WASHINGTON ― Paul Manafort looked like he was barely keeping it together at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last year.
I was with him and his wife, Kathleen, in the concrete bowels of the Quicken Loans Arena on the night of Donald Trump’s nomination.
As the crowd roared somewhere else, somewhere far away, he should have looked relaxed and happy. He had just masterminded the destruction of challenger Ted Cruz’s last bid to derail Trump ― which was the specific reason Trump had hired him.
But Manafort, then 67, instead looked tired, puffy-eyed and distracted. His wife, an attorney and career woman, had no use for Trump, and made that plain to her husband. Stories were circulating about Manafort’s ties to pro-Putin Ukrainian interests. The Trump aides he had ousted months earlier were out to get him ― and they soon enough would force him out. He seemed to sense that that was going to happen, and he was resigned.
In TV interviews, and sessions with reporters around town, his left eye drooped. His hand-made Italian suits looked ill-fitting and ragged. Whatever he had done to his hair wasn’t working.
“I’ll be glad when this is over,” he told me.
A bit more than a year later, it is.
Indicted, facing scores of years in prison and millions of dollars in back payments to the government, Manafort is facing the possibility that his five-month spin through the corrupt caravansary of Trump World will leave him just another political grifter.
I’ve known Manafort and written about him for decades To paraphrase Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront,” he could have been a contender. Or at least initially, long ago, he thought so. But his desire and need for money overwhelmed him, and at the time of the convention all the pressures of his financial history were coming to a head.
If the new federal indictment is correct, he was laundering money to buy property in the U.S. that he was then borrowing against. He had loans to pay, medical bills for his wife to deal with and daughters to support.
It was way too far from where he had started.
In 1919, Manafort’s grandfather immigrated from Naples, Italy, to America, settling ― as did lots of other European immigrants at the time ― in the bustling industrial town of New Britain, Connecticut. The family name, anglicized now, meant “strong hands,” and it was an apt description of their line of work: demolition.
“With nothing but a pickaxe and their bare hands,” Manafort told me proudly, his family had started a business that by the mid-2010s had become the “largest privately owned family business in Connecticut,” specializing in construction of new buildings.
But Paul had the political bug, bestowed upon him by his argumentative father, Paul Sr., who was a locally famous, pioneering Republican in the Nixon mold, and the GOP mayor of the Democratic town. The elder Paul hated hippies, war protesters and people who weren’t like, and didn’t look like, the white Catholic working class.
His son was more measured and ambitious. The family saved money to send young Paul ― smart, meticulous, handsome and well-spoken, with a deep baritone ― down to Washington to Georgetown University and Georgetown University Law School.
“I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” he told me once. “I wanted to build a base for politics. I would go back to Connecticut, run for Congress, then for Senate, then for president. I had it all planned.”
But his time in D.C. ― he was well known as a party guy and player ― had given him a taste for the good life, not just the good cause. Yes, he thought, office was worthy. Power was nice. But the grandson of the guy who started with an axe and his bare hands wanted cash.
When the chance came to go to Saudi Arabia to sell highway equipment to the suddenly flush Gulf Arabs, Manafort went where the money was. From the start, in 1974, he came to view himself as an international man of business no matter what else he did.
The next year he managed to get a job working for President Gerald Ford’s 1976 election campaign, which was run by the ineffably smooth James A. Baker. In Manafort, others later recalled, Baker saw a young man willing to do whatever it took to work conservatives (especially younger ones) on behalf of Ford against the insurgent Ronald Reagan. Manafort did what he was told ― and well.
“After that, I wanted to become a White House chief of staff someday,” Manafort said.
But he could never match Baker, a third-generation Houston prep school product, educated at Princeton and as subtle as silk. While Baker advised Wall Street clients, Manafort went wherever the money was, no questions asked, which meant dictators and other scuffed-up characters in need of representation and whitewashing in Washington.
He made millions upon millions, returning to “domestic” politics to practice his original expertise of handling GOP conventions. Working from yellow legal pads filled with handwritten notes, which became worshiped objects to his acolytes, Manafort was able to cajole or pressure delegates one by one to do his bidding. He knew their wants, their needs, their weaknesses, their hungers. Reporters knew whom to ask about the count. Manafort knew it cold.
Early in his career, Manafort and his business partners erased the ethical line between lobbying and political consulting, essentially electing senators they would then lobby. It hadn’t been done before, certainly not so brazenly. Manafort and his pals industrialized it so they could profit on both ends of the legislative process.
Along the way, Manafort built a life for himself, his wife and his two daughters that was equal parts Jay Gatsby and local LBJ: lots of property, life in the horsey set on Long Island, travel everywhere that was costly and fantastic ― politics secondary.
In such a world, he inevitably got to know Donald Trump, in part through their mutual friend, Lebanese-American investor Tom Barrack. For convenience and contacts, Manafort took a condo in Trump Tower, where Barrack also had a place.
And thus it was, on the suggestion of various Trump allies, including Barrack and Roger Stone, that the GOP candidate literally called upstairs to bring Manafort down to help run the campaign in March 2016.
Manafort and Trump were not close. Indeed, Trump’s circle at the time feared and despised the man upstairs, both because of his “establishment” ties and his failure to have signed up for the campaign early.
I was in Trump’s office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower one day to talk to the candidate when Manafort dropped by. The visit had the air of an interloper whom no one had sent suddenly stopping into the back room of the Bada Bing. The air got chilly. But Trump had been convinced that he needed Manafort, and Manafort saw a chance to be, if not chief of staff, then at least a bigger power player on a global stage.
Now Manafort’s long and lucrative ties to pro-Putin forces in Ukraine are part of a larger investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to influence the 2016 campaign.
And Manafort, the Baker who never was, faces the kind of ruin and humiliation that his forebears in Naples or New Britain probably could never imagine.
Manafort never spent time researching his Italian roots, he told me. He wasn’t interested. He wanted to live large and swell in America and around the world. But he had visited Italy, of course ― the fancy parts. One of his favorite places was Lake Como, specifically a famous palace of a hotel called Villa d’Este. He had once taken his wife there.
When I talked to him about it last summer, as investigations swirled around him, he sounded wistful. “Beautiful place,” he said. “Very romantic. Go there for lunch.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated James A. Baker’s job when Paul Manafort began working for him. Baker was the chief of Gerald Ford’s election campaign at the time, not Ford’s chief of staff.