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.”