Paul Manafort has guided dictators and strongmen – but can he handle Donald Trump?
Recent reports suggest that Manafort has become frustrated with Trump’s undisciplined style and unwillingness to stay on message
Political consultant Paul Manafort was so famous in Ukraine for helping elect president Viktor Yanukovych that when strategist Roger Stone arrived years later to counsel another aspiring politician, the candidate – Stone says – gave him the once over and asked: “So, you are our Manafort?”
A legendary figure in Washington, Manafort has spent a career guiding powerful politicians to office.
As a young Republican, he worked for Ronald Reagan. Later, Manafort advised some of the world’s most notorious figures, including Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Angola guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi.
His experience in guiding strong-willed men with big egos and overpowering personalities should serve him well in his role managing Donald Trump’s campaign. But some are beginning to wonder whether this time Manafort may have met his match.
Taking on Trump offers a second act for a man who was a leading player in Republican circles.
Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly – the firm he operated in the 1980s with Stone, Democrat Peter Kelly and Charlie Black, another long-time adviser to former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – was known for its hard-charging political and business lobbying. Trump was one of Stone’s clients.
The firm has long since disbanded, and Manafort hasn’t run a US election campaign for years. When he was brought in during spring, some younger Republicans scoffed at his re-emergence.
At the time, though, it became clear Trump needed a course correction to salvage his unpredictable rise. He had been losing ground in the bitter primary battle and Manafort was seen as a skilled strategist who could steer Trump through what looked like it might be a dicey nominating contest.
The veteran strategist quickly got to work. Campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was abruptly fired, and Manafort took over the seeming impossible job of trying to keep Trump on script.
“Manafort’s pretty good at looking around corners – what’s going to happen,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the US Chamber of Commerce, who was groomed by Manafort during Reagan’s 1984 re-election run. “This guy’s one of the most competitive guys I know.”
At 67, Manafort now finds himself in a younger man’s game. He has appeared tired at times, bags under his eyes, his tailored image sometimes undone by the need for a haircut.
Recent reports suggest that Manafort has become frustrated with Trump’s undisciplined style and unwillingness to stay on message. But some close to Manafort downplay such concerns.
“I’ve talked to him,” said Black. “Presidential campaigns are the Super Bowl and to have a chance to run one [is] a big deal for him.”
Others believe there may be a tipping point when the veteran pro has had enough.
“I can’t imagine Paul Manafort just sitting back, going over the cliff with Donald Trump,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who works as a political consultant and is not a Trump supporter.
But allies warn against underestimating Manafort. Stone recalled his own 1977 run for chairman of the Young Republicans, a national federation of political groups. He faced a tough challenger from Chicago and Manafort set out to have a chat with the opponent over dinner. He returned saying he had persuaded the candidate to join Stone’s slate – as running mate.
Manafort and Stone went on to help elect Reagan in 1980 – with Manafort leading a Southern strategy focused on turning white working-class Democrats into Republicans, an effort Trump’s campaign is trying to duplicate.
“He is an extremely tough guy,” Stone said. “He’s not a quitter. He’s a fighter. He realises this is a long game.”