One of the main questions surrounding the rolling indictments against members of Trump’s campaign team remains a simple one: Why? Why would Trump’s campaign chairman, as the indictment on Monday revealed, pursue tax evasion and money laundering to the tune of tens of millions of dollars?
The answer to that questions may be found, of all places, in the types of clients Paul Manafort, Trump’s tainted former campaign manager, boasted before he jumped onto Trump’s campaign last year. After all, Trump’s not the first authoritarian personality Manafort’s latched himself onto – nor is Trump necessarily the only Manafort client well-versed in avoiding financial transparency.
When Manafort joined Trump’s campaign last year, he was best known for running what had become colloquially as the “torturers’ lobby.” For decades, Manafort stood as one of the foremost lobbyists spinning foreign dictatorships for American audiences, with a 1992 report from the Center for Public Integrity singling out Manafort and his team for helping whitewash “human rights-abusing nations.” Of Manafort’s lobbying firm, known as Black, Manafort, one journalist at the time wrote, “The well-compensated flacks at Black, Manafort stand at the pinnacle of organizational apologism. Name a corrupt despot, and Black, Manafort will name the account[.]”
It doesn’t take much digging to find just where Manafort’s dictatorial cohort ranked, compared to other autocrats ransacking their domestic populations. In the mid-2000s, Transparency International listed the globe’s foremost kleptocrats – with three of the top four slots taken by Manafort’s clients, their total looted wealth rising upwards of $20 billion.
- Suharto (Indonesia, $15-35 billion)
- Ferdinand Marcos (The Philippines, $5-10 billion) – Manafort client
- Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire, $5 billion) – Manafort client
- Sani Abacha (Nigeria, $2-5 billion) – Manafort client
Manafort’s man in Ukraine
Perhaps Manafort’s most extensive client over the last fifteen years has been former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who has the rare distinction of being forced out of office twice. Manafort was brought in by Yanukovych in late 2004, during a period of protests in Ukraine which became known as the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych had just won an election against the pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko, but protesters and international observers said the voting had been rigged and marred by corruption, as well as the alleged poisoning of Yushchenko. According to Russian media, Yanukovych asked Manafort to improve his image just two weeks before a new vote ordered by the country’s Supreme Court — but Manafort said there wasn’t enough time, and Yanukovych duly lost.
Yet their relationship didn’t end there. Over the next six years Manafort helped rehabilitate the former president’s image, in time for the 2010 presidential election, adding a Western PR veneer to a decidedly pro-Kremlin candidate. In 2010, under Manafort’s influence, Yanukovych marketed himself, ironically, as an anti-corruption crusader against Yushchenko’s inefficient and pro-Western government.
“It was a weird thing for the people in Ukraine, because they could not imagine how an American strategist agreed to cooperate with Putin’s friend,” Ukrainian expert Oleg Kravchenko told Politifact. “But Manafort played a decisive role in the victory of Yanukovych.”
However, Yanukovych’s anti-corruption campaigning was shown as a brazen lie four years later, during the 2014 Euromaiden protests, which began after Yanukovych decided not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. The protests were both a campaign for greater integration with the European Union and a criticism of the amount of power the president had amassed. But while the Orange Revolution protests a decade earlier were decidedly peaceful, the Euromaiden protests were anything but. Dozens were killed and hundreds injured during clashes between protesters, riot police, and pro-Russian militia members.
Yanukovych was eventually deposed as Ukrainian president before fleeing to Russia, at which point the scale of his corruption began to become apparent. In the wake of his ousting, protesters discovered that the former president had kept a 137-hectare mansion 20 miles outside Kiev, complete with its own golf-course, Spanish galleon, and ostrich farm. Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of the Republic of Georgia, said that Yanukovych “would talk very loudly about how he had corrupted senior officials, in the supreme court and the constitutional court.” In 2016, investigators acquired a log book that showed that Yanukovych paid out more than $2 billion in bribes.
The torturers’ lobbyist
Although he often declined to talk about his relationship with Yanukovych, Manafort’s financial records between him and other despots meant that these relationships weren’t exactly secrets. When it came to The Philippines’ former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, reports identified nearly $1 million flowing from the regime in Manila to Manafort’s firm, with Marcos specifically looking to Manafort and his colleagues to spin a democratic image out of his dictatorship.
Mobutu Sese Seko, whose kleptocratic legacy still lingers throughout central Africa, also looked to Manafort’s team to hobnob in Washington, despite the fact that Mobutu was once described as the “archetypal African dictator” by TIME Magazine.
Not to be outdone, Nigeria’s former autocrat Sani Abacha also turned to Manafort for public relations management. In addition to grave human rights violations, Abacha also appeared to be notably poor at hiding his ill-gotten gains, with the United States eventually freezing nearly a half-billion dollars in funds tied to Abacha and his family.
And those are just the internationally recognized, and historically egregious, kleptocrats who Manafort helped to ravage their respective countries. Manafort also came to the aid of Jonas Savimbi, who was once described as the “murderous, demented Angolan rebel leader backed by the apartheid regime in South Africa.” Wrote The Daily Beast, “In his memoir, former Sen. Bill Bradley credited Savimbi’s lobbying team with lengthening” the Angolan Civil war.
There are plenty of other brutal, autocratic regimes tied to Manafort’s past dealings, from the former Bakiyev regime in Kyrgyzstan – which used one of the shell companies now linked to Manafort – to Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who currently boasts the longest-tenured dictatorship in Africa. But at a certain point, listing Manafort’s list of the world’s most kleptocratic, most dictatorial, most brutal clients becomes redundant – and his proximity to the types of financial evasion of which he’s now accused become more than evident. And all of this was perfectly clear before Trump ever brought him aboard – and before he became yet another member of Trump’s campaign team now facing federal charges. After all, as Manafort once said, describing working with bloodied Somali dictator Siad Barre, “We all know Barre is a bad guy. … We just have to make sure he’s our bad guy.”