own reputation for honesty is less than ironclad. The federal judge who sentenced him to five years in prison for tax fraud and witness tampering said his “disregard for the truth” and “deliberate effort to obscure the facts” “undermines our political discourse” and “infects our policymaking.” “He is a professional liar,” someone familiar with his business dealings told me. “He lies like a rug,” one of his own daughters wrote in a text message to her sister.
Manafort has spent most of his 45-year career behind the scenes. He has rarely given interviews beyond his role as a campaign surrogate, and he has never before sat for an extended on-the-record interview about his role at the center of the country’s ongoing fixation with Donald Trump, Ukraine, and Russia. So why talk now? Ostensibly, he wants to sell books. His memoir, “Political Prisoner,” is due out in mid-August. As the title suggests, its intended audience are the millions who still believe that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election and that the January 6 attack on the US Capitol was a justified response. But Manafort, with his decades of experience manipulating the press, is smart enough to know that using me to sell books to that crowd would be no more effective than fishing with a laser pointer. So his motivation for agreeing to meet remains a bit of a mystery to me.
For our second face-to-face conversation, Manafort had confirmed a time — noon — but waited until less than an hour beforehand to text me an address. It turns out to be his home, on the upper floor of a luxury apartment building about 20 minutes from downtown Washington, DC. Almost every inch of the floor is covered in silk Persian-style rugs. There is a stocked bar and a stone kitchen island adjoining the living room. Fox News is playing on the flat-screen TV.
“Nice place,” I say.
“Not what I used to have, but it’s fine,” Manafort says. “It works perfectly for us. You want to go outside?”
We walk to the balcony, past a painting of two girls looking through a field of tall grass. “Those are my daughters,” Manafort says. “They’re much older now. That was the backyard of my Hamptons house.” The Hamptons estate was one of the larger pieces of his fortune that he’d sold off, for $10 million, to pay off forfeitures, penalties, lawyers. Also gone were an Alexandria riverside condo, a Trump Tower condo, a Brooklyn brownstone, and another condo in SoHo. He’d managed to hang on to a three-bedroom home at a Palm Beach country club. It was transferred to the name of his wife, Kathy, in October 2018, just as the legal pressure from Robert Mueller’s investigation began to peak. The couple now use this 1,600-square-foot rental as their Washington home. It could be mistaken for the downsized life of empty-nest retirees, if not for the AirPod inserted into Manafort’s right ear. He is eager to get back in the game.
Manafort brings coffee and bottled water out to a small, sunny balcony that overlooks the breezeway between two buildings. As we speak, the other impulses that had driven him to talk to me begin to surface.
“I don’t feel like I need to explain myself,” he says. “But I’m not unwilling to explain myself. There are certain things that I would probably not do again. But I don’t apologize for things I’ve done in my life. Because I’ve always had the right motives for what I did in my life.”
“Do you want to mention any of the things that you would not do again?” I ask.
“I would have to think about that,” he replies. “I don’t know if — and if I — I’m not sure if I want to — the point is, the things that I have been publicly criticized for over the last several years are not correct. They’ve created a narrative of me that is not me.”
Despite Manafort’s insistence that he’s changed, he was coming across to me, at this point in our conversation, like a typical white-collar criminal, a banker or accountant who had been caught in some sort of complicated fraud. Mixed in with his grandiose sense of entitlement (the thing that got him in trouble to begin with) was a sense of grievance (that he’d been caught and punished, while others were getting away with much worse). This was not so different from the feeling of dispossession and loss of privilege that he had channeled so assiduously as Trump’s campaign chairman. Except now he was no longer a cold-hearted technician, composing the right sequence of rhetoric and imagery to summon those waves of anger and channel them into votes. He was actually experiencing them himself. I start to get the sense that Manafort hasn’t brought me to his apartment because he wants to sell books. What he wants is a shot at redemption.
Does he deserve one? That question hangs over not just Manafort, but the candidate he helped propel into the White House. Unlike Richard Nixon, Trump will never admit to having failed or settle for a second career on the sidelines as a statesman-commentator. Manafort, for his part, comes across as intent on preserving their relationship. “Trump will run and win in 2024!” says the promotional copy for his memoir. Having spent his life as a political handicapper, he’s betting that Trump still has a future. Observing Manafort’s continued show of fealty, it’s hard for me to discount the possibility that the two men might once again join forces — that their biggest moment is still to come.
No Washington insider fell as far or as hard during Trump’s presidency as Manafort. In the end, he wound up pleading to or being found guilty of a variety of crimes. He failed to properly register as a lobbyist on behalf of the government of Ukraine. He failed to declare or pay taxes on the money he was paid for that work. After he got caught, he had an associate reach out to potential witnesses and ask them to change their story to cover it all up.
But as with Al Capone, the crimes that put Manafort behind bars were ancillary to his core business model. Capone got rich selling alcohol. Manafort got rich selling influence. He could take a pile of cash and convert it into a self-reinforcing loop of political power. First he’d generate the votes needed to win an election. Then he’d squeeze out key decisions from the policymakers he had helped elect. He did this not only in the United States but all over the world. Manafort, as much as anyone, made Washington into the global capital of influence peddling, a place where buildings full of lobbyists, think tankers, and other paid shills enriched themselves by holding sway over US policy. Then, tapping into the widespread outrage over this new form of mercenary political leadership he helped pioneer, Manafort audaciously branded it as “the swamp” and wrote the script for an outsider candidate who promised to burn it all down.
Before Manafort could master the art of transforming his clients, he had to transform himself. A caricature of that earlier, repackaged Manafort, as a youthful, dark-haired striver, is still up on the wall at the Palm steakhouse near Dupont Circle, where we had first met for an off-the-record lunch. Manafort seemed happy to see it, positioned near an image of Gerald Ford. It was proof that the memory of his old Washington self persisted, despite his infamy. He was sure I had arranged for us to be seated beneath it, and my insistent denials only served to stoke his certainty. He was back at the Palm, luxuriating in the swamp’s cool, murky depths.
Manafort seemed busy that day, running between meetings and scrambling his schedule to accommodate last-minute trips overseas. He declined to name the clients or the countries. On his wrist was a flashy Breitling watch. I don’t think this was theater, like those Japanese salarymen who keep putting on a tie and going into “work” for years after they’ve been fired, but I couldn’t quite shake the suspicion. His longing for reinstatement was too strong.
Manafort was born on April Fool’s Day, 1949. His father, Paul Manafort Sr., ran a demolition company with Manafort’s uncles. By the time Manafort Jr. was in high school, Manafort Sr. had been elected mayor of New Britain, a small industrial city in southern Connecticut. In high school, Paul served in student government and helped out on his father’s campaigns. The fact that he was the mayor’s son didn’t give him any swagger. His classmates remember him as low-key and polite.
Late in his career, the elder Manafort was questioned by investigators from the state of Connecticut looking into organized crime. According to the book “Squeal,” Manafort’s father took his son along to a meeting about a building contract in 1974. There, they reportedly met with Lidizio Renzulli, a wealthy realtor accused of having Mafia ties. In its broad strokes, the Connecticut investigation resembles Mueller’s Russia inquiry — ambiguous meetings between shady characters, random nobodies with loose ties to major political figures, plenty of money changing hands, and, in the end, disappointment for those who were hoping to see the kingpin led away in handcuffs.
Manafort, too, cites the similarities between then and now. “They were trying to get my father to give up — I don’t know if it was the governor? Somebody,” he said. “And my father was innocent and wouldn’t tell a lie. And they drained him financially. They affected his reputation. But then they dropped the case because there was no case.”
I ask Manafort how his father had handled the pressure.
“He got into depression,” Manafort says. “And that affected me when I was going through my stuff. Because I saw how he did it differently, handled it differently. How he managed the crisis. I decided I was not going to let them get to me the way they got to him.”
By the time his father was under scrutiny, Manafort was already spending most of his time in Washington. He had risen quickly through the Young Republicans, where he met another aspiring Connecticut politico, Roger Stone. By 1976, he was sitting at the GOP convention beside James Baker, the Washington power broker who would become his mentor, massaging the egos of delegates to bring them around to Gerald Ford. Proximity to power transformed him. He wore his hair shorter and ditched his thick-rimmed glasses for contacts.
“I wanted to be president of the United States,” he tells me. “I had a plan for doing that. I was going to come back to Connecticut. I was going to run for office.” Instead he married Kathy, who, he says, was less excited about the strain and scrutiny that comes with political candidacy. The Manaforts remained in Washington, where Paul landed an influential post helping to staff up the new Reagan White House. In 1980, he and Stone founded a lobbying firm with another Reaganite, Charlie Black. Colleagues remember him for his ego, and arrogance. “He’d enter a room and be large and in charge,” one told me. “He’d have on a $2,000 suit with a $300 necktie. He carried himself a notch above everybody else.”
The launch of Manafort, Black, and Stone couldn’t have happened at a more advantageous time. Ronald Reagan’s embrace of deregulation, coupled with rising globalization, meant there was a tremendous amount of money to be made for anyone who could figure out how to partner with foreign kleptocracies. The Reagan White House was happy to engage in covert and sometimes illegal dealings with dictatorial regimes in the service of its anti-communist campaign, and Manafort was happy to lend a hand. Three of Reagan’s most controversial partners — Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and Jonas Savimbi, a guerrilla fighter accused of war crimes in Angola — were also Manafort’s clients. In 1992, a report called “The Torturers’ Lobby” placed Manafort’s firm at the forefront of a rogue industry that got paid to whitewash the reputations of murderous dictators.
In our interview, though, Manafort surprises me by claiming that his lobbying on behalf of foreign leaders wasn’t just in line with US policy — it was often done at the direction of Reagan’s national security team. In the case of the Philippines, he says, he acted at the behest of the White House, which he says “wanted me to go there and deal with the Marcos government.” He claims he played a back-channel role in persuading Marcos to step down, and says he fed information gleaned during his travels back to William Casey, Reagan’s former campaign manager who went on to lead the CIA.
“A lot of the intelligence coming into Washington was garbage,” Manafort says. “Casey was a friend of mine. I got to know him pretty well in the campaign. A number of things that I got involved in during the early ’80s, when Casey was CIA director, I was working with Bill on. He was anxious to have me involved, because he trusted my judgment and assessment on things more than he trusted a lot of his field staff.” (The CIA declined to comment on Manafort’s claims.)
At first I was skeptical of this claim. It seemed to dovetail too neatly with Manafort’s narrative about his work for Trump — that his dealings with Russia, however shady they may have been, were part of the fabric of Washington. But some of Manafort’s claims about working hand in glove with Reagan’s CIA are backed up by the record. Almost immediately after Savimbi signed a contract with Manafort’s firm, for example, Casey ordered the CIA to assess Soviet intentions in Angola and advised Reagan to supply $13 million in covert aid for Savimbi’s forces.
Charlie Black, Manafort’s partner at the time, confirmed to me that their firm would “make some informal soundings at the State Department” before taking on a new client. “The US government wouldn’t always agree,” he said, “but they didn’t necessarily disagree.” Black also backed up Manafort’s claim about his role in persuading Marcos to step down.
Manafort also mastered the dark arts of political messaging. In 1996, when he ran the GOP convention for Bob Dole, he decided to reinvent the spectacle. “The conventions in 1900 and 1904 were not very different from the conventions of 1992,” he said at the time. There was too much focus on hashing things out among the delegates, and too little energy spent on selling the candidate. He approved the convention’s theme, “Restoring the American Dream,” a Reaganesque fusion of nostalgia and optimism. “When it came to the program, the floor operation, and the made-for-TV pictures, he was masterful,” recalled Scott Reed, Dole’s campaign manager. Manafort also introduced a tightly scripted format that was patterned, he said, after infomercials. It was, the journalist Michael Kelly wrote, “the last, logical step in the triumph of packaging over content.” Under Manafort’s behind-the-scenes direction, American voters were no longer an electorate. They were an audience.
As we speak on his balcony, Manafort keeps a laptop open on the table in front of him. At one point he says he’s received a document he’s been waiting on and takes a moment to glance through it. He has sent Kathy out to a deli to get some lunch. “Just one container,” he tells her, when she calls to check in. “If it’s too complicated, don’t worry about it.”
When Kathy returns with lunch, Paul thanks her, then goes inside to put our sandwiches on plates.
I take the moment to use the bathroom. A framed page from “Goodnight Moon” hangs above the toilet. Perhaps, like the painting of his daughters, it is a reminder of old times. When I return, Manafort and I have a brief back-and-forth about the sandwiches.
“That looks like ham,” I say.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “That’s just meat.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s ham,” I say. I’m trying to gently introduce the fact that I don’t eat pork, for religious reasons. “This will be my first ham sandwich in a while. Maybe ever.”
Reluctantly, Manafort concedes that our sandwiches contain ham. He seems mortified, and also a bit vulnerable. I decide, given the circumstances, to eat the sandwich.
It strikes me, as we talk, that Manafort is living in a kind of bubble, one that impels him to block out unfriendly voices and inconvenient facts.
It strikes me, as we talk, that Manafort is living in a kind of bubble, one that impels him to block out unfriendly voices and inconvenient facts, like the ham. One of his most intense desires is to try to scrub himself clean of everything that has to do with Russia, which he does by repeatedly condemning Vladimir Putin. In earlier texts to me, he had offered some dire and provocative assessments on Ukraine, predicting that Russia would eventually invade Georgia, Moldova, and the Baltic states, which would most likely trigger a world war. Now, while expounding about how Biden was “late to the party” on backing Ukraine, Manafort criticizes Biden for failing to acknowledge Memorial Day until 7 o’clock that night.
Manafort’s presentation of Biden’s supposed gaffe is smooth. He exudes a confident familiarity with all the relevant details. But it is easy enough, hours later, to see that Biden had, in fact, laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery at noon on Memorial Day. He had also spoken at a service in Delaware the day before. When I write to Manafort about the discrepancy, he says, “This is what I was told.” But he doesn’t seem too concerned about having gotten it wrong. Manafort found Biden’s imaginary Memorial Day dereliction useful to help make his larger point about Ukraine. His approach to the truth is designed for cable news, where pushing a point in the moment is more important than whether it will hold up the next day.
“They’re all weak,” Manafort continues, regarding Biden’s national security team. “None of them are strong. They’re all bureaucrats.”
I ask him for examples of strong US diplomats. He mentions his mentor, James Baker, who served as chief of staff and Treasury secretary under Reagan. With Baker, Manafort says, “you were clear where the line was.”
Out of Trump’s team, Manafort continues, “Flynn would have probably been the best national security person. McMaster was not good.”
Michael Flynn, the retired lieutenant general who served briefly as Trump’s first national security advisor, had been in Washington on January 5, 2021, rabble-rousing the pro-Trump mob the night before they stormed the Capitol. He also had his own history with Russia.
“You don’t have any issues with his temperament?” I ask.
Manafort concedes that Flynn’s appearance at the January 5 rally was “stupid.” Flynn, he says, was trying to dabble in politics despite that not being his strong suit. But Manafort argues that it isn’t relevant to assessing Flynn’s potential, had he not resigned as one of Trump’s top advisors in 2017 amid scrutiny of his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the US.
“Do you think there is an argument to be made that he was naive in his dealings with the Russians?” I ask. After meeting with the Russian ambassador in 2015, Flynn had accepted a $50,000 speaking fee to appear at a conference in Moscow for RT, the state-owned TV network. At a gala dinner, he sat at a table next to Putin.
“I don’t know if he took an honorarium,” Manafort says. “I mean, he went there and gave a speech. That’s what I know he did.”
I insist that it was true. There are FBI documents to that effect, and invoices from Flynn’s speaker’s bureau.
“But again,” Manafort presses. “When was that?”
“I think 2014 or 2015.”
“Was it after Crimea?” he asks, referring to Putin’s first Ukraine invasion. “I don’t know the answer for you. I don’t think it was. If he did it afterwards, it was stupid.”
I pick my phone up off the table and look it up. It was December 2015.
“OK,” Manafort concedes. “He shouldn’t have done that.”
“A little while ago you were saying he would have been a good national security advisor,” I say. “I’m trying to get you to concede that Flynn may have been a little bit naive in his dealings with the Russian government, and that perhaps that might have been disqualifying for the role of national security advisor.”
Another back-and-forth about the date ensues. On one side is Manafort’s identification with Flynn, someone else from Trump’s circle who he believes was martyred by the FBI. On the other side is his desire to try to restore his standing in Washington by condemning Putin.
“If it was 2015—” he begins. As with the sandwiches, any fact that could reflect badly on him doesn’t remain nailed down for long.
“It was 2015,” I interrupt.
“I believe you,” he says. His voice is even, but his hands are gripping the arms of his chair. “It’s a major mistake to do anything with Putin after he invaded Crimea.”
What angers Manafort the most is the notion that he is a traitor — that he conspired with the Russian government to illegitimately install Trump, the Kremlin’s favored candidate, in the White House. In his view, he didn’t do anything outside the well-established political norms he had helped to create, however twisted they may be. Manafort ultimately refused to fully cooperate with Mueller’s team, and Trump rewarded him with a pardon. He sees himself as a stand-up guy.
“You want people to understand that you’re a patriot,” I say to Manafort a few moments after we sit down. “There are going to be a lot of folks for whom that’s going to be a tough pill to swallow. People who—”
“—who are uneducated,” Manafort cuts in.
“Or people who’ve read the Mueller report.”
“That’s what I said,” Manafort replies. “They’re uneducated.”
He laughs with satisfaction.
Before Trump, Manafort’s most ambitious project was representing Viktor Yanukovych, the former prime minister of Ukraine who was angling to be president. Yanukovych was another rough-hewn long shot who could be shaped, with the right mix of messaging and strategy, into a masterpiece of electioneering. Before Manafort took him on as a client, Yanukovych, who had the support of Ukraine’s oligarchs, was best known for trying to steal the country’s presidential election in 2004. After the debacle, his backers decided to try something new. “They knew the Russian consultants they’d hired had fucked up,” someone familiar with Yanukovych told me. “So they were like, why don’t we try hiring an American?”
Manafort went to work to rehabilitate Yanukovych’s image. In 2013, when Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, attended a meeting with Barack Obama and Biden in the Oval Office, he put in a good word for Yanukovych, who was facing harsh economic sanctions from Russia if he moved forward with plans to sign a trade deal with the European Union. According to a report prepared by one of his associates, Çavuşoğlu told Obama and Biden that Russia shouldn’t be permitted to “steal Ukraine from the West.”
What Obama and Biden didn’t know was that Çavuşoğlu was part of a secret network of foreign officials, bought and paid for by Manafort, who were essentially serving as lobbyists for Yanukovych. According to emails sent by Manafort’s associates, Çavuşoğlu was paid 230,000 euros for carrying the pro-Yanukovych message to Washington. (Çavuşoğlu has denied that he was paid.) Other foreign officials, known as the Hapsburg Group, were paid $2.5 million at Manafort’s direction. The payoffs, often presented in the form of “speaker’s fees” and “consulting fees,” were routed through a former chancellor of Austria. The effort, which was exposed by the Mueller investigation, violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires lobbyists for foreign governments to register with the Justice Department before engaging with US officials.
According to the prevailing Trump-Russia narrative, Manafort crossed the line when he decided to work for Yanukovych, who was supposedly under Putin’s direct control. But at the time, many old hands from both parties were lining up to fill their buckets with the money flowing from Yanukovych’s spigot. Manafort helped funnel $1 million in pro-Yanukovych money to a lobbying group run by Tony Podesta, whose brother managed Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He also paid $4.6 million to Skadden Arps, a prominent Washington law firm, for a report justifying Yanukovych’s imprisonment of a political rival. To this day, taking money from oligarchs who got rich off the Soviet Union’s collapse remains business as usual in Washington. The same set of billionaires who backed Yanukovych’s rise continue to fund everything from DC think tanks to Ivy League endowments.
Just as he had during the Reagan years, Manafort looped in US officials about his Ukraine work, making regular visits to the American Embassy in Kyiv. He told them he was pushing Yanukovych toward the West. “I thought it was good that Yanukovych was getting that pro-European message from someone in his own inner circle, and good that he was paying for that kind of advice,” William Taylor, a former US ambassador to Ukraine who provided some of the most damning evidence against Trump in his first impeachment, told me.
Under Manafort’s guidance, Yanukovych’s campaign tactics in the 2010 election sometimes played up anti-Western sentiment. But in Ukraine, that didn’t amount to proof of a pro-Russia plot. It was closer to an American candidate stirring up nativist sentiment by criticizing China. Manafort, who operated with a staff of a few dozen out of a suite of offices near Kyiv’s main square, “worked like a dog,” one colleague recalls, firing off emails late into the night and bringing in polling and TV consultants from Washington to help him hone the most effective message. At Manafort’s instruction, Yanukovych took speaking lessons and refreshed his wardrobe. In his official photo, with his stern gaze and carefully sculpted, monochromatic hair, Yanukovych looks a bit like Manafort.
“We want them to vote their fears, not their hopes,” Manafort wrote in a memo the week before the election. “If we do that we can win.”
Yanukovych won the presidency by a margin of 3 percentage points. Manafort was ecstatic. He dashed off celebratory emails to his subordinates and began preparing lists of action items. Soon he was strategizing how to take Yanukovych to the White House, for a face-to-face meeting with Obama.
Sitting on his balcony, Manafort tells me that his attempts to push Yanukovych toward the West, and away from Russia, went beyond mere lobbying. “We increased — it’s probably public now — the CIA’s outposts on the border of Russia,” he says. “The West was aware of all these activities.”
It’s a plausible claim, albeit difficult to verify. What’s clear is that Yanukovych’s victory deepened the relationship between consultant and client. The two men were known to play tennis and swim together. But there was still a language gap to negotiate. For that, Manafort relied on Konstantin Kilimnik, a Soviet-born political consultant with a Russian passport who spoke Swedish and English. Kilimnik had partnered with Manafort for years. The two would sometimes work late out of the same hotel suite. “When I met with Yanukovych, always, there were only three people in the room: me, Yanukovych, and Kilimnik,” Manafort says.
There was only one problem: Kilimnik, as Mueller, the FBI, and the Senate Intelligence Committee all later concluded, had ties to Russian intelligence. It was Kilimnik who was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2021 for providing Russian intelligence with “sensitive information” from the Trump campaign that had been provided to him by Manafort, and for promoting the false narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. Manafort had brought someone suspected of being a Russian intelligence asset into the inner circle of Ukraine’s president.
Allegations that Kilimnik was a spy shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Manafort. Kilimnik was open about the fact that he’d attended a language school run by the Soviet military. Rick Gates, who worked closely with Manafort in Ukraine, later told the FBI that Manafort’s own employees believed Kilimnik had worked as a linguist for Russian intelligence. But Manafort tells me he had no reason to think Kilimnik was spying for Russia. Yanukovych’s chief of staff, he points out, had done a “deep dive” on Kilimnik to confirm that he was clean. “None of us believed KK worked for Russian intelligence,” he claims.
John Herbst, who served as the US ambassador in Kyiv, thinks Manafort’s closeness with Kilimnik was probably just bad judgment. “Obviously Manafort is no naïf,” he says. “But he might not have understood that this guy would have had to have been accommodating of Russian intelligence. They would have been asking him questions from time to time and reminding him that they’re people he needs to worry about.”
The victory Manafort engineered at the polls served to enrich both Yanukovych, who began looting the public treasury in earnest, and Manafort, who upped his billing. Yanukovych’s position as head of state gave both men tremendous leverage over their oligarch patrons, who relied on Ukraine’s government for all manner of contracts, deal approvals, and licenses. By late 2013, with the Hapsburg Group lobbying effort in full swing, Yanukovych seemed to be on the verge of signing the trade agreement with the EU. But then, in the months leading up to the decision, he met several times with Putin. (“I was never in the room,” Manafort says.) After Putin threatened sanctions and other reprisals, Yanukovych abruptly pulled out of the agreement.
Ukrainians, furious that Yanukovych appeared to be doing Putin’s bidding, erupted in protest. He responded by trying to repress his own people; dozens in Kyiv’s main square were massacred by snipers. Yanukovych was forced to flee the country, and Putin took credit for helping to organize his evacuation. He also took advantage of the chaos to seize Crimea, along with parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Inside Yanukovych’s lavish estate, protesters found a ledger of secret payments to Manafort by Yanukovych’s party. The total was upward of $12 million. In all, according to prosecutors, Manafort billed Yanukovych’s party more than $60 million.
The ouster of Yanukovych proved to be devastating for Manafort. He had been making truckloads of money off his Ukraine success, and his spending patterns suggest that he expected the windfall to continue. He spent compulsively, accumulating hundreds of suits, a $9,500 ostrich-skin vest, and a $18,500 python-skin jacket. He spent $6 million on a SoHo condo and a Brooklyn brownstone. But now that Yanukovych was out of power, Manfort no longer had the income he needed to maintain his five-star lifestyle. His US properties, paid for in cash, served as a kind of piggy bank. He began moving them from LLC holding companies to his own name, so he could take out mortgages against them. But that required that he tell the banks about his income, which he failed to fully disclose.
That June, Manafort spent a month at an Arizona rehab center dealing with personal issues, according to a text message sent by one of his daughters. When the center asked her to fly out to attend its family week, she declined. “Why the fuck would I want to spend my vacation days on that asshole?” she told her sister. In another text, hacked from his daughter’s phone and posted online, she calls his Yanukovych windfall “blood money.”
When I ask Manafort about the texts, he tries to cast doubt on their authenticity: “I have no idea what’s accurate, what’s not accurate.” But he concedes that there’s been some family turmoil. “She was just mad at me,” he says. “She was mad because her life was being screwed over.”
Manafort knew Trump in passing. His firm had briefly worked on Trump’s behalf in the 1980s. Manafort had purchased a Trump Tower condo for $3.6 million in 2006. In February 2016, as Trump was quickly ascending from long-shot candidate to GOP frontrunner, Manafort lobbied hard to be brought onto his team as campaign chairman. He pushed Trump through their mutual friends, including Roger Stone, and wrote Trump an unsolicited memo touting his qualifications.
In the memo, Manafort claimed to be an outsider, like Trump, who had left what he called “the Washington establishment.” That wasn’t entirely true. Manafort’s establishment credentials would prove useful to Trump for managing the convention, and for brokering contacts with the leaders of what was then the Republican mainstream, including James Baker and Dick Cheney. But at a time when Trump was being shunned by experienced Republican operatives who took their cues from the mainstream GOP, Manafort was a prospective acolyte who seemed to promise both loyalty, a requirement for joining Trump’s circle, and competence, a rarity in the campaign. Plus, in a move sure to appeal to Trump’s stinginess, Manafort was willing to work free. “I am not looking for a paid job,” said the first item on his memo.
Manafort had other plans for making money from the job. The day after Trump announced that he was joining the campaign, Manafort was already using the news to try to drum up business from his old Ukrainian patrons. Rick Gates, who had served as his right hand in Ukraine, sent emails of the announcement to Kilimnik, who forwarded it to prominent figures who had funded Manafort’s work for Yanukovych. “How do we use to get whole?” Manafort asked Kilimnik by email that April. “Has OVD operation seen?”
OVD was Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire Russian oligarch who Manafort had worked for, on and off, for more than a decade. In our interview, Manafort repeatedly insists that Deripaska and Putin are not close. He may be the only person in Washington who holds that view. “Deripaska makes deals with Putin and clearly he’s working closely” with Russian military intelligence, says Anders Åslund, a Swedish economist who is the author of “Russia’s Crony Capitalism.” “He may not be in the family so to speak, like Putin’s KGB generals, but he tries to do services to Putin so he can be in a good place.”
Manafort made a series of moves that were critical to Trump’s success. He steered Trump toward choosing Mike Pence as a running mate, correctly perceiving that it would help cement the uneasy bond between Trump and religious conservatives, and help tamp down the prospect of an uprising by Ted Cruz’s delegates at the Republican convention in Cleveland, which was just days away. For that, Manafort engineered another classic GOP medley of optimism and nostalgia, underscored by a drumbeat of apocalyptic fear. Under his watch, the convention also spiked a proposed change to the party’s platform that would have endorsed sending weapons to Ukraine to help in its fight with Russian-backed separatists.
As Manafort’s influence within Trump’s campaign grew, he went even further in his efforts to drum up foreign business. He arranged for Gates, then serving as his deputy campaign chairman, to send Kilimnik regular updates that included more than 50 pages of internal polling data. In our interview, Manafort makes his first public admission that he was the one who told Gates to email Kilimnik the information. “The data that I shared with him,” he tells me, “was a combination of public information and stuff from the spring that was — it was old.” It’s one of his primary lines of defense — that the data he funneled to Kilimnik was essentially worthless.
In fact, some of the data was very up to date. On August 2, Kilimnik flew to Washington to meet Gates and Manafort face-to-face. In an email, he told Manafort that he had a message to deliver from Yanukovych. Manafort scheduled the meeting at the Grand Havana Room, across the street from Trump’s campaign headquarters, and he didn’t put it on his office calendar. He told Gates to print four pages of data showing Trump’s city-by-city polling strength in 18 swing states. That data, from mid-July, was only two weeks old.
Manafort denied that Gates gave Kilimnik any documents at the Grand Havana Room. But he says he directed Gates to feed Kilimnik polling data via email, to “keep Konstanin informed.” Manafort says the purpose of sending the data to Kilimnik was to lay the groundwork for future business deals, by demonstrating that Trump could win. “It was meant to show how Clinton was vulnerable,” he tells me. By his account, he wasn’t aiding a Russian spy — he was trying to use his influence with the future US president to extract money from pro-Russia oligarchs.
In its report on Russian interference in the election, the Senate Intelligence Committee aired its suspicions that Kilimnik did far more than scoop up Trump data from Manafort. He may also have been part of an operation by Russian intelligence to “hack and leak” emails from the Democratic National Committee. Kilimnik, for his part, claims to have been a victim of Russiaphobia. “Had I been of a different nationality, nobody would have given a damn,” he told me, via email. He offered to address specific questions. I sent some along; he didn’t reply. Under federal indictment and wanted by the FBI, he is reported to be living near Moscow.
Manafort’s attempts to loop his Russian and Ukrainian patrons into the campaign went beyond sharing polling data. He offered Deripaska, the pro-Putin oligarch, “private briefings” on the Trump campaign. He also entertained a Ukrainian “peace plan” that would have involved Trump officially recognizing Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and having Putin install a puppet government, to be headed by Yanukovych, in eastern Ukraine. Manafort claimed that he rejected this idea, but Mueller’s investigation found evidence that he continued to discuss it with Kilimnik for months. Kilimnik envisioned that Trump would appoint Manafort to negotiate it.
The problem with the meeting in the Grand Havana Room isn’t whether it got Trump elected. It didn’t. Even if the polling data Manafort shared with Kilimnik found its way into the hands of Russian intelligence, the Kremlin wound up spending less than $200,000 on Facebook ads. And while Russian trolls tried to organize live rallies for Trump, none of their activities approached anything near the scale of Trump’s official efforts. Plus it’s unlikely that Manafort’s data would’ve provided much help with targeting, given that the Russians already had Clinton’s internal strategy memos, hacked from Democratic servers.
The problem with the meeting in the Grand Havana Room, beyond legitimate concerns about national security and election integrity, is what it tells us about the culture of Washington. One of the foremost figures in the Republican Party — a man who had been a senior leader for the Reagan, Bush, Dole, and now Trump campaigns — couldn’t even wait until the election was over to try to cash in on his access and influence. Nor did he seem to have any standards about who was using him, and for what. I ask Manafort about his email to Kilimnik about Deripaska: “How do we use to get whole?” What did he mean by that?
“I’ve never denied that,” Manafort says. “That doesn’t mean I’m pro-Russian.” Deripaska, he says, owed him money. “I’m trying to get paid by somebody who owes me money.”
“Use means provide access to the president,” I say. “Or I guess it would be the nominee.”
“No,” Manafort says. “I didn’t give him access to the nominee.”
So here was Manafort’s defense, such as it was: The only thing Manafort was selling — even as he touted his position within Trump’s campaign — was access to Manafort. Whatever access to Trump was on offer would be indirect. And whatever Manafort had been caught doing, he again insists, it was all just par for the course in Washington.
“I don’t think I play closer to the line than some,” he says. “In presidential politics, everybody’s looking at what winning might mean. Everybody is. And what they end up doing depends on the situations.” The real crime, in a sense, is that Manafort’s chief goal during his time on Trump’s campaign — using his access to the Oval Office to enrich himself — wasn’t even a crime.
The FBI had started looking at Manafort’s Ukraine lobbying in 2014. In the eyes of federal investigators, he was a soft target. He had ties to foreign powers. He was, at best, sloppy with his taxes and other legally required paperwork. He also seemed to enjoy spending money even more than making it. Far more than his entanglements in the complexities of Ukrainian and Russian politics, it was Manafort’s cartoonishly profligate lifestyle that made it easy for prosecutors to paint him as a villain. Early one morning in July 2017, FBI agents knocked on the door of Manafort’s old condo in Alexandria — $2.7 million, 2,779 square feet, Potomac views. They seized his files and computers and made a detailed inventory of his wardrobe. Dozens of photographs of his suits and jackets were released as government exhibits. Later, the judge in one of Manafort’s cases chastised prosecutors for attempting to introduce some of Manafort’s lavish home renovations into evidence. “We don’t convict people because they have a lot of money to throw around,” the judge said.
By March 2018, Manafort was wearing two ankle bracelets, one for each federal court in which he was facing charges. That June, after prosecutors accused him of witness tampering, a judge ordered him imprisoned through his trial. At first, he was housed at a regional jail in rural Virginia. His treatment there was that of a “VIP,” according to a filing by Mueller’s team. He wasn’t required to wear a prison uniform, had a laptop and phone in his unit, and was provided access to a separate room where he could meet with his legal team for several hours each day. But in July, a judge ordered that he be moved to Alexandria, where the conditions of his detention were more spartan.
“There were concrete walls,” he tells me. “No windows. A toilet and a bed and a sink. One hour a day I could get out to take a shower. I was able to negotiate to get a pen and paper so I could take my notes. I resolved that I was not going to let them break me. So I exercised in my room. I had a regimen. I had a schedule every day that was very precise. Finally, I was able to get a radio, but until then I had no way of knowing what time it was other than when they delivered the meals.”
He smoothly pivots from detailing the hardships of his confinement to using it as a justification for the many inconsistencies in his story that were documented by Mueller’s team.
“After 10 months, guess what? My clarity was not what it was when I went in,” he tells me. “So I didn’t remember everything. There were times I couldn’t remember names of friends of mine. I wasn’t losing it, but I was not the same person.”
Manafort’s case was so important to Mueller’s investigation that a special subunit, “Team M,” was formed to focus on it exclusively. The goal was to “flip” Manafort against Trump, even as the president was issuing tweets that dangled the prospect of a pardon. Andrew Weissmann, who headed up Team M, recounts in his memoir that he felt sorry for Manafort. “It was impossible not to feel some pity for him,” Weissmann writes, “even if his suffering was a consequence of his own choices.” Weissmann was struck by Manafort’s “equipoise” at their first meeting in Mueller’s offices. He was calm and self-possessed, even as he sat in shackles.
Manafort’s impression of Weissmann is less generous. “I think he’s not a nice person,” he tells me. “I think he should not be a lawyer.”
Manafort initially agreed to cooperate with Team M in return for a plea deal. But during the investigation, he continued to communicate with Trump’s team, using Sean Hannity as an intermediary. “I won’t sell out,” Manafort texted Hannity at one point. Mueller will “want me to give up DT or family, esp JK, he wrote, referring to Trump and Jared Kushner. “I would never do that,” he continued, adding, “they will want to make up shit on both.” Mueller’s team eventually concluded that Manafort was lying to them, prompting a judge to scrap the cooperation deal. According to Gates, Manafort said he had spoken with Trump’s team, and had been assured that they were “going to take care of us.”
I ask Manafort whether the possibility of a pardon influenced his decision-making during this period.
“Was that always behind my thinking? Of course,” he says. “But did I have an understanding with anybody? No.”
As a veteran of political conventions, Manafort had often emphasized the importance of simplicity and repetition. Only a very basic message, repeated over and over again, could survive filtration through independent media and have an impact on the minds of the electorate.
Throughout our interview, the message that Manafort is crafting becomes clear: Paul Manafort hates Vladimir Putin. He calls Putin a “war criminal.” He calls Russia’s attacks on Ukraine “carpet-bombing.” He approves of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Was he saying all this out of genuine hatred for Putin and sympathy for Ukraine? Or was he attempting to chip away at the biggest obstacle standing in the way of his own rehabilitation — the perception that he is in the pocket of Russian interests?
As we talk, he goes considerably further than Trump, who has flirted with a more isolationist stance. But Manafort suggests that if Trump is reelected, he will adopt a more hawkish line against Russia. “It’s going to be a mess. I don’t know how to forecast what it will be,” he says, before proceeding to do just that. “I think he will quickly establish a balance again of what is not acceptable. Trump was very clear-cut that there were borders and lines that Putin couldn’t cross. And Putin didn’t cross. There was no invasion, anywhere in the world, never mind just Ukraine, by Russia. When Putin — I mean, when Trump became president — he gave Ukraine the lethal weapons that Obama wouldn’t.”
Manafort twice scrambles Trump’s and Putin’s names, and each time he makes a brief flustered noise, something like “I-mean-um,” before plowing forward as though nothing has happened. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him. In trying to mop up the Russia mess, he keeps tripping over the bucket and spilling more dirty water.
Things get even more muddled when I bring up January 6. Like many Republicans, Manafort seems torn between a longing for acceptance by the establishment and the knowledge that his own future is tied to a man who would rather rip up the Constitution than accept that he lost an election.
“It seems like America is getting to be more like Ukraine,” I say. “You have heads of state charged with treason who have to flee. January 6 is a part of that, isn’t it?”
“There’s what happened on January 6,” Manafort replies. “And then there’s what they’re trying to make January 6.”
“I just want to talk about January 6,” I say.
“But you can’t. You can’t divorce it from the reality of why it’s happening today.”
“You have a good number of people,” I say, “who sincerely believe that Trump should be the president by any lights, and that violence is potentially justified to rectify that.”
“There’s a big difference between believe he still should be president and it was stolen from him and are willing to have insurrection,” Manafort says while chopping his hand in the air above the table, dividing it into three baskets. It still isn’t clear which one he is in.
“Sean Hannity thinks Trump should be president,” Manafort continues. “But Sean Hannity’s been opposed to January 6 from day one. So no, there’s a big difference between accepting the results of the election and violent upheaval. And there’s a big difference between violent upheaval and what happened on January 6.”
“Well,” I ask, “what did happen on January 6?”
“Well,” he says, “some people were out of control. You can do the conspiracy case of ‘the left was planting it.’ You can do the right-wing conspiracy case.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t involved in it. I was not even in the city. I was in Florida. We were in Florida. And, uh, I don’t know. But I do know that what’s going on is all just part — it’s the same gambit as the Russia hoax. It’s the same book. With the same players. Actually, a few other people.”
“How is it the same? Because the Russia ‘hoax,’ in your view, didn’t happen. And January 6, in your view, did.”
“Well, I don’t think what happened is what is being reputed to have happened.”
At that point, without having given his view of what did happen, Manafort goes off the record. Later, over email, he declines to answer the question of whether the violence committed by Trump supporters at the Capitol on January 6 was justified.
Manafort’s relentless avoidance of January 6 is another indication that he still perceives his fortunes as being tied to Trump’s. Perhaps he sees Trump in 2022 as something like Yanukovych in 2004. Written off by the mainstream after having tried and failed to steal an election, Trump is ripe for rehabilitation through the dark arts of the democratic process. Or perhaps to Manafort, Trump is more like Yanukovych in 2014, a deposed exile, plotting his comeback with a small circle of patrons. When I ask Manafort what lessons Trump can learn from the 2020 campaign, he suggests that Trump 2024 should focus on election fraud. “Run a more intense voter security program,” he says, “especially in the targeted states.”
Manafort’s forthcoming book offers a bullish take on Trump’s election prospects. “If he runs,” Manafort writes on the final page, “there is no doubt in my mind — he will win!” For the most part, the book is a typical Washington memoir — a self-serving anthology of brags, justifications, score-settling, and ass-kissing. Trump, Manafort gushes in the final line of his acknowledgements, “had the courage to confront the mob and gave me my life back.” The book is also littered with plugs for the products of prominent Trump supporters. In jail, Manafort dreams of sleeping on a My Pillow. Upon his release, he is greeted with a delicious slice of Papa John’s pizza. There is no mention of January 6. The real “danger to the Constitution” is what Manafort calls “wokeism.” But he glancingly nods at Biden’s legitimacy when he writes, “The American people opted for the non-Trump as president.”
Among Manafort’s unique talents is his ability to perceive that America is no different from any other country. It is divided, angry, and illiterate. It is vulnerable to demagoguery. It is permeated to the core by private and foreign interests. Manafort is far from the only beneficiary of these processes, but he was one of their earliest and most eager facilitators. Yet the reaction to his corruption has been very different from the aftermath of Richard Nixon. The word “Watergate” has come to encompass a string of Nixon-era scandals that rival those of today. Beyond the break-in and the failed Oval Office cover-up, there was illegal domestic spying by the CIA and FBI, and years of misrepresentations by the Pentagon about Vietnam. The reaction to all the wrongdoing was profound. Congress passed laws reining in mass surveillance, political campaigns, and the president’s power to unilaterally go to war. It established intelligence oversight committees and a provision for independent special prosecutors, further curtailing the White House’s ability to break the law. The reforms weren’t perfect by any means, but they attempted to get to the root of the problems facing democracy.
The Trump scandals, by contrast, have been framed as the perfidy of individuals. So far, the Washington establishment has focused on casting out and punishing a handful of players like Manafort, rather than overhauling the system that sanctions and even enables their criminality. The Mueller investigation, and the congressional hearings into January 6, have yet to produce anything on par with the post-Watergate reforms. Instead, we are living in a world where the prospect of a Manafort restoration, and of Trump along with him, is a real possibility. Does openly plotting to subvert the Constitution disqualify someone from the presidency? It obviously should, but does it? That, as we are seeing now, is a political question. And in politics, with the right mix of rhetoric and imagery, carefully tuned to the latest polling data, anything is possible.
Whatever comes next, Manafort is clear that he won’t be saying he’s sorry. As he told me when we sat down, there’s no need to express regret, because the motives for his actions are always “right.”
“Thank you for being such a gracious host,” I say as he shows me to the door.
“There won’t be ham next time,” he says with a chuckle.
At last, Manafort had specified one of the “things that I would probably not do again.” But it was not an apology.