Trump’s new image-maker honed his ‘dark’ arts in Ukraine

The Donald Trump who greeted supporters in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday night bore little resemblance to the Republican frontrunner of yore.

Atypically gracious and restrained, Mr Trump spoke coherently on jobs and the economy, referred respectfully to his Republican opponents as “Senator Cruz” and “Governor Kasich” and stuck to his prepared remarks. Gone were the lewd insults or jabs at the press.

It was a political makeover like few had seen before — and it bore all the trappings of his new campaign chief, Paul Manafort.

A DC veteran political operative who has worked for the likes of Gerald Ford and George H W Bush, Mr Manafort, 67, was hired by Mr Trump last month to bring order to the Trump campaign and cement Mr Trump’s delegate count, a thorny issue ahead of the Republican National Convention.

Yet Mr Manafort’s true gift lies in political resuscitations and re-brandings, say former business associates.

Over a 40-year career in Washington, he has attempted to engineer them for a cast of, sometimes unsavoury, clients that include Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, the Saudi government, and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos.

But it is his work with Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovich, that stands out as a particular showcase both of Mr Manafort’s talents — and the controversy surrounding their use.

Mr Yanukovich was ousted from power two years ago in a popular, pro-European uprising that was widely celebrated in the west. During his time in office, he used his power to jail a political opponent while amassing a personal fortune that included a garish mansion outside Kiev.

In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press this month, Mr Manafort described his primary responsibility in Ukraine as helping bring the country closer to the west. “The work I was doing in Ukraine was to help Ukraine get into Europe, and we succeeded,” Mr Manafort said.

Yet Mr Yanukovich’s critics say the former Ukrainian president hindered Ukraine’s integration with the west, running a presidential campaign — guided by Mr Manafort — that exploited ideological divisions between the western part of the country and a pro-Russia east that is now run by separatists.

“Ukraine is now closer to the EU and looking to the EU not because of Manafort but because of hundreds of thousands of people who stood on [Kiev’s] Maidan [square], protested for three months and the 100 people who died there with the purpose of changing the system,” said Daria Kaleniuk, an anti-corruption activist in Kiev.

Mr Yanukovich did in fact complete negotiations with the EU on a groundbreaking integration agreement, though he was often seen as playing Moscow off against Brussels to see what he could get. His decision to withdraw from signing the deal at the very last moment — under heavy personal pressure from Russian president Vladimir Putin — sparked the Maidan protests.

Mr Manafort and the Trump campaign declined repeated interview requests and did not respond to emailed questions. Asked by the Financial Times at Mr Trump’s victory party whether he thought his work in Ukraine would compromise him in any way, Mr Manafort batted away the suggestion.

“No, I don’t. I helped bring Ukraine into Europe,” he reiterated.

In interviews, half-a-dozen former associates of Mr Manafort in Ukraine provided a more nuanced picture of his work there. It began with lobbying work for Rinat Akhmetov, the Ukrainian oligarch who was looking at business opportunities for his holding company System Capital Management Group in the west.

The assignment took on a political component after Mr Akhmetov asked Mr Manafort to work on the political rehabilitation of Mr Yanukovich, according to two people with knowledge of the introduction.

A brutish pro-Russia politician from Ukraine’s east, Mr Yanukovich had fallen from power after Ukraine’s 2004 Orange revolution, which saw his pro-western opponent Viktor Yushchenko win the presidency after surviving an assassination attempt.

A 2005 diplomatic cable by then US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, published by WikiLeaks, described the hiring of Mr Manafort as an attempt to change the image of Mr Yanukovich’s Party of Regions “from that of a haven for mobsters into that of a legitimate political party” by “tapping into the deep pockets of Donetsk clan godfather Rinat Akhmetov”.

Soon after Mr Manafort was hired, Mr Yanukovich underwent a makeover, say observers. A native Russian speaker who spent his adolescence in and out of Soviet prison, he adopted a sleek hairstyle and began to speak in snappy soundbites.

In 2006, Mr Yanukovich’s Party of Regions won the parliamentary elections and Mr Yanukovich, capping a surprising comeback, was reinstated as prime minister. In 2010, he was elected president.

“He brought a political pariah back from death, back from the graveyard,” said Brian Mefford, an American political consultant who has advised Mr Yushchenko and other Ukrainian politicians.

Despite his reputation as a “dark prince”, Mr Manafort deserved credit “for softening the rough edges of Yanukovich and consolidating [Ukraine’s] pro-Russia vote”, Mr Mefford said.

A former western diplomat also credited the consultant, saying, “Manafort dressed up Yanukovich, polished Yanukovich’s presentation and made over Yanukovich’s political positions.”

Asked about Manafort’s personal style, the diplomat responded: “I wouldn’t say he is charming — he tries to be charming.”

Since his appointment by Mr Trump last month, Mr Manafort has taken on a visible leadership role in the Republican front-runner’s campaign, filling in for Mr Trump on Sunday talk shows and taking over duties from embattled campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Behind the scenes, Mr Manafort has honed the Republican candidate’s message to focus on the US electoral process being rigged, reduced Mr Trump’s exposure to the media, and tried to sculpt a Republican frontrunner who appears less bombastic and more presidential.

“It’s like taking a rough diamond, polishing it and putting it in the right setting,” said another former business associate of Mr Manafort in Ukraine.

“You can’t change the guy’s morality,” he continued. “But you can change his reputation.”

Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kiev and Demetri Sevastopulo in New York

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