In the wake of “Manafort Monday,” as some are calling the day Robert Mueller’s indictments became public, commentators have suggested that George Papadopoulos’ case is far more important than the indictments of former Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. After all, Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, was quietly arrested in late July and signed a plea deal—and may have since been selling out every one of his Washington, D.C., colleagues in exchange for leniency.
On the issue of whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russian forces to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, Papadopoulos may be giving the president sleepless nights. But the American public should be far angrier about the activities revealed in the Manafort and Gates indictments, which offer glaring examples of the ongoing anti-democratic and pro-capitalist practices of wealthy and powerful elites—practices they would rather we not question.
Rather than accept the Manafort and Gates indictments as incidental stops along the way to an exposé of Russian interference in the 2016 election, we ought to examine what these men allegedly did and question how they got away with it for so long.
For decades, Manafort’s specialty has been to help unsavory and dictatorial leaders whitewash their images. In an interview, veteran journalist and academic Larry Bensky explained to me the nature of Manafort’s clients. “These are people like Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator and tyrant in the Congo who was responsible for millions of deaths.” A 1993 Atlantic article, which details some of the sordid deeds the despotic leader engaged in, called him “an utterly dependent but indispensable asset to the West.” Mobutu hired Manafort’s lobbying firm back in 1989 to clean up his image in the West.
Other leaders Manafort worked for in the 1980s include the notorious former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was responsible for the torture and disappearance of thousands and who, like Mobutu, fleeced his country’s treasury. Angolan guerilla leader Jonas Savimbi also hired Manafort to sell himself to the American political elite and win foreign aid from Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Mueller’s indictment of Manafort centers on money made through polishing the image of yet another shady leader: Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced Ukrainian former president. Manafort helped Yanukovych make over his image and win the 2010 election before he was forced to flee to Russia in 2014 amid protests over his policy decisions.
Perhaps it was a fitting transition for Manafort to enter American politics as the campaign chair of a presidential candidate whose policy proposals and, possibly, his financial dealings are in line with those of his earlier clients. Indeed, Manafort may well have been partially responsible for Trump’s win last November. But the fact that he did not disclose himself as an agent of a foreign entity when he took the job Trump offered him has now placed him in the federal government’s crosshairs. Had Manafort simply limited his considerable public relations skills to foreign dictators rather than domestic ones, he might not be in the trouble he is in today.
Propping up the images of undemocratic leaders is not purely a conservative or Republican practice. As Trump and his GOP colleagues are gleefully observing, Democrats such as Tony Podesta are also implicated in Mueller’s probe.
According to Politico, Mueller’s investigation revealed that “Podesta Group was one of several firms that were paid to do work on the PR campaign to promote Ukraine in the U.S.” Tony Podesta is the brother of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, John Podesta; Tony Podesta has since stepped down from his position as head of Podesta Group due to the links with Ukraine. Sadly, party doesn’t seem to be a factor in whether high-profile lobbyists engage in international PR, as the findings of the Panama Papers revealed about the Clintons and the Podesta Group last year.
Bensky told me that most of Manafort’s clients were “on the United States’ side in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and Russia. That’s all you had to be to pass muster.” What these leaders did internally within their own countries evidently didn’t matter to almost anyone across the political spectrum in the U.S., Democrat or Republican.
The millions that Yanukovych paid Manafort for his services lead us to the second crucial aspect of this story: How political leaders subvert democracy goes hand in hand with the ways wealthy elites cheat in the rules of finance and taxes.
According to Mueller’s indictment, “In order to hide Ukraine payments from United States authorities from approximately 2006 to at least 2016, Manafort and Gates laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts.”
If it took the Russia probe to uncover Manafort’s alleged tax evasions, imagine how easy it is for tax evaders to escape notice—and the rewards of tax avoidance are huge. According to the indictment, “Manafort, without reporting the income to his tax preparer or the United States, spent millions of dollars on luxury goods and services for himself and his extended family.”
Perhaps Manafort imagined he was smart to evade taxes, just as Trump claimed to be during a debate with Clinton last year when she accused him of not paying federal taxes.
This is how the wealthy view themselves in the course of hoarding their riches. It’s possible that if Trump, Manafort and their ilk had their way, they would legalize these dirty tricks so that no pesky special prosecutor embarking on a bigger case could ever uncover criminal wrongdoing. In fact, this is what the GOP tax reform plan, supported by Trump, promotes. When Trump tweeted, with no hint of irony, that he wants to get on with the job of passing tax reform (“All of this ‘Russia’ talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT!”), he was wishing away the Mueller indictments so he could get busy and reward himself and his class with massive tax cuts, and a bill that would help millionaires and billionaires hide more of their money offshore.
In other words, the Republicans and the White House want to make it even easier for wealthy elites like themselves and Manafort to accumulate more riches.
The greedy gene seems to run in the family. This week, Donald Trump Jr. shamelessly politicized his 4-year-old daughter Chloe by using her Halloween candy haul to make a point about the ills of socialism. “I’m going to take half of Chloe’s candy tonight & give it to some kid who sat at home,” he tweeted, along with a photo of his daughter. “It’s never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.”
On the bright side, ordinary people seem to have an instinctive anger regarding the shenanigans of the rich. The responses to Trump Jr.’s tweet were swift, cutting and delicious, ranging from “Imagine thinking that teaching your child to share is bad” to “Or you could just take 99% of Chloe’s candy, eat it and tell her to wait for it to trickle down.” Famed children’s author J. K. Rowling got in on the social media smack-down by referring to the standard justifications the superrich make for being rich: “Fill her bucket with old candy left by her great-grandfather, then explain that she has more because she’s smarter than all the other kids.”
Powerful elites rule Washington today with greater impunity than ever. They are hoping we move on quickly from the incidental application of justice in Manafort’s case and fixate on scapegoating other countries, other people and other communities. It is about time we question the business-as-usual politics of Washington, D.C.