Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump, said in a recent interview that he thinks the business mogul “will make sure he’s surrounded by nothing but the highest-caliber talent if he occupies the West Wing … I’m convinced he will have the best Cabinet that’s ever been assembled by a president.”
This is a mantra frequently recited by Trump supporters who seem oblivious to his serial business failures and habitually fraudulent business practices. They confuse Trump’s branding success, which can be attributed to his impressive marketing skills, with business management skills.
So let’s test Collins’ theory that President Trump can be expected to fill his administration with only the “highest-caliber talent” by examining the track record of the man Trump recently hired to oversee the management of his presidential campaign: Paul Manafort.
Manafort has made a fortune representing some of the worst people in the world during his four-decade career as a Washington, D.C., fixer and lobbyist. His clients have included a sordid assortment of kleptocratic dictators, corrupt narco states, Mafia-connected oligarchs and African warlords who use child soldiers, systemic rape and mass starvation as weapons of war.
A recent article in The Daily Beast by Betsy Woodruff and Tim Mak, “Top Trump Aide Led the ‘Torturers’ Lobby,'” noted that “a 1992 report from the Center For Public Integrity listed (Manafort’s firm) as one of the lobbying firms to profit the most by doing business with foreign governments that violated their people’s human rights.”
Threats to U.S. national security and the integrity of the political process aren’t obstacles to Manafort’s personal enrichment. Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff reported this week that Manafort was investigated by the FBI for his representation of an American front organization of the ISI, Pakistan’s notorious intelligence service. According to Isikoff, FBI and court documents show that Manifort’s lucrative lobbying contract was approved at the highest levels of the ISI, whose goal was “to secretly influence U.S. policy toward the disputed territory of Kashmir.”
Isikoff quotes a former Pakstani official who met with Manafort and says the lobbyist knew that his fees were being paid by the Pakistani government (which would have required Manafort to register with the DOJ as an agent of a foreign government). The official also told Isikoff he discussed with Manafort funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to members of Congress.
Isikoff noted the irony of Manafort being selected to lead the campaign of “a presidential candidate who repeatedly decries the influence of Washington lobbyists and denounces the manipulation of U.S. policy by foreign governments.”
Manafort was also at the center of the Reagan administration’s Housing and Urban Development scandal in the 1980s.
A 1989 article in The Washington Post reported that during testimony before a congressional committee, Manafort grudgingly admitted that he engaged in influence peddling to obtain millions of dollars in low-income housing rehabilitation grants to fund real estate projects in New Jersey, Connecticut, Georgia and Puerto Rico.
Manafort used his connections as a Republican Party insider to obtain the grants by simply calling a high ranking HUD official. Then-Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) would later observe that “(f)or some (well-connected) individuals, obtaining these scarce rent subsidy funds was as easy as phoning in an order to Domino’s for a pizza.”
A 1989 United Press International article reported that Manafort formed a partnership to purchase a dilapidated 326-unit apartment complex in Upper Deerfield Township, New Jersey, two weeks before the New Jersey Public Housing Authority was notified that HUD had approved funding. Manafort admitted he received advance notice that HUD would fund his project, which the township’s mayor described as “a horrible waste of taxpayers’ money.”
The partnership eventually made $31 million on this project and an additional $3.3 million by selling the federal tax credits to investors. Manafort also took $326,000 in personal fees for obtaining the grants, which amounted to the equivalent of more than $1,000 an hour for the time he expended.
While Manafort and his partners got rich, the low-income tenants the program was supposed to benefit had their rents doubled and saw no improvement in their living conditions. A 1989 article in The Los Angeles Times reported that more than two years after being acquired by Manafort and his partners, the apartment complex “still resembles a slum.”
The abuse of the program by Manafort and others was so rampant that HUD Secretary Jack Kemp was forced to suspend the program. Although Manafort and his insider cronies rigged the HUD grant system in their favor, he defended his actions by claiming he followed the rules. Such a defense should sound familiar to Trump supporters. The irony should give them pause.
The question everyone should be asking is, will this be the way President Trump’s appointees administer government programs? Put another way, will Trump’s appointees be channeling the spirit of Abraham Lincoln or Gordon Gekko?
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York City.