The Paul Manafort Trial Reveals the Truth About Lobbyists

When potential clients crossed the threshold into his dark and paneled office not far from the White House, Clark Clifford would give them a little speech. Yes, he told them, he could offer them his “extensive knowledge of how to deal with the government on your problems.” And certainly he could give them “advice on how best to present your position to various departments.”

But, he said: “If you want influence, you should consider going elsewhere.”

Clifford served as Harry Truman’s closest aide for five years, and when he quit the White House and set up his own law firm, he refused to call himself a lobbyist, much less a man of influence. He protested when others applied such terms to him, and as he grew in stature and years they didn’t dare. With his patrician air and elegant suits and the wing tips that shone like the finish on a limousine, he was a lawyer, a counselor, an adviser, a “wise man,” who occasionally, almost as a courtesy, might agree to guide his clients through the labyrinths of the capital and offer a word here or there to one appropriate official or another. But lobbying? “Lobbyist,” in Clifford’s day, was a vulgarity. You might as well call Caruso a crooner.

Thus it came as a shock to many people when, towards the end of his career, federal prosecutors revealed in court filings that not only was Clifford a lobbyist, he was a crook too. He was charged with fraud, conspiracy, taking bribes, and lying to investigators in a shady bank deal. Because of his age the charges were eventually set aside, and Clifford was allowed to retire, a relic from another age, protesting his innocence until his death, at 91, in 1998.

Clifford’s indictment in the early nineties coincided with the period when Paul Manafort began to make real money, as people in his line of work say. I like to think of the coincidence as a passing of the baton, from one generation, one era, to the next. Mana­fort too had worked for a great president, Ronald Reagan, though at a much more distant remove than Clifford’s intimacy with Truman. Still, enough of the presidential aura ­lingered to intoxicate the pigeons who gathered at the threshold of his townhouse in
Alexandria, Virginia.

Manafort specialized in overseas clients. We used to call them kleptocrats: tyrants with large, mysterious bank accounts and zero scruples in dealing with domestic rivals. Nigeria gave his firm $1 million in 1991, Kenya came across with $660,000 a year later, the Philippines gave another million, and so on. These dollar figures were obtained at the time by the Center for Public Integrity and published in a report titled, with the understatement typical of good-government groups, “The Torturers’ Lobby.” If you include fees Manafort received from a Maoist rebel group in Angola, these clients alone brought him more than $3 million from 1991 to 1992—close to $6 million in today’s dollars.

What did Manafort do for his money? All his clients, notwithstanding their abysmal human rights records, received foreign aid from the U.S. government. They wanted more. They hired Manafort to help them get more. Having more, they could in the future afford (among other things) to pay Manafort more to get the U.S. government to give them still more. Registering as a foreign lobbyist, he described his services like this: “participation in the development and implementation of a strategy to aid in the procurement of foreign assistance.” Over time, like many of his peers, Manafort simply stopped registering as a foreign lobbyist and went about his work unmolested. A dirty job, yes, but somebody had to do it.

Before too long, though, it no longer looked like a dirty job, at least in the judgment of permanent Washington, which fattened right along with the swelling fees to Manafort and his
contemporaries. Democrats and Repub­licans alike joined in—the firm of Frank Mankiewicz, a faithful Democrat beatified from his days working with Robert Kennedy, received $14 million from blood-caked governments in 1991 and 1992. Soon political consultants of both parties were winging their way to the emerging “democracies” of Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, hiring themselves out to befuddled beginners, bagging clouds of free-floating cash, and spreading their expertise like malaria. All this bipartisanship made criticism difficult: At last, Republicans and Democrats could agree on something.

From the start there’s been an insouciance to Manafort that only adds to his air of malevolence and crudity. When he was caught hoovering up federal public housing subsidies for wealthy clients in the last year of the Reagan administration, he was called before a congressional committee, which greeted him with appropriate revulsion. His testimony was one long shrug. Sure, he said: “You could characterize this as ‘influence peddling.’ ” He was proud to be a member of the noble fraternity of lobbyists, and every lobbyist in Washington seemingly felt the same.

And so it went into the new century, leading at last to the courtroom in Alexandria, where Manafort stands trial for laundering the vast sums of money he has sucked from foreign kleptocrats of a more recent vintage. The judge has disallowed evidence of the defendant’s style of life; the jury won’t be able to consider the $15,000 ostrich jacket, or the $18,000 karaoke machine, or the gluttonous, globe-spanning accumulation of real estate. It’s too bad, because Manafort’s grandiosity and his execrable taste are indicators of something more damning even than money laundering: the lobbyist’s lack of shame over the trade he has worked, legally, for 30 years.

Every now and then I pine for Clark Clifford, who had the good manners to be a hypocrite.

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