A week before the Trump presidential campaign announced that it had hired Paul Manafort, a New York Yankees ticket specialist alerted him that his annual season tickets would soon be arriving at his 43rd-floor apartment at Trump Tower in New York.
“Will you and Kathy be attending opening day?” the specialist asked in an e-mail in late March 2016, referring to Manafort’s wife. “Yes, Kathy and I will be attending,” Manafort replied. The four seats — prime spots behind the Yankees’ dugout, with access to the owner’s suite — cost US$210,600 for the season.
But Manafort did not have the money to pay for them. Six months later, he still had not paid the American Express bill that included the charge.
He did not have money to make payments on the US$5.3-million loan he had just taken out against his Brooklyn brownstone, either, which was heading toward foreclosure as he ran the Trump campaign. His political consulting firm was at least US$600,000 in debt and had not a single client after taking in more than US$60 million in five years from the Ukrainian oligarchs funding the country’s pro-Russia president.
The whole trajectory of Manafort’s life — from the son of a blue-collar, small-town mayor to a jet-setting international political consultant to Trump campaign chairman and now to prisoner in an Alexandria, Virginia, jail awaiting a jury verdict — is a tale of greed, deception and ego. His trial on 18 charges of bank and tax fraud has ripped away the elaborate facade of a man who, the story went, had moved the swimming pool at one of his eight homes a few feet to catch the perfect combination of sun and shade, and who worked for the Trump campaign at no charge to intimate that for a man of his fabulous wealth, a salary was trivial.
His trial also underscores questions about how someone in such deep financial trouble rose to the top of the Trump campaign, spreading a stain that has touched the president’s innermost circle. The formidable parade of more than 20 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits has further eroded the notion, advanced by President Donald Trump, that the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, Robert Mueller, is on a “witch hunt.”
The trial is also a spectacle of small humiliations for Manafort, 69. His once perfectly coifed dark hair, admired by Trump, is now gray and shaggy without the benefit of a stylist. His shirts, which he once bought by the half dozen for US$1,500 each, are now delivered by his wife to his lawyer in a white plastic bag. Their communication consists of him winking at her or forming a silent kiss as he is led in and out of the courtroom. He has been admonished not to turn around in his courtroom seat to look at her.
A subplot of the saga is the betrayal of Manafort by his longtime deputy, Rick Gates, who had been at his side for the past dozen years. A former senior official of both the Trump campaign and the Trump inaugural committee, Gates has testified that he helped execute Manafort’s fraudulent schemes while simultaneously stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from him.
Gates, 46, has pleaded guilty to two felony charges and is hoping that by helping Mueller prosecute Manafort, he might receive probation despite the long list of additional crimes with which he has been charged. On the witness stand Tuesday, he sneaked a furtive glance at Manafort at a moment when his former boss was looking at his notes.
Some of Manafort’s associates now say they had predicted that greed would be his downfall. Blessed with extraordinary political instincts and his Georgetown Law School degree, Manafort built his political consultancy into a power center in Reagan-era Washington, where the name of Black, Manafort and Stone became synonymous with string-pulling, insider access and electoral success.
But along the way, many say, he became a mercenary, willing to serve brutal dictators and corrupt industrialists as long as they paid handsomely. Rita Levinson, an international lobbyist who worked for Manafort from 1985-95, said she initially accepted his explanation that he served strongmen to push them closer to Western democratic ideals. But “as time went on,” she said in an interview, “it seemed to me, he became all about money, big money.”
The Russia-aligned oligarchs backing Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president whose rise to power Manafort helped stage-manage, provided very big money for at least five years. But when a popular uprising forced Yanukovych from power in 2014 and that financial spigot shut off, the government claims, Manafort resorted to bank fraud rather than give up his lifestyle.
“Paul never believed that the rules applied to him,” said Levinson, who described him as “brilliant” in her 2016 memoir. “They were for others who couldn’t outsmart the system.”