The technical term for what we do and what law firms, associations and professional groups do is lobbying. For purposes of today, I will admit that in a narrow sense, some people might term it influence peddling,” Paul Manafort admitted in 1989, when he testified regarding his role in a Reagan-era scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Throughout his long career as a Republican Party fixer and influence peddler on behalf of what the Center for Public Integrity termed “the torture lobby”—a global cadre of dictators and strongmen who wanted to make sure the United States did not hold them to account—Manafort has been one of most troublesome creatures in the Washington “swamp” that Donald Trump decried as a presidential contender. Yet Manafort has also worked, from the 1980s on, for his client “Donald”—the New York billionaire who relied on Manafort to help clear hurdles for gambling and real-estate endeavors.
When “Donald” ran for the Republican presidential nomination, he needed influence peddlers to help him close the deal and organize a functional party convention in Cleveland. So he brought in the torture lobbyist and his associate Rick Gates to manage the campaign.
Manafort managed things for several months, while Gates remained on the Trump team as a key figure in the campaign, the transition process, and the planning of the new president’s inauguration. Manafort also maintained a relationship with “Donald,” reportedly continuing to talk with his longtime associate through the remainder of the campaign and into the transition process.
Now that Manafort and Gates have been indicted on 12 counts of money laundering involving at least $18 million, setting up secret overseas bank accounts through which $75 million flowed, lying to federal authorities, and operating as unregistered foreign agents for the government of a Ukrainian leader who is linked with the Russians, and now that it has been revealed that George Papadopoulos (a foreign-policy adviser to Trump who urged the candidate meet with Russian officials) has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, the word from the White House is that Trump barely knows these guys and that the indictments by special counsel Robert Mueller have focused on figures who had only “limited” contact with the Trump team.
That sounds like the sort of “I-know-nothing” spin that Manafort counseled his clients to employ back in the day when he was working for the cruelest—and most criminal—dictators in the world. They should be recognized as the self-serving lies that they are.
Trump led the lying project with Monday-morning tweets that announced, first, “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” and, second, “Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
The truth is that Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign was not “limited.” It was definitional. When Manafort was in charge of making sure that the Republican platform-writing process and convention went smoothly, the party suddenly became dramatically friendlier to Russia—to such an extent that the headline on an analysis piece published in The Washington Post just before the convention read: “Trump campaign guts GOP’s anti-Russia stance on Ukraine.”
There will be many attempts to deny and dissemble. But one thing is certain: Manafort definitely put one man in the West Wing of the White House (and the adjoining Eisenhower Executive Office Building): Mike Pence.
It was Manafort who brought Pence, the scandal-plagued and politically vulnerable governor of Indiana, who had backed Texas Senator Ted Cruz in that state’s Republican primary, into consideration as a vice-presidential prospect for Trump. Referring to Trump, Manafort explained last summer that “I brought him in to meet Pence.” That manipulation, said Manafort, fostered the notion that Pence “had value to Trump as a potential VP nominee.”
But the Manafort-Pence connection was about more than just introducing Trump to a Republican stalwart the fixer had known for many years. Veteran Republican strategist John Weaver says, “Remember, Manafort selected the VP and was therefore the most important person on the campaign team.”
Most indications going into the 2016 Republican National Convention were that Trump wanted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to be his running mate, and that Christie was ready to take the gig.
But, according a CBS report on the negotiations, “Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager at the time, allegedly had another idea in mind.”
The report explained that
Manafort had arranged for Trump to meet with his first choice for the job on July 13: Indiana Governor Mike Pence. Afterwards, the plans was for Trump and Pence to then fly back to New York together and a formal announcement would be made, a campaign source said of Manafort’s thinking:
What had previously been reported as a “lucky break” by the New York Times was actually a swift political maneuver devised by the now fired campaign manager. Set on changing Trump’s mind, he concocted a story that Trump’s plane had mechanical problems, forcing the soon-to-be Republican nominee to stay the night in Indianapolis for breakfast with the Pence family on Wednesday morning.
Swayed by Pence’s aggressive pitch, Trump agreed to ditch Christie and make Pence his VP the following day, according to a source.
It should be understood that Manafort had allies, especially Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was in the anyone-but-Christie camp because the New Jerseyan had, as a federal prosecutor, sent Kushner’s dad to jail.
But the Manafort-Pence connection ought not be underestimated. Indeed, when CNN reported in December that Manafort had“reemerged as a player in the fight to shape the new administration,” the network explained that “with Pence firmly entrenched in Trump’s inner circle…Manafort—who keeps a home in Trump Tower—has a direct line to top decision-makers.”
Pence ran the transition team, which populated the Trump administration with scandalous figures who have been accused of serious wrongdoing, including ousted White House national-security adviser Mike Flynn. After Flynn exited the administration under a cloud, Pence adopted his own “I-know-nothing” stance. But then it was revealed that Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, had informed Pence in a November 18, 2016, letter that he was concerned about ethical issues that could arise from “Lt. Gen. Flynn’s involvement in advising Mr. Trump on matters relating to Turkey or Russia—including attending classified briefings on those matters…”
Cummings said Pence and the transition team had “17 or 20 red lights” regarding Flynn, yet Flynn got security post.
There is a fantasy that suggests that Mike Pence is a mere spectator—and an ignorant one, at that—when it comes to the scandals associated with the Trump campaign, the Trump transition, and the Trump administration. That has never been true. Pence has often been at or near the center of things. And, as attention turns toward Manafort, it must also turn toward Pence.
That does not mean that Vice President Pence’s connections, statements, and actions are of more concern that those of President Trump. But it does mean that Trump will not be the only member of the 2016 Republican ticket who faces serious scrutiny in 2017 and beyond.
John NicholsTWITTERJohn Nichols is The Nation’s national-affairs correspondent. He is the author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, from Nation Books, and co-author, with Robert W. McChesney,