Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s palace, is impressive by the standards of Palm Beach—less so when judged against the abodes of the world’s autocrats. It doesn’t, for instance, quite compare with Mezhyhirya, the gilded estate of deposed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. Trump may have 33 bathrooms and three bomb shelters, but his mansion lacks a herd of ostrich, a galleon parked in a pond, and a set of golden golf clubs. Yet the two properties are linked, not just in ostentatious spirit, but by the presence of one man. Trump and Yanukovych have shared the same political brain, an operative named Paul Manafort.
Ukrainians use the term “political technologist” as a favored synonym for electoral consultant. Trump turned to Manafort for what seemed at first a technical task: Manafort knows how to bullwhip and wheedle delegates at a contested convention. He’s done it before, assisting Gerald Ford in stifling Ronald Reagan’s insurgency at the GOP’s summer classic of 1976. In the conventions that followed, the Republican Party often handed Manafort control of the program and instructed him to stage-manage the show. He produced the morning-in-America convention of 1984 and the Bob Dole nostalgia-thon of 1996.
Given Manafort’s experience and skill set, it never made sense that he would be limited to such a narrow albeit crucial task as delegate accumulation. Indeed, it didn’t take long before he attempted to seize control of the Trump operation—managing the budget, buying advertising, steering Trump toward a teleprompter and away from flaming his opponents, appearing on air as a primary surrogate.
Some saw the hiring of Manafort as desperate, as Trump reaching for a relic from the distant past in the belated hope of compensating for a haphazard campaign infrastructure. In fact, securing Manafort was a coup. He is among the most significant political operatives of the past 40 years, and one of the most effective. He has revolutionized lobbying several times over, though he self-consciously refrains from broadcasting his influence. Unlike his old business partners, Roger Stone and Lee Atwater, you would never describe Manafort as flamboyant. He stays in luxury hotels, but orders room service and churns out memos. When he does venture from his suite for dinner with a group, he’ll sit at the end of the table and say next to nothing, giving the impression that he reserves his expensive opinions for private conversations with his clients. “Manafort is a person who doesn’t necessarily show himself. There’s nothing egotistical about him,” says the economist Anders Aslund, who advised the Ukrainian government. The late Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory described him as having a “smooth, noncommittal manner, ” though she also noted his “aggrieved brown eyes.” Despite his decades of amassing influence in Washington and other global capitals, he’s never been the subject of a full magazine profile. He distributes quotes to the press at the time and place of his choosing, which prior to his arrival on the Trump campaign, was almost never. (Indeed, he did not respond to requests to comment for this story.)
His work necessarily entails secrecy. Although his client list has included chunks of the Fortune 500, he has also built a booming business working with dictators. AsRoger Stone has boasted about their now-disbanded firm: “Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly, lined up most of the dictators of the world we could find. … Dictators are in the eye of the beholder.” Manafort had a special gift for changing how dictators are beheld by American eyes. He would recast them as noble heroes—venerated by Washington think tanks, deluged with money from Congress.
Playing tennis with Yanukovych at Mezhyhirya might have been the culmination of Manafort’s long career. He spent nearly seven years commuting to Kiev. Over that stretch, he remade Ukrainian politics and helped shift the country into Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence. It was an impressive achievement, at least according to the ethical calculus that governs Manafort’s world. But then along came Donald Trump—another oligarch in desperate need of his services.