President Donald Trump would have you believe that Paul Manafort wasn’t all that involved with his campaign, and for good reason: Behind the scenes, Trump’s aides fume that the former campaign chairman is at least partially responsible for the president’s deepening legal woes.
“I know Mr. Manafort. Haven’t spoken to him for a long time, but I know him,” Trump said of his former top campaign aide on Thursday. The president was reacting to news that a dozen FBI agents had raided one of Manafort’s four homes late last month and carried off tax documents and banking records, as The New York Times reported on Wednesday. “That’s pretty tough stuff,” Trump told reporters.
The president and his White House staff have for months minimized Manafort’s role and time on the 2016 presidential campaign, repeatedly describing it as a “very short period of time.”
Trump’s attempt to downplay his relationship with Manafort left out some pertinent facts, however. Manafort was integral to the Trump campaign’s efforts to secure Republican delegates at last year’s convention. He reportedly remained in touch with the White House as late as April of this year, and helped craft the administration’s early strategy to counter allegations that it colluded with agents of the Russian government during last year’s election.
According to sources close to the president, many on Team Trump blame Manafort for special counsel Robert Mueller’s divergence from election interference and foray into the private finances of the president’s family, and political and business associates. Though Trump himself has engaged in a number of opaque foreign business deals, his aides believe it was Manafort’s work in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere that set off the special counsel’s alarm bells—and got him digging into issues only tangentially related to alleged Russian election shenanigans.
The terms “shady” and “sketchy” come up most frequently when senior veterans of Trump’s campaign discuss the earlier work done by Manafort, the campaign’s former chairman. (This is the kind of work that has in decades past included Manafort’s lobbying for some of the worst human rights abusers, killers, and dictators of the Cold War era—work Manafort did with longtime Trump consigliere Roger Stone at their well-connected K Street lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly.)
What they don’t know is whether Mueller has “turned” Manafort or simply obtained information during his investigation that has led to pertinent election-meddling developments, and what—if anything—Manafort would have to offer or interest Mueller and his team.
‘There Is No Trust Between the President and Paul’
As a former senior Trump campaign aide put it, Manafort “was brought on because he can count votes. But when you’ve counted votes for some of the people he has, there’ll be plenty of material for a Bob Mueller to work with.” Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about sensitive matters.
As for the view of Manafort from within the West Wing and President Trump’s inner circle, little love has been lost in recent weeks. According to multiple Trump confidants working in and outside the White House, the president doesn’t trust Manafort, and that stems from the former chairman’s time on the campaign when Trump never felt that Manafort grew to become a trusted ally or one of his committed “true believers,” as one White House adviser noted.
During the presidential run, Manafort was seen by Trump and his closest aides as a “creature of convenience,” a Trump campaign veteran told The Daily Beast, who was brought in to take the reins following ousted campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s disastrous tenure and whose experience fit with what was then a likely scenario of a contested Republican nominating convention.
“There is no trust between the president and Paul [Manafort],” another West Wing official said. “There never really was any to begin with, to tell you the truth.”
On Thursday, Manafort and the powerhouse law firm WilmerHale parted ways. (Ironically, Mueller and many of his colleagues in the Russia probe practiced law there until recently.) Manafort brought on a new lawyer, one with more tax law expertise, suggesting that a federal probe into alleged Russian election interference is drilling down on his finances.
Manafort’s private financial dealings have spurred fears in the White House over what Mueller and his team of investigators might uncover in the veteran Republican operative’s lucrative international business deals.
Anti-corruption officials in Ukraine say that a secret ledger shows Manafort receiving $12.7 million in cash payments from the country’s former leader, a close Putin ally, from 2007 to 2012. Manafort spent millions of dollars over roughly the same period to buy a series of properties in New York City. He paid the full purchase price each time—no mortgage necessary. Shortly after the 2016 election, Manafort borrowed millions of dollars against those fully-paid-for properties. The money was lent by Stephen Calk, a Trump economic adviser during the campaign.
According to The New York Times, “at least some of [the loans] appear to be part of an effort by Mr. Manafort to stave off a personal financial crisis stemming from failed investments with his son-in-law.”
Politico reported earlier this week that investigators were trying to secure the cooperation of that son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai—a man accused by members of his own family of running a “Ponzi scheme.”
“Mr. Manafort has consistently cooperated with law enforcement and other serious inquiries and did so on this occasion as well,” Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort, said in a statement after news of the FBI raid broke.
The White House communications office did not respond to a request for comment.
When reached for comment on the details of this story and asked if the president’s outside legal team had any comment or anything to add, Trump’s chief counsel John Dowd simply replied, “No.”
‘That Really Pissed People Off’
Multiple sources close to the president have said that there was a growing resentment from Team Trump toward Manafort because he tried to profit off of the access and influence that he claimed to still have on the Trump administration. Specifically, top Trump officials were especially annoyed when stories began appearing online starting in April about how Manafort had reportedly told Chinese interests that he could convince the Trump administration to go along with deals related to U.S. construction contracts.
“That really pissed people off,” a White House adviser told The Daily Beast.
According to these reports, Manafort had been touting his own alleged influence on the administration months after he was ejected from Trump’s top staff, and months after he became persona non grata at the White House. (Ironically, Manafort had still secretly advised Team Trump during the presidential transition on certain cabinet picks.)
According to two senior officials, White House suspicions toward Manafort were turned up to eleven after the news broke last month of a Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer who claimed to have dirt on Hillary Clinton. Manafort was present at the now-infamous confab, as was President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump’s advisers spent a good chunk of the month of July wondering and wildly speculating who could have leaked such damaging information—and Manafort’s name was a recurring theme.
Maloni, the Manafort spokesman, stressed to The Daily Beast that Manafort had voluntarily disclosed the Trump Jr. meeting to Senate investigators (as had been previously reported) before Mueller or his team ever asked about it.
And as the spotlight around Manafort continues to grow, there are still some in Trump-world who insist the president has nothing to worry about from his former campaign chairman, no matter what comes of the Mueller probe.
“The raid on Manafort’s home on the very day that the special counsel knew he was meeting with Senate investigators is a pressure tactic designed to induce Manafort to testify against the president, which is never going to happen,” Manafort’s former partner and current pal Roger Stone insisted to The Daily Beast on Thursday. “Paul is 100% loyal to the President.”
Stone has publicly gone to bat this week for his ex-partner, and in more ways than one. Earlier this week, the Trump-endorsing supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer published online its big story headlined, “TRUMP ADVISOR SEX SCANDAL—PAUL MANAFORT’S SICK AFFAIR.”
“It’s very disturbing. I felt very badly for him last night,” Stone told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “Nobody has to see their personal flaws splashed over the front pages. I’ve been there.”
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman