Paul Manafort is the rarest of professional pitchmen: one who knows how to sell to a salesman.
That was evident by the effort he made last year to gain a foothold in President Donald Trump’s campaign, a successful pitch documented by letters and memos that were made available by a former Trump associate.
On Feb. 29, 2016, Manafort, a former lobbyist and Republican operative who now sits at the nexus of investigations into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, reached out to Trump with a slick, carefully calibrated offer that appealed to the candidate’s need for professional guidance, thirst for political payback — and parsimony.
The letters and memos provide a telling glimpse into how Trump invited an enigmatic international fixer, who is currently under investigation by U.S. intelligence services, a Senate committee and investigators in Ukraine, to the apex of his campaign with a minimum of vetting. The answer? Through family and friends, handshakes and hyperbole.
Manafort, who has not been accused of any crimes — and who denies any wrongdoing in his political, business and investment dealings — is nonetheless a central figure in the investigation into the interactions of Trump campaign officials with Russia. How he got to know Trump, and how he rose from overseeing the candidate’s operations at the Republican convention to the entire campaign, is very likely to be a focus during coming Senate hearings about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
“Donald Trump and I had some business in the 1980s but we had no relationship until the Trump campaign called me,” Manafort, who did not dispute the substance of the documents, wrote in an email forwarded by a spokesman. “A role at the convention was all I was ever interested in; the fact that this role expanded was quite unexpected.”
A mutual friend
But it was Manafort who initiated the process for getting a job on the campaign, the documents show. It began when he sent two succinct memos to Trump through Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a mutual friend.
A couple of weeks earlier, Barrack met with Manafort for “coffee and snacks” at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills, according to Jason Maloni, Manafort’s spokesman. He added that Barrack wanted his old friend to help the struggling campaign deal with potential challenges at the convention.
Maloni said that the memos were intended only to be talking points for Barrack's pitch to the Trump family, but that after reading the packet, the candidate requested a one-on-one meeting with Manafort.
Manafort, for his part, was eager to join up: At the time, he had told another friend, who was also close to the campaign, that he was eager to get back into the game of presidential politics.
Barrack, in turn, appended an effusive cover letter to the memos that described Manafort in terms that Trump would like, calling him “the most experienced and lethal of managers” and “a killer.”
Manafort offered his overseas work, now the subject of investigations in the United States and Ukraine, as proof he was not part of the Washington establishment that Trump hated.
“I have managed Presidential campaigns around the world,” Manafort wrote. “I have had no client relationships dealing with Washington since around 2005. I have avoided the political establishment in Washington since 2005.”
“I will not bring Washington baggage,” he added.
Ivanka delivers message to Trump
Barrack passed Manafort’s pitch to Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, who were Trump’s closest advisers, as they are now.
Ivanka Trump printed it out for her father — who hates reading documents online — along with Barrack's recommendation that Manafort be hired to manage the Trump operation at the Republican convention in Cleveland. Manafort was brought onto the campaign by the end of March.
Manafort and Donald Trump, who were not close until the campaign, had brushed shoulders over the years. In one of his memos Manafort refers vaguely to work he performed, years ago, to clear noisy airspace over Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago — which he incorrectly spells “Mar a Largo.”
From Lewandowski to Manafort to Bannon
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, has tried to minimize Manafort’s relationship with the president.
“There is a fine line between people who want to be part of something that they never had an official role in, and people who actually played a role in either the campaign or transition,” he said, amid a smattering of laughter in the briefing room last month. He added, “Obviously there has been discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
But Manafort and Trump worked closely for about six months during the crucial middle passage of the campaign, when Manafort urged the recalcitrant candidate to restrain his attacks on fellow Republicans, to stick to a script and, above all, to spend more money on organizing and ads.
At the time Manafort was brought on, Trump was surging — and flailing. He had won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, but he was deeply worried about an establishment-strikes-back scenario that could result in his defeat at the Republican convention.
He decided that Manafort should replace Corey Lewandowski, his campaign manager, in June after a push by Trump’s adult children and Kushner. But Trump thought Manafort was not tough enough, and he was gone by the fall, replaced by Stephen Bannon, who was much more of a raw-rage outsider.
A good first impression
Still, Manafort made a good first impression. Trump, several aides said, reacted favorably to Manafort’s initial pitch and his experience, and he also remarked on Manafort’s tanned, no-hair-out-of-place appearance — telling staff members that his new associate looked much younger than a man in his late 60s.
Winning over The Donald
In five single-spaced pages of punchy talking points, Manafort showed how as a onetime lobbyist he had adeptly won over rich and powerful business and political leaders, many of them oligarchs or dictators, in Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines and Pakistan.
He began by telling the candidate he lived on an upper floor of Trump Tower. This was no trivial point: It signaled his wealth and a willingness to work 15-hour days in a building that housed both his lavish apartment and Trump’s bare-bones campaign. It also meant Manafort had already put his money — in the form of an apartment purchase — into Trump’s brand, which meant a lot to the candidate, a transactional developer and politician, aides said.
A convincing sales pitch
Regarding politics, Manafort cast himself as a onetime insider who had turned on the establishment — and a tough guy who would go after Trump’s harshest critics among the Republican elite, like Karl Rove.
Manafort also cast himself as a warrior against the party’s conservatives, even at a time when Trump was reaching out to the right wing and courting evangelical Christians. Speaking of his previous experience as a convention manager for several Republican presidential candidates, Manafort wrote, “I have had to confront the Extreme Right, Tea Party, Rush Limbaughs etc.”
'Not looking for a paid job'
Plus he had a powerful closer’s move: His work would be free.
“I am not looking for a paid job,” Manafort wrote.
Barrack drove home the point in his cover letter, writing, “He would do this in an unpaid capacity.” And over the next few months, according to several associates, Trump would repeatedly boast about the value he was getting from Manafort.