It was clear from the beginning that Paul Manafort was problematic.
When Donald Trump hired him in March 2016 to help him tamp down a delegate revolt at the Republican convention, Manafort’s distasteful associations were widely known in Washington. He hadn’t worked for an American political candidate since Bob Dole, in 1996, and he had done business with tyrants from the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos to Ukraine’s Victor Yanukovych. Less than a month after his hiring, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake declared: “Trump just hired his next scandal.”
But as an outsider candidate who upended the norms of American politics, Donald Trump had tremendous difficulty fielding political operatives willing to work on his campaign. Now, his trouble finding mainstream political operatives willing to associate themselves with his campaign is threatening to overshadow his presidency.
“Nobody wanted the job, right? Credible people weren’t working for him,” Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said of Trump. “It was like a rogue’s gallery, the political version of the island of misfit toys from the Christmas movie.”
Three of the people who were deeply involved in Trump’s campaign – Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, and foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos – have now been swept up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election. It’s unclear if others will be charged.
Manafort and Gates are accused of hiding tens of millions of dollars they were paid by the pro-Russian Ukrainian government by laundering money through corporations in the U.S. and abroad. Both have pleaded not guilty. Papadopoulos reached a plea agreement in early October on charges of lying to investigators.
From the outset of his extraordinary campaign, Trump was surrounded by neophytes and amateurs. His first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, came to him after serving as a mid-level operative at the conservative grassroots group Americans for Prosperity – and was charged with a count of misdemeanor battery during the campaign, though law enforcement officials declined to prosecute the case. After Trump was sworn into office, Lewandowski was pushed out of a lobbying firm he founded with another former Trump campaign aide after reports surfaced that he was selling access to the Trump White House.
“This is how a marginal campaign won the presidency,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “Even the people who put it over the top were marginal, but they look like giants compared to Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.”
Manafort’s hiring was doubly symbolic of the GOP’s desperation to keep Trump from seizing the nomination. Already starved of the professional political operatives who had staffed the campaigns of his primary opponents – but who were unwilling to jump on the bandwagon of the winning candidate, as is customary – the opposition to Trump’s nomination remained so strong even after he had clinched the nomination that he was facing a delegate revolt on the floor of the party convention.
Manafort, a relic who had helped Gerald Ford wrangle the delegates necessary to keep Ronald Reagan from seizing the nomination in 1976, was brought in for his expertise – and his willingness to associate with a candidate nobody else would touch.
Papadopoulos, a campaign volunteer who served as a foreign policy adviser, told campaign officials he was working with a Russian national whom he believed to be a niece of Vladimir Putin, and through whom he was working to arrange a meeting for Trump with the Russian president.
Though early resistance to Trump’s candidacy arguably pushed Trump to fall back on somebody like Manafort, who it quickly became clear posed a threat to the campaign when reports about his unsavory associations began to dominate the news cycle, the president’s incredible transformation of the Republican Party over the past 18 months means that few Republican lawmakers are breaking from him now.
Even as Mueller notched his first indictments, most Republican lawmakers had their eyes on the president – watching for whether he would move to fire Mueller, an action that would divide the party in an explosive way. Many Republicans, even those skeptical of Mueller’s efforts, consider such a move as self-defeating as Trump’s firing of former FBI director James Comey, which produced the Mueller probe in the first place.
“I think the amount of support on the Hill for Mueller [among Republicans] has declined dramatically – not that Trump should fire him, because that creates a whole different set of problems,” said one Republican congressman who has been a stalwart defender of the president.
But former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is pushing Trump to take action against Mueller, urging him in particular to defund the investigation, according to several sources familiar with Bannon’s thinking – a move that would defang Mueller without the president formally firing him. Longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone told the Daily Caller that for the president appointing another special counsel – this one to investigate an Obama-era deal that allowed a Russian-owned company to take control of about a fifth of U.S. uranium extraction capacity – was his “only chance for survival.”
The president’s lawyer, Ty Cobb, and several Republican lawmakers have repeatedly warned him against firing the special counsel. It’s something he wanted to do shortly after Mueller’s appointment by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May, according to two people close to the president – but from which he has since backed away. “He was thinking about doing it shortly after he was appointed,” said one person familiar with the president’s thinking. “He has repeatedly said, ‘I could do this but I’m not going to.’”
In the Senate, senior members of both parties have voiced support for legislation that would protect Mueller’s job. But it’s unclear whether measures introduced in August by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) will ultimately be brought to the Senate floor.
By Monday, Trump’s response to the indictments looked relatively restrained, by his standards. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to the time when the crimes outlined in the Mueller indictment were allegedly committed. “But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”
“…Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” he added.
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