The word collusion probably won’t come up in the Alexandria, Virginia, courtroom where Paul Manafort sweats out much of this and the next few weeks. It’s possible, too, that Donald Trump won’t be mentioned, at least not often.
But make no mistake: Manafort’s trial on bank- and tax-fraud charges, stemming from political consulting in Ukraine that predates his stint with Trump’s 2016 campaign, has plenty to do with the president and plenty of potential to hurt him.
That’s not just because Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is tightening the screws on Manafort in the hope – apparently futile so far – of extracting unrelated evidence against Trump. It’s because Manafort is such a gilded, sordid reminder of the company that Trump keeps and of how he sees and navigates the world. They’re like-spirited plutocrats. Fellow plunderers.
As prosecutors lay out their case against Manafort, jurors will hear about a man whose vanity and thirst for splendor eclipsed any discretion about whom he joined forces with, where he had to travel to consort with them and how he conducted his business. Sound like any real estate tycoon you know?
They'll learn that in order to amass as much and live as large as he did, Manafort contrived ways to beat the system and fatten his winnings. Rules were for chumps who didn’t have manses, suits, trinkets and gadgets like his, or so his thinking apparently went. I’m acquainted with that philosophy, and so are you. It’s shared by a certain orangey blowhard with aggressive lawsuits, convenient bankruptcies, stiffed creditors and phony philanthropy in his past.
You could argue that yoking Trump to Manafort isn’t fair, because Manafort also worked for other presidents and was officially employed by Trump’s campaign for all of five months. My response would be: Michael Cohen.
He and Trump were entwined for more than a decade. And he’s another piece of amoral work: a dubiously gifted lawyer who secretly taped clients; a profane guardian of Trump’s image who threatened detractors with intense pain and utter destruction; a smarmy fixer who used hush money to cover Trump’s erotic tracks; an indefatigable scammer who sought to sell his access to the president to the highest bidders, domestic and foreign.
A detailed report in The Times last May explored – or, rather, marveled at – Cohen’s shadowy financial deals, the riches that mystically materialized for him and the strange turns of his career. Strangest to me was that he “at some point began carrying a licensed pistol in an ankle holster.” I suppose that’s how all the smart thugs keep their guns from ruining the silhouettes of their suits.
Politicians before Trump have mingled with unsavory types, elevating the practical benefit above the reputational cost. Presidents before him have groomed attack dogs and invited swine and vultures in the door. But Trump’s bestiary is different. More feral. More rabid. Mangier.
The newspaper publisher to whom Trump is closest is David Pecker of the National Enquirer. Manafort took the reins of Trump’s campaign from Corey (“womp womp”) Lewandowski, mocker of caged migrants and yanker of a female journalist’s arm.
Such model citizens as Rob Goldstone and Sam Nunberg flitted around the operation, while such moral touchstones as Roger Ailes and Roger Stone muttered advice from the sidelines. Hovering over them all was the ghost of Roy Cohn. Trump met and courted the legendarily despicable lawyer early on – and idolized him. When it came to ethics, Cohn was Trump’s poster boy.
Trump attracts pillagers, braggarts, hacks. They’re in his past, his present, his family, his Cabinet. They confuse wealth with merit, glitter with character, and they’re all about fast lanes and short cuts, which is to say that they’re reflections of him.
Manafort is the mirror extraordinaire. He made his fortune by holding his nose. His Washington lobbying and consulting firm represented what Betsy Woodruff and Tim Mak of The Daily Beast described as “a rogue’s gallery of clients far away from D.C.’s genteel corridors of power: dictators, guerrilla groups and despots with no regard for human rights — including one man responsible for mass amputations and another who oversaw state-sanctioned rape.”
Mueller filed court papers on Monday alleging that Manafort made more than $60 million consulting for pro-Russia politicians and political parties in Ukraine. To avoid taxes, he funneled the money illegally through offshore accounts, according to the criminal charges against him. That helped pay for a lavish wardrobe of custom suits, a dazzling collection of multimillion-dollar properties, such home improvements as a waterfall and a putting green, three Range Rovers (which are British-made, last I checked) and a Mercedes-Benz (German).
So much for America First. He always put himself and his prodigious appetites first. That was the secret of his prosperity until it was the recipe for his doom. Trump has much the same disposition. Time will tell if he meets the same fate.