In order to stave off the possibility of a brokered convention this year, Donald Trump has hired Paul J. Manafort, a veteran political operative and lobbyist who helped Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan clinch their nominations at past conventions.
In a way, Trump’s choice of Manafort is fitting: not only is he a veteran of Republican campaigns, but also of helping dictators and others with fascist leanings. He even is likely responsible for protracting civil war in Angola.
After helping steer Reagan to victory, Manafort and other campaign veterans, including one Democrat, capitalized on the new-found access by forming the lobbying and campaign consulting firm of Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly.
While the firm had some run-of-the-mill clients, like Aetna, it also represented unsavory characters. Namely, a laundry list of brutal leaders, including one aspiring despot.
That includes the government of Somalia under Mohamed Siad Barre, the “president” of Somalia for 21 years, starting with a 1969 military coup. Barre outlawed all political parties, and dissolved the state constitution, parliament, and supreme court, establishing in their place a hybrid Marxist-Islamic state. His reign was marked by massive suppression of opposition, prompting Human Rights Watch in 1990 to conclude, “It is difficult to overstate the Somali government’s brutality towards its own people, or to measure the impact of its murderous policies.”
Another client was Jonas Savimbi, an Angolan guerrilla leader of the faction UNITA who frequently tried to take charge of Angola’s government through both violent and peaceful means. Among other things, the firm orchestrated multiple DC visits by Savimbi to cultivate an image as a well-dressed, democracy-loving freedom fighter. One visit alone included expenses such as “$76,491 for limousines, $13,675 for photography and $216,186 for lodging at the Grand Hotel and the Waldorf-Astoria.”
“What the firm achieved was quickly dubbed ‘Savimbi chic,’” said Time in 1989.
Although the firm helped Savimbi become a darling of American conservatives because he was attempting to topple the Marxist regime, nevertheless Savimbi at other times endorsed Maoism when wooing China. (Perhaps he was taking whatever stance he needed at a given time to receive outside help.) Still, US aid allowed Savimbi to wage a protracted civil war in Angola that likely would have ended earlier were it not for Manafort’s firm.
Although the reality was that Savimbi was probably not so much a freedom-loving revolutionary as he was someone looking for any channel to take control of the country for himself.
“A realisation began to dawn that Unita was two movements,” wrote British journalist Richard Dowden in 1992. “Outside Africa it was a besuited political movement talking democracy and freedom and fighting Communism, led by a fluent and charismatic ‘Doctor’. In Angola it was a vicious dictatorship bent on getting to power with whatever allies it could find.”
Yet another Manafort client was Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whose authoritarian regime brutally ruled the country for over three decades, while he and his allies helped themselves to the country’s wealth. Mobutu purged political opponents, even holding high profile executions in front of thousands.
In fact, Manafort’s own scandal actually helped persuade Zaire’s kleptocracy to retain him. When the firm was scrutinized for having lobbied for a client to gain an unscrupulous HUD contract, a Mobutu regime member remarked, “That only shows how important they are!”
Also turning to Manafort was Nigeria’s Ibrahim Babangida, a general who took power in a 1985 coup. Babangida engaged in repression, including being suspected of killing a government critic with a letter bomb.
Manafort’s firm also represented Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, another autocrat who brutally repressed his critics and helped himself to the country’s wealth.
And yet another client was Equatorial Guinea, which has been ruled by dictator Teodoro Obiang since he took power in a 1979 coup. Obiang – to the surprise of no one – reportedly engages in repression of dissent and taking the lion’s share of the country’s oil revenue. A state radio show once proclaimed that he is in constant contact with God, and that “He can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell because it is God himself…who gives him this strength.”
Still another client was Daniel arap Moi, the president of Kenya who quelled dissent and had a special torture chamber. Although he at least earned some pro-democracy credentials by eventually allowing elections and stepping down voluntarily.
The firm’s reputation for representing dictators earned them the dubious distinction of ranking fourth on the Center for Public Integrity’s list of the “Torturer’s Lobby.”
A Republican staffer had blunt words on Manafort’s firm: “Their view is, ‘To hell with the facts, fuck the world.’”
Charlie Black, a co-founder of the firm, defended his work by pointing out that all foreign clients had been cleared with the State Department, and that they would only do work with foreign governments that acted in the interest of the US. Black noted that the firm severed its relationships with Mobutu and Marcos. And one could make the argument that everyone, fascists included, deserves to have representation and tell their side of the story.
More recently, Manafort was instrumental in advising Viktor Yanukovych’s ascent to the office of prime minister of Ukraine in 2006. Yanukovych, who lost a do-over presidential race in 2004 after accusations of fraud invalidated his initial win, has traditionally supported close ties to Russia. He and his party, Party of the Region, have been accused of being a front for Russia and Russia-linked oligarchs.
Upon Yanukovych’s victory, one Ukrainian newswire lamented, “Revolution is reversed with a little spin from the west.”
Yanukovych became president in 2010, again with the help of Manafort, and in 2013 rejected the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement in favor of closer ties to Russia, which prompted protests in Kiev’s Independence Square. He responded to the protesters with riot police. By 2014, he also spearheaded new anti-protest laws, which critics called “dictatorship laws,” but faced so much international criticism that 9 out of 10 were quickly scrapped. Not long after that he fled the country and is now in exile in Russia.
Trump, therefore, has fitting company when it comes to people who have tapped Paul Manafort for help. Manafort, in turn, has experience with a client base that will complement the Trump campaign quite well. Indeed, getting Trump one step closer to the White House rings true with the motto of “fuck the world.”
And no, this is not to say that Donald Trump is another dictator in Manafort’s long list of clients. Because that would be an insult to all the hard work dictators do to maintain and hold onto power: it takes a lot more than fascist demagoguery to rule a country with an iron fist.