Manafort’s Past Not Surprising, Trump’s Reaction Is by Luke Perry
Scholars of Ukrainian post-Soviet development have long been aware of Paul Manafort’s violent and corrupt clients. Viktor Yanukovych, for instance, a gangster with ties to Vladimir Putin and the Russian mafia, was ousted in the Orange Revolution after corrupt elections prior to hiring Manafort. Manafort was relieved of his duties as Donald Trump’s campaign manager when the press revealed he received nearly $13 million in payments from Yanukovych’s political party.
President Trump has demonstrated little public awareness of Manafort’s dubious background, raising the question of whether this is sincere or damage control.
The president described Manafort as “a respected man,” when taking questions on Russia and the 2016 campaign during his February 16 press conference. “I think he represented the Ukraine or Ukrainian government or somebody.”
Trump’s response did not reflect a strong understanding of Manafort’s work. Weak vetting of Cabinet members has been a problem the president, so it’s possible he was genuinely unaware of Manafort’s work experience.
Trump also could have known of Manafort’s background and now be seeking to deflect the fallout. On Tuesday, for instance, Sean Spicer questioned the very idea that Trump should know these things.
“To suggest that the president knew who clients were from a decade ago is a bit insane,” Spicer stated, even comparing this to knowing where Manafort went to school, what grades he got, and who he played with in the sandbox. In fact, the president usually does know who his campaign manager’s previous employers were, her/his educational background, and performance.
Spicer also claimed that Manafort “played a very limited role” in the campaign for “a very limited period of time.” In fact, Manafort was the top official of Trump’s campaign for nearly four months (March 29 to August 19) including during the Republican National Convention.
The inconsistent and over-the-top response reflects damage control, particularly as new Manafort/Russia connections go viral. Playing dumb makes Trump look incompetent. Willfully selecting someone who has worked for corrupt strongmen makes Trump look authoritarian.
Contrition is probably the best response from the White House, but unlikely based on what we’ve seen from the Trump presidency in three short months.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Associate Professor of Government at Utica College.