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Trump campaign chief Manafort: Dark knight of lobbyists

Paul Manafort has become the public face of the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the most controversial in living memory © Getty/AFP/File / Chip Somodevilla

New York, United States, Aug 17 – Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman who was thrust into the headlines this week in connection with a Ukrainian corruption investigation, is a formidable Republican strategist who spent years lobbying for rogues and dictators.

The smooth-talking, sharply dressed 67-year-old has become the public face of the most controversial US presidential campaign in living memory: a professional spokesman who never strays off message as he bats aside allegations of a campaign in disarray or a candidate going off the rails.

In a 40-year career he advised the Republican presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole; he or his firms, such as the now defunct Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, have been paid millions to lobby for or burnish the reputations of foreign clients.

“Name a corrupt despot, and Black, Manafort will name the account: Ferdinand Marcos, $900,000 a year; the now deposed Somalian dictatorship, $450,000; the drug-linked Bahamian government $800,000,” wrote Spy magazine in a 1992 article about lobbyists.

But the client who has landed the Trump campaign in hot water is Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin former president of Ukraine whom Manafort helped rebrand until the leader fell from power during a popular uprising in 2014.

Others were Angolan warlord Jonas Savimbi, whose rebel group got $250 million under Reagan and Bush in its war against Angola’s socialist government, the Philippines president Marcos and the late Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

A Donald Trump-decorated truck is sits on the side of the road on August 15, 2016 in Scranton, Pennsylvania © Getty/AFP/File / Mark Makela

His name also appears in connection with a French political scandal known as the “Karachi affair” in which two arms contracts that France signed with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in 1994 are believed to have resulted in kickbacks to finance the presidential campaign of France’s Edouard Balladur.

In 2013, Manafort admitted being paid by a Lebanese-born intermediary for advising Balladur on his ultimately unsuccessful bid.

Another client was the Kashmiri American Council, named in 2011 by prosecutors as a front organization for Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency. Yahoo News says the Council paid Manafort’s firm $700,000 between 1990 and 1995.

Riva Levinson, who worked under Manafort from 1985 to 1995, likened it in her memoir to “playing one big game of Stratego: building armies and scheming to take over the world… In fact, at times, that is exactly what was going on.”

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Originally from Connecticut, Manafort’s father was a Republican mayor in the largely Democrat town of New Britain. His grandfather emigrated from Italy and in 1919 founded what became a successful construction company.

– Denies wrongdoing –

Manafort graduated from Georgetown University with degrees in business administration and law. Besides working on Republican presidential campaigns, he was a founding partner in two lobbying and consulting firms: Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly founded in 1980 and Davis Manafort, both now disbanded.

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, helped Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin former president of Ukraine, to rebrand until the leader fell from power during a popular uprising in 2014 © POOL/AFP/File / Wang Zhao

Manafort defended his client roster in an interview with Fox News in April.

Savimbi, he said, was America’s man and working against a “Soviet dictatorship that was put up in Angola.”

Manafort added that in the Philippines he helped a “transition,” and in Kiev worked to bring Ukraine into Europe. “And we did,” he told Fox.

Manafort helped Yanukovych fine tune his image by softening his pro-Russia rhetoric albeit as he was accused of creeping authoritarianism and while Ukraine dropped in global ratings for press freedom.

He was credited with Yanukovych making more effort to win votes in the Ukrainian-speaking west, away from his traditional Russian-leaning heartland, and with giving speeches in Ukrainian instead of Russian.

Yet his ties with the former Ukrainian president, today exiled in Russia, have come under the microscope as Trump defends Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and calls for a reset in relations with Moscow.

The head of Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau, Artem Sytnyk, said this week that more than $12 million was earmarked for payment to Manafort from 2007 to 2012, although it was not clear if he received the money.

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Manafort denies any wrongdoing, saying he had “never received a single ‘off-the books cash payment,’” or worked for the governments of Ukraine or Russia.

His position on team Trump marks his return to Republican presidential politics after 20 years — he was reportedly considered but rejected in 2008 by John McCain, allegedly alarmed in part over his Yanukovych ties.

He joined in March, as an efficient, professional insider tasked with making sure that Trump won the necessary number of party delegates, but quickly replaced Corey Lewandowski as manager in April.

Manafort is married, and reportedly divides his time between Virginia, Florida and New York, where he has an apartment in Trump Tower.

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