Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, had a message to deliver.
“Hillary Clinton is the epitome of the establishment; she’s been in power for 25 years,” he informed Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday.
When Trump, Manafort added, “says he’s going to bring real change to the country, voters believe him – unlike Mrs. Clinton, who has been saying that for 25 years and in those 25 years, the only changes that have happened have made people’s lives worse.”
But then, at the tail end of the interview, Manafort slipped when discussing evangelicals’ support for Trump. “In my 40 years in politics, I have never seen such a broad-based base of support within that community for one candidate.”
Forty years in politics? But it’s Clinton’s 25 years that make her the “establishment”?
If that weren’t enough, Manafort was giving the interview from the Hamptons – playground of the Eastern elite.
This is the hypocrisy at the heart of the Trump campaign, now under Manafort’s undisputed control. Manafort’s inspiration, which Trump has embraced, is to portray Clinton as the embodiment of the establishment. But Manafort (not unlike Trump) has been the voice of the wealthy and the well-connected for four decades, building a fortune by making common cause with the world’s most avaricious.
Among Manafort’s boasts: representing kleptocrats Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko and Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi, defending Saudi Arabia’s interests against Israel’s and Pakistan’s against India’s, and making the case for a Nigerian dictator, a Lebanese arms dealer and various and sundry Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. He successfully lobbied to arm a Maoist rebel in Angola, needlessly extending fighting that killed thousands.
It’s Manafort’s right to represent dictators and thugs and regimes that torture. He has, for decades, helped autocrats who battle human rights and democracy. But now this man is setting up a general-election campaign that portrays Trump as a man of the people and Clinton as the captive of special interests.
Manafort has been widely credited with last week’s speech by Trump laying out his general-election theme: that Clinton is the defender of the big-money interests and the “rigged” economy.
“Hillary Clinton has perfected the politics of personal profit and even theft. She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund, doing favors for oppressive regimes,” Trump argued. “Hillary Clinton wants to bring in people who believe women should be enslaved and gays put to death. … Hillary Clinton may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States.”
And the man who led Trump to deliver such accusations? Here’s what my Washington Post colleagues Steven Mufson and Tom Hamburger reported in April:
“In one case, Manafort tried unsuccessfully to build a luxury high-rise in Manhattan with money from a billionaire backer of a Ukrainian president whom he had advised.
“In another deal, real estate records show that Manafort took out and later repaid a $250,000 loan from a Middle Eastern arms dealer at the center of a French inquiry into whether kickbacks were paid … ”
“And in another business venture, a Russian aluminum magnate has accused Manafort in a Cayman Islands court of taking nearly $19 million intended for investments, then failing to account for the funds.”
Manafort has been a paragon of the Washington Republican establishment for two generations, working on Gerald Ford’s re-election in 1976 before helping Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. He started two lobbying firms, and he has used his contacts in attempts to enrich himself. His lobbying firm recruited veterans of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, then lobbied for $43 million in subsidies for a housing project, while holding an option to buy a stake in the project.
Manafort is steeped in the racial politics Trump has exploited. As Franklin Foer writes for Slate, Manafort ran Reagan’s Southern operation in 1980; the candidate kicked off his general election campaign outside Philadelphia, Miss., scene of the murder of civil rights activists in 1964. Manafort later became a business partner of Lee Atwater, who gained fame for Bush’s Willie Horton campaign in 1988.
Introduced to Trump by Roy Cohn, lawyer to Joe McCarthy, Manafort helped Trump fight Indian casinos by alleging that the Native Americans had a crime problem; Trump and his associates paid a $250,000 fine after secretly funding advertisements besmirching the Indians.
Now Trump is engaged in a campaign to portray Clinton as the candidate of the establishment. Fair enough. But the man leading this effort spent a much longer career benefiting the wealthy and powerful, including Trump, at the expense of the poor and weak. That’s rich.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.