THE ATLANTIC: Shortly before the announcement of his job inside Trump’s campaign, Manafort touched base with former colleagues to let them know of his professional return. He exuded his characteristic confidence, but they surprised him with doubts and worries. Throughout his long career, Manafort had advised powerful men—U.S. senators and foreign supreme commanders, imposing generals and presidents-for-life. He’d learned how to soothe them, how to bend their intransigent wills with his calmly delivered, diligently researched arguments. But Manafort simply couldn’t accept the wisdom of his friends, advice that he surely would have dispensed to anyone with a history like his own—the imperative to shy away from unnecessary attention.
His friends, like all Republican political operatives of a certain age, could recite the legend of Paul Manafort, which they did with fascination, envy, and occasional disdain. When Manafort had arrived in Washington in the 1970s, the place reveled in its shabby glories, most notably a self-satisfied sense of high duty. Wealth came in the form of Georgetown mansions, with their antique imperfections and worn rugs projecting power so certain of itself, it needn’t shout. But that old boarding-school establishment wasn’t Manafort’s style. As he made a name for himself, he began to dress differently than the Brooks Brothers crowd on K Street, more European, with funky, colorful blazers and collarless shirts. If he entertained the notion, say, of moving his backyard swimming pool a few feet, nothing stopped him from the expense. Colleagues, amused by his sartorial quirks and his cosmopolitan lifestyle, referred to him as “the Count of Monte Cristo.”
His acts of rebellion were not merely aesthetic. Manafort rewrote the rules of his adopted city. In the early ’80s, he created a consulting firm that ignored the conventions that had previously governed lobbying. When it came to taking on new clients, he was uninhibited by moral limits. In 2016, his friends might not have known the specifics of his Cyprus accounts, all the alleged off-the-books payments to him captured in Cyrillic ledgers in Kiev. But they knew enough to believe that he could never sustain the exposure that comes with running a presidential campaign in the age of opposition research and aggressive media. “The risks couldn’t have been more obvious,” one friend who attempted to dissuade him from the job told me. But in his frayed state, these warnings failed to register.
When Paul Manafort officially joined the Trump campaign, on March 28, 2016, he represented a danger not only to himself but to the political organization he would ultimately run. A lifetime of foreign adventures didn’t just contain scandalous stories, it evinced the character of a man who would very likely commandeer the campaign to serve his own interests, with little concern for the collective consequences.
Over the decades, Manafort had cut a trail of foreign money and influence into Washington, then built that trail into a superhighway. When it comes to serving the interests of the world’s autocrats, he’s been a great innovator. His indictment in October after investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller alleges money laundering, false statements, and other acts of personal corruption. (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.) But Manafort’s role in Mueller’s broader narrative remains carefully guarded, and unknown to the public. And his personal corruption is less significant, ultimately, than his lifetime role as a corrupter of the American system. That he would be accused of helping a foreign power subvert American democracy is a fitting coda to his life’s story. MORE