Paul Manafort is out. The Trump campaign’s embattled national chairman resigned last Friday after his connections to Ukraine’s pro-Putin Party of Regions became too much for the campaign to handle. The nature of Manafort’s relationship with the party, especially its leader and former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, had been at the center of public scrutiny for well over a month. In a fast-paced and highly contentious election campaign, the controversy surrounding Manafort managed to break through the 24-hour news cycle.
Manafort’s extensive activities in Eastern Europe have their origins in the chaotic aftermath of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. The election pitted pro-Europe candidate Viktor Yushchenko against Yanukovych, then the incumbent prime minister and an advocate of closer ties to Russia. In a runoff election he was widely expected to lose, Yanukovych was declared on election night to have won the race by a small but significant margin. But the election was far from over. International observers raised serious questions about the reliability of the election results, pointing to voter intimidation campaigns and widespread problems with polling stations; 25 European countries recalled their ambassadors from Kiev in protest. Then came the bombshell. Viktor Yushchenko announced that his doctors had discovered traces of TCDD—the main dioxin component in Agent Orange—in his bloodstream. Yushchenko’s enemies had been trying to kill him before he could win.
Protests broke out across Ukraine. Kiev came to a standstill as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators packed into the city’s central Independence Square, demanding free elections and an end to what they perceived as Russian interference in Ukraine’s affairs. After several months of civil unrest, later referred to as the Orange Revolution, the country’s highest court annulled the election results and set a date for new elections. In a rematch that was the subject of intense international scrutiny, Yushchenko, still recovering from the effects of the poison he had unknowingly ingested, defeated Yanukovych by an eight-point margin. Ukraine’s pro-Europe faction had won a decisive victory.
But the seeds of Yanukovych’s comeback had already been planted. In the weeks leading up to the second election, the Yanukovych campaign had recruited an outside expert to salvage the situation: Paul Manafort, at that point a well-connected if obscure American lobbyist with significant experience in high-stakes foreign elections. But Manafort had little interest in trying to win what was clearly an unwinnable race; he was in it for the long game. Between 2004 and 2010, Manafort spent considerable time in Ukraine advising Yanukovych and his Party of Regions allies on political strategy, laying the groundwork for Yanukovych’s successful 2010 presidential campaign. In the process Manafort and Yanukovych became close friends, meeting to discuss Yanukovych’s health and even playing regular tennis matches. The friendship came with benefits—a payment ledger recently discovered in Kiev’s abandoned Party of Regions headquarters showed upwards of $12.7 million assigned to Manafort in compensation. The payment was to be given out in cash.
Back in the United States after the Euromaidan—Ukraine’s 2015 pro-Europe uprising—forced Yanukovych’s flight from Kiev, Manafort fought his way to the top of the Trump campaign. For a time it seemed that he would be as impervious to media criticism and intra-party bickering as his ironclad boss. But both men’s fortunes have since fallen, Manafort’s more precipitously. The fallout from the secret Kiev ledger even succeeded in wrestling media coverage from Trump himself, no small feat given the candidate in discussion. Manafort had clearly become a liability. After Trump brought Roger Ailes and former Breitbart executive Stephen Bannon into key leadership positions, Manafort could see the writing on the wall.
So far, coverage of the Trump-Manafort saga has focused almost exclusively on the latter’s involvement in Ukraine. But a closer examination of Manafort’s career reveals a disturbing pattern. Yanukovych was far from the first authoritarian leader Manafort worked for—and certainly not the worst.
In 1989, well over a decade before his work for Yanukovych, Manafort had made a name for himself in the lobbying world as Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s point man in Washington. After nearly thirty years at the helm of his country, the erratic Mobutu, once the darling of anticommunist conservatives the world over, was finding himself increasingly at odds with his former American allies. Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was run as a despotic kleptocracy, with Mobutu looting billions of dollars from the country’s treasuries to construct lavish palaces for himself and his family. The results were disastrous. Millions starved. Mobutu’s reign was becoming increasingly difficult for even the most devout practitioners of Cold War realpolitik to justify. But in Paul Manafort the dictator saw the beginnings of a public relations comeback. Looking right back at Mobutu, Manafort saw a seven-figure yearly retainer fee.
Mobutu wasn’t the only one. Going through a list of Manafort’s clients is like looking at an international rogues’ gallery. Four months ago, in the aftermath of Manafort’s assent to the leadership of the Trump campaign, The Guardian published an account of Manafort’s recent business partners, a list that included Egyptian arms dealers, former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and an American front group for the Pakistani secret service.
Now the FBI has turned its gaze on Manafort, questioning whether his former firm, the Podesta Group, engaged with corrupt entities in Ukraine. Manafort deserves the attention; he profited from one of Europe’s last dictatorships, and enabled significant human rights abuses. But focusing on Manafort alone runs the risk of ignoring the far greater political forces at work. The influence of foreign lobbies and related pressure groups in Washington cannot go ignored.
At least on paper, the largest of these groups is the Americans for Israel Public Affairs Committee, a massive lobbying group that spends tens of millions of dollars a year to secure American support for the Israeli government. But AIPAC is not alone, and in many ways is a separate phenomenon; AIPAC has no official ties to Israel’s government, is not registered as a foreign organization, and spends all of its money out in the open. Many countries, however, do employ networks of registered foreign agents in the American capital, and do so in complicated ways; take, for example, what a recent Politico article called “Putin’s Washington,” a web of lobbyists, think tanks, and, at the highest levels, elected officials sympathetic to the political and foreign policy goals of the Kremlin. The network’s total value is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the Saudi government has spent nearly $100 million on American lobbying in the last decade of this century, leading some observers to call Saudi Prince Bandar the “23rd member” of the Bush cabinet. The so-called “Turkish lobby” regularly spends tens of millions advocating for causes relevant to Turkey’s international position. The lobby’s influence is felt most strongly whenever the issue of the Armenian genocide comes up.
Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex remains as relevant to our times as it was in 1960. But even as the political clout and power of the American armed forces remains without parallel in Washington, another “complex” looms large as a distinct threat to the integrity of our democratic government. America’s unprecedented global influence has brought armies of lobbyists in the service of foreign governments—some friendly, some nominally neutral, and others overtly hostile—into the highest corridors of power in Washington. Manafort is just the tip of the iceberg.