For American political consultants abroad, Manafort a cautionary tale

Monday's indictment of Paul Manafort, to which he and an associate have pleaded not guilty, has reverberated throughout the specialized world of US political consultants working in foreign countries.

Alex Brandon/AP
Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign manager, leaves federal district court in Washington after pleading not guilty to felony charges of conspiracy against the United States and other counts.

The indictment of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager, has sent shock waves through Washington – and through the world of American political consultants who work in foreign elections.

It is a world of talented political operatives from both parties who demonstrate skill in the American arena, and then parlay that into at-times lucrative opportunities abroad. Some work primarily to help ideological brethren and, in countries with less-developed democratic systems, spread American ideals of governance. For others, it’s a way to cash in big-time on a well-polished reputation. Some manage to do both.

Viewed broadly, the field of American political consulting abroad represents an ever-shrinking planet, where global markets beckon. And in some ways, the case of Mr. Manafort – charged Monday in federal court with money-laundering, tax fraud, and illegal lobbying – is a cautionary tale. Manafort and associate Richard Gates, charged in the same indictment, pleaded not guilty.

“Where Manafort goes off the rails, is that he became this consigliere to this Russian puppet in Ukraine,” says Adam Sheingate, author of the book “Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy.” “I can’t think of any other political consultant doing that.”

Not only did Manafort advise Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian-backed politician in Ukraine who is now in exile in Russia, he also got involved in investment projects with Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. According to published reports, Manafort was also hired by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to promote Russian interests in Europe and the United States.

The Manafort indictment is focused on the consultant’s business dealings, which began long before he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, and included dealings with prominent Democrats such as the Clinton-allied Podesta Group. It does not shine light on allegations of collaboration during the campaign between Trump associates and the Russian government – a main charge of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Principally, Manafort’s is a case of alleged financial misdeeds. Another former Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, has pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about the timing and nature of his contacts with foreign nationals with Kremlin ties.

Manafort entered the Trump campaign already an outsize figure – one who had burst onto the political scene in 1976 with his work at the Republican convention for President Gerald Ford. In the 1980s, he pioneered the new field of foreign political consulting. Through it all, he had a reputation for wheeling and dealing, and a taste for luxury.

Many have asked why Trump hired Manafort in the first place. The short answer, according to news reports, is that he came recommended by two Trump friends – businessman Thomas Barrack and the flamboyant political consultant Roger Stone, a former business partner of Manafort’s.

Regardless, in hiring Manafort, Trump also effectively bought any baggage the storied consultant had. And in so doing, Trump demonstrated the risk of being a political novice, suddenly playing in the highest-stakes election on the planet.

Mr. Yanukovych, the Russian-backed former Ukrainian president, isn’t the only controversial foreign leader Manafort has worked for. Over the years, he also lobbied for Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Jonas Savimbi of Angola.

His client list brings to mind another controversial Washington lobbyist, the late Edward Von Kloberg, who also specialized in representing dictators – President Mobutu, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Samuel Doe of Liberia, and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania.

Picking clients carefully

To most top-tier US political advisers, of both parties, this type of business model is anathema. One Republican consultant who sometimes works abroad talks about picking his clients carefully.

“I think it all, quite frankly, comes down to the individuals,” says the Republican, speaking not for attribution. “I shy away from negative campaigns and candidates who run that way in the US, let alone overseas.”

For Stanley Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster and also a pioneer in international political consulting, the choice of clients is centered on political philosophy.

“We are very serious about working for pro-Western, pro-Europe parties that don’t conflict with American interests,” says Mr. Greenberg, who did work for former South African President Nelson Mandela, and is a regular in British and Israeli elections.

When the country in question already falls firmly in the Western camp, consultants from the same party can find themselves in competition. That happened in 2015, when David Axelrod and Jim Messina, both top political strategists for President Barack Obama, faced off in the British election.

Mr. Messina, who worked for then-Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, took some good-natured ribbing. The competition also showed how consultants market their skills: Messina focused on data analytics, while Mr. Axelrod’s role with Labour was more about messaging and strategy.

In the Manafort case, partisan affiliation also seemed to take a back seat when lucrative opportunities arose. Monday’s indictment refers to Manafort soliciting two companies to lobby on behalf of the Ukrainian government. One of those companies is reportedly the Podesta Group, a high-profile firm started by Democrats Tony Podesta and his brother John, a former top aide to President Obama and the Clintons. Tony resigned from the firm on Monday, and John left in 1993.

Foreign consulting work is often far from a top-dollar enterprise. Robert Shrum, a presidential campaign adviser to Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, did consulting work in Britain, Israel, and Colombia; he says his overseas business was never a major profit center. In 1989, while working for the British Labour Party, he made $1,000 a day.

“It was not a hugely lucrative endeavor,” says Mr. Shrum, now director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. But “it was fascinating … and it went to the heart of things that I believed in.”

'International lobbying is the Wild West'

According to the indictment, some $75 million flowed through off-shore accounts set up by Manafort. Shrum says he’s “stunned by the amount of money they’re talking about here.”

Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant based in Austin, Texas, and Washington, doesn’t think the sums Manafort made say much about consulting. “I just think it says a lot about Paul Manafort,” he says.

“International lobbying is the Wild West. It’s not policed very effectively,” he says. “It would be very good for international lobbying and consulting to be far more overseen by authorities, and if that’s a byproduct for Manafort and Podesta, that would be a good thing for the country.”

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