WASHINGTON — Paul Manafort’s services did not come cheap. His consulting work helped prop up foreign strongmen, who in turn kept him in $12,000 bespoke suits from Beverly Hills.
But by 2016, Mr. Manafort was broke. His longtime cash cow, the Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych, was out of office, living in exile. Mr. Manafort had $1 million in clothing debt alone, his business was hemorrhaging money and he was angling for bank loans to stay afloat.
He was in such bad shape that one of his accountants, Cynthia Laporta, who testified on Friday at Mr. Manafort’s fraud trial, said she had agreed in 2015 to fraudulently lower his reported income on a tax return because she had been told he was unable to pay what he owed. She saved him about a half-million dollars in taxes.
The problems did not go away by 2016, so it was a peculiar time to volunteer his services to the Trump campaign. “I am not looking for a paid job,” Mr. Manafort wrote in a memo proposing he help Donald J. Trump secure the Republican nomination for president.
Mr. Manafort’s work running the campaign is the backdrop to his federal bank and tax fraud trial in Northern Virginia. Prosecutors are not addressing that work. But as they present evidence that he was growing desperate for money, the question of why Mr. Manafort, now 69, agreed to an unpaid job for Mr. Trump has become increasingly tantalizing.
While his trial is unlikely to reveal the answer, there is evidence that Mr. Manafort saw Mr. Trump’s campaign as a potential loss leader — an upfront freebie that he could use to boost his stature and eventually parlay into more work for foreign clients. After working decades earlier for Bob Dole, George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, Mr. Manafort viewed the Trump campaign as a chance to return to prominence on the biggest stage in American politics, his associates said.
Mr. Manafort’s memo made its way to Mr. Trump through a mutual friend, Thomas J. Barrack Jr., who described Mr. Manafort to the candidate as “the most experienced and lethal of managers” and “a killer.” For the notoriously stingy Mr. Trump, the price was right. And he liked the fact that he and Mr. Manafort lived in the same Trump-owned Manhattan high rise. He once quipped that it was great to have a campaign chairman who paid him money, and not the other way around, campaign officials said.
Running a winning presidential campaign is a surefire path to a White House job. But Mr. Manafort told people he had no interest in working in the Trump administration. “My dad is Trump’s right-hand man right now and will be through November,” Mr. Manafort’s daughter, Andrea Manafort Shand, wrote in a text message that was publicly disclosed after her phone had been hacked. “But he won’t accept any position in the White House.”