Inside the fall of Paul Manafort – Politico
Earlier this month, Paul Manafort met with Donald Trump and suggested that they put in place a succession plan for the upper ranks of the Republican nominee’s flailing presidential campaign, according to three campaign sources with direct knowledge of the events that led to Manafort’s resignation on Friday morning as campaign chairman.
Trump was in the midst of a string of self-inflicted controversies that were starting to resonate in polls showing him slipping further behind Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, and Manafort warned his boss that things were about to get worse.
Story Continued Below
The stories, Manafort argued to Trump, were being coordinated by Clinton’s allies, and they were going to continue for the remainder of the election cycle as long as Manafort remained at the helm.
“This is going to be a distraction, and I don’t want to be a distraction for the campaign,” Manafort told Trump, according to a campaign official briefed on the meeting. The official said Manafort, with Trump’s blessing, “started putting a plan in place” for succession “because he knew exactly what was going to happen, and he didn’t want to leave Trump without any leadership. He’s been around politics long enough to know that you need to have a Plan B and a Plan C.”
Although Manafort told associates that he thought he would be able to weather the controversy, his meeting with Trump nonetheless sparked internal discussions about changes to the campaign’s senior management structure. They included elevating pollster Kellyanne Conway, who had been brought onto the campaign last month, into a more senior role, and also officially bringing on Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon, who had been informally advising people around the campaign for months.
Still, Manafort associates said, he hoped he could ride out the storm and remain with the campaign until the end. That’s despite what the associates characterize as Manafort’s growing frustration with Trump’s unwillingness to embrace advice for a more scripted, measured tone and a greater reliance on more traditional campaign tactics.
But it quickly became clear that the controversies around Manafort’s Ukraine work were going to be even worse than he had anticipated.
On Sunday night, The New York Times published the first of the stories that had Manafort worried — revealing that Ukrainian investigators were looking into a “secret ledger” that listed $12.7 million in cash payments earmarked for Manafort by the party of the deposed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
A little more than two days later, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, news broke that Trump was bringing on Conway as campaign manager and Bannon as the campaign’s chief executive, a newly created role for a conservative media firebrand with no previous campaign experience.
Campaign sources publicly played down talk that the moves represented a shakeup or a demotion for Manafort, whom they said would remain on as campaign chairman. But behind the scenes, the campaign was bracing for the next round of damaging stories about his work in Ukraine.
Sure enough, later that day, The Associated Press reported that Manafort and his longtime deputy Rick Gates (who had followed Manafort onto the Trump campaign) had in 2012 secretly steered $2.2 million to a pair of Washington lobbying firms to boost Yanukovych’s pro-Kremlin government in a manner intended to circumvent disclosure requirements.
The story was followed in short order by a POLITICO investigation revealing that Manafort and Gates — working with a former Russian army linguist allegedly linked to the country’s intelligence service — had continued through late last year to advise the Russia-friendly Ukrainian party that arose from the ashes of Yanukovych’s government.
Manafort pushed back on the stories one by one, denying to the Times that he received the $12.7 million in cash, defending the legality of the lobbying arrangement exposed by the AP, and insisting to POLITICO that he “had no contract and did no business after [the] 2014 elections” in Ukraine.
But Trump’s adult children and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who have a significant hand in almost every major personnel and strategic decision, were concluding that the distractions were outweighing the benefit of keeping Manafort on board, according to campaign sources.
They had pushed to elevate Conway to campaign manager, in part, because Ivanka Trump believed the campaign was too much of an all-boys club to begin with, sources said. Also, she liked the way Conway was able to manage her father.
“Kellyanne is not a campaign manager in the traditional sense of the word. She got the title as part of combat pay,” said one source involved with the discussions. “She’s the candidate manager, which considering how tough it is to manage someone like Donald — who has the temperament of a 12-year-old who always gets what he wants — is a far harder job. So far, it’s working. But it’s only been a few days.”
In addition to wanting Conway to have more of a leadership role, the family also felt that Manafort hadn’t been completely forthright about his international political consulting, a source close to the campaign said. Family members also were unhappy about changes made to a GOP platform provision that were seen as slighting Ukraine to Russia’s benefit, which they felt Manafort played a role in, the source added.
A Manafort associate disputed that characterization, saying that Trump generally accepted Manafort’s explanations that the stories revealed no wrongdoing and were ginned up by Clinton’s allies, according to two Manafort associates. But the Manafort associates acknowledged that the drumbeat of tough stories was nonetheless causing concern among Trump’s inner circle, because they were distracting from the candidate’s efforts to project a new, more self-aware — and less confrontational — image.
“Trump would call this stuff bullshit, and I think based on what I would have seen over the last couple of weeks, he would have stuck with Paul,” said the campaign official briefed on Trump’s succession-plan meeting with Manafort. “But he was worried about it from a distraction point of view.”
Manafort came to accept the reality that he would need to leave the campaign, and leave it quickly, despite signaling to other senior campaign leaders earlier that he had intended to make a gradual departure, if necessary, said his associates.
And so, on Friday morning, the campaign made it official, releasing a statement from Trump accepting Manafort’s resignation.
“I am very appreciative for his great work in helping to get us where we are today, and in particular his work guiding us through the delegate and convention process,” Trump said in the statement. “Paul is a true professional and I wish him the greatest success.”
Manafort’s allies cast the resignation as “a selfless act,” as longtime Manafort confidant Roger Stone put it during an interview with the conspiracy news website InfoWars.
The decision reflects “Manafort being a professional and recognizing that the mainstream media is not going to be objective about this, and also recognizing that this controversy feeds the false theme of Trump-Putin-Russia-Manafort,” Stone told InfoWars.
Stone told POLITICO that Manafort “became concerned that the unfounded and false rumors spread by the Clinton spin machine and elements in Ukraine fabricating documents would eventually become too much for the campaign.”
“Paul did what Corey Lewandowski should have done when he manhandled a reporter and caused problems for Donald Trump: Manafort submitted his resignation for the good of the campaign and Donald Trump,” Stone said, referring to a confrontation that damaged Trump’s previous campaign manager before his exit.
He and other Manafort supporters suggested that they would work to prove that the stories were being fed by Clinton confidant Sid Blumenthal, and allege that the documents released by Ukrainian investigators were fabricated.
Blumenthal’s lawyer did not immediately respond to an email, nor did the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, mainstream Republicans who back Trump’s campaign worry that Manafort’s departure will hurt the nominee with the GOP donor class.
“The real story here is that with Paul gone, the campaign loses its emissary to the establishment, to the money people, to the RNC, to Capitol Hill,” one said. “It’s a disaster. And he can’t really be replaced. Who in their right mind would helicopter into the Titanic and land on its deck when it’s sinking?”
With Manafort gone, attention around the campaign has turned to the fates of Gates and a handful of other longtime associates brought in by Manafort, including Doug Davenport, Jim Murphy and pollster Tony Fabrizio.
Davenport, Gates, Murphy and Fabrizio did not respond to requests for comment.
Gates wants to remain on the campaign, said a campaign staffer. Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller announced that he would be “taking over as the campaign’s liaison to the RNC based in Washington.”
And someone close to the campaign suggested Trump has no intention of getting rid of Gates. “Donald accepted Paul’s resignation. He had to. But Donald isn’t stupid. Rick gets shit done,” said the person. “Nobody else gets it done like Rick.”
Several people around the campaign suggest that Fabrizio might be the most endangered of the Manafort cohort, citing his disagreements with Conway over strategy.
“Fabrizio knows he’s a goner. He doesn’t sugarcoat things. If something is stupid or doesn’t work, he says it,” said an operative who has worked with the campaign. “And so for Kellyanne, you’re increasingly hearing her say ‘Oh, he’s too negative. He doesn’t know how to talk to Donald.’”
The week of personnel upheaval has left an aura of uncertainty looming over Trump’s White House bid, even at its upper levels, said multiple sources around the campaign.
As of noon Friday, Trump’s senior-level staff had not had a conference call, said the operative who has worked with the campaign.
“It’s complete chaos,” the operative said. “No one is in charge.”