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Meet Paul Manafort, The Washington Insider Running Trump's Campaign

Paul Manafort leaves the Four Seasons Hotel after a meeting with Donald Trump and Republican donors last month in New York City.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Paul Manafort leaves the Four Seasons Hotel after a meeting with Donald Trump and Republican donors last month in New York City.

Donald Trump is running for president as a Washington outsider. Yet to manage his campaign, he's picked someone who is very much a Washington insider. Paul Manafort has been a political operative and lobbyist for years, including for some controversial figures seeking to influence U.S. politics.

For a candidate who loves to rail against the Washington establishment, Donald Trump's choice seems a bit of a head-scratcher. After all, as Manafort told a congressional hearing in 1989, "the technical term for what we do and what law firms, associations and professional groups do is lobbying. For purposes of today, I will admit that in a narrow sense, some people might term it influence peddling."

Manafort was testifying about his role in a scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Reagan administration.

It's not the only time that Manafort's business practices have come under scrutiny.

His lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, was included in a 1992 report by the Center for Public Integrity titled "The Torturers' Lobby." It cited the group's work on behalf of unsavory governments in Nigeria and Kenya, the UNITA rebels in Angola and a group with ties to Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Riva Levinson was hired by Manafort in the '80s, becoming, she says, his third-world traveler of choice. "During my job interview, which was in the summer of 1985, when I was pleading with Paul to hire me," Levinson says, "I promised him that there was no place I wouldn't go. And Paul took full advantage, and there was no place he wouldn't send me.

That included Somalia, where Manafort's firm was trying to sign a contract with dictator Siad Barre, accused of human rights abuses. Levinson recounted the episode in her book "Choosing The Hero." She says she asked Manafort "if he wanted this guy as our client." She says Manafort told her "Riva, we all know he's a bad guy; but he's our bad guy."

More recently, Manafort did work for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. We asked the Trump campaign for an interview with Manafort but never heard back.

In May Manafort defended his work for Yanukovych on CNN. "I was the person that negotiated the framework which is based upon which Ukraine is now a part of Europe. That was my role. That's what I did, and when it was completed, I left."

Those who know the 67-year-old Manafort give him high marks for his political skills. He helped Gerald Ford secure the 1976 nomination and later worked for Ronald Reagan. He was hired by Scott Reed, Bob Dole's campaign manager, to run the '96 convention. Reed notes Manafort has an apartment at Trump Tower in New York. But more importantly, he and Trump are peers.

Reed says Manafort is "the one person in the room that calls him Donald. It's not Mr. Trump. It's Donald. 'Come on, Donald; we've got to do the right thing here.'"

Reed says that's an important part of managing a campaign, to have a relationship with the candidate of trust. Reed says he believes Manafort "is bringing that and professionalizing the operation in a way that it needed."

Trump hired Manafort back in the '80s to lobby on gambling and real estate issues. And even though Riva Levinson had her disagreements with Manafort, she calls him "a master strategist," who can "hover above all of the moving parts, and intuitively he understands how to put them together."

Levinson says Manafort taught her how not to "get distracted from the clutter."

And with the Trump campaign, not getting distracted by the clutter may prove an invaluable skill.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.