Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s new campaign adviser is helping him look more presidential.
The man of mystery comes with a bag of tricks that is going to make the Donald a more palatable candidate for the White House regardless of his past.
At a recent private meeting at a beachside Florida resort, the kingmaker who in the past has helped dictators, African tyrants and Ukrainian kleptocrats, impressed senior Republican officials with a PowerPoint presentation outlining Trumps’ path to the White House.
The Telegraph reports:
“The part that he’s been playing is now evolving into the part that you’ve been expecting. The negatives will come down, the image is going to change,” said Paul Manafort, who recently took up a senior role in Mr Trump’s campaign.
The message was simple: the bombastic character who has courted outrage to appeal to the party base was, in fact, a calculating candidate playing a role. In the weeks to come, he would take on a new persona, that of president in waiting as he pivoted towards a general election against Hillary Clinton.
Some analysts have already detected a difference in tone as Mr Trump’s divisive campaign tries to broaden its appeal.
Mr Manafort, who was hired by the Republican front-runner last month, knows a thing or two about rebranding strongmen.
The Washington operative has an extraordinary past roster of clients, including Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator of the Philippines, Unita rebels in Angola and Siad Barre, the military ruler of Somalia until his downfall in 1991.
Mr Manafort is best-known for his role in smoothing Viktor Yanukovych’s return to power in Ukraine’s presidential election in 2010.
Mr Yanukovych had been accused of rigging the previous election in 2004, triggering the Orange Revolution and a re-run of the poll, which he promptly lost.
When he tried to make a comeback, Mr Yanukovych jettisoned his Russian advisers and turned to Davis Manafort, a US political consultancy.
Mr Manafort himself was credited with taking on the project.
Out went Mr Yanukovych’s bouffant hairstyle, much favoured by Soviet apparatchiks, and the funereal black suits and white shirts. In came softer blue and grey jackets.
The candidate – frequently accused of being Vladimir Putin’s stooge – began addressing crowds in Ukrainian rather than Russian. He toned down his pro-Moscow rhetoric and famously promised to sign an association agreement with the European Union, saying there was “no alternative” to integration with Europe.
Mr Yanukovych even took to playing tennis with the American ambassador.
In a comment that might raise smiles in Washington, one diplomat said at the time: “He’s still the same guy but he is behaving like a real politician.”
The mastermind stayed in the shadows, lest it become known that Mr Yanukovych’s new image had been crafted by an American consultant, known to his friends as the Count of Monte Cristo.
But Mr Manafort’s tricks worked and Mr Yanukovych won the Ukrainian presidency.
His time in power came to an abrupt and disastrous end when he broke his promise to sign the association agreement with the EU, thereby triggering mass popular protests that climaxed in the revolution of February 2014. Mr Yanukovych ignominiously fled from Kiev under cover of darkness and went into exile in Russia.
When protesters overran his estate, they found vivid evidence of Mr Yanukovych’s corruption in the form of a mock Spanish galleon and a private zoo.
At about that time, Roger Stone, a fellow lobbyist and former business partner, sent an email to a small circle of friends, asking “Where is Paul Manafort?”
According to the Politico website, it was followed with a list of options: was he seen chauffeuring Mr Yanukovych around Moscow or loading gold bullion on the helicopter that whisked the disgraced Ukrainian leader from Kiev?
The email was tongue-in-cheek, but it revealed how Mr Manafort’s friends in Washington had come to see him as an international man of mystery.
They knew him first as a political fixer at the 1976 Republican convention. He worked for Gerald Ford, wrangling party delegates to head off a challenge by Ronald Reagan.
He took on a similar convention role for the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1984 and later served as campaign manager for Bob Dole’s disastrous bid for the presidency in 1996.
But it is Mr Manafort’s foreign dealings that mark him out as a man willing to make the case for sordid characters, of which Mr Yanukovych was only one.
One Republican strategist described the selling point of his firm, Black Manafort Stone & Kelly: “If you needed a gunslinger they knew how to shoot.”
Mobutu Sese Seko, the brutal and corrupt dictator of Congo, paid Mr Manafort’s firm $1 million (£600,000) for representation in Washington in 1989.
Last week, it emerged that Mr Manafort lobbied for the Kashmiri American Council, which was later revealed as a front for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), an agency with a long record of collusion with Islamist terrorists.
So controversial were his associations that in 2008 John McCain vetoed a plan for Mr Manafort to join his presidential campaign as convention manager.
He was hired by Mr Trump at the end of last month in a similar role, but has seen his responsibilities expand, sidelining Corey Lewandowski, a campaign manager with little experience of a national election.
Rich Galen, a Republican strategist, said it was a brilliant appointment. “In the early days it was not OK to work for Donald Trump,” he said. “Now, because of Paul, it has become OK. He will attract talent.”
His party pedigree, he added, would help attract delegates and convince members of the powerful Republican National Committee that Mr Trump could take on a more presidential air.
“I think that when Manafort says things like that, they may not believe him at first blush, but at least they are ready to listen to the argument, which three weeks ago they would not have been,” he said.
Observers say they are already seeing a change in Mr Trump.
On Tuesday night, after sewing up an overwhelming victory in the New York primary, Mr Trump delivered a victory speech that was restrained by the standards of the campaign so far.
Another test will come on Tuesday with primaries in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island – all states that should provide fertile territory for Mr Trump’s brand of billionaire populism.
Publicly, his team says he can still win the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination before the July national convention. More likely, however, he will arrive with more delegates and states than his rivals – but just short of a majority.
Until then, according to Mr Manafort’s oceanside presentation, voters will see a different side of the candidate.
“You’ll start to see more depth to the person, the real person,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced, of course.
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