CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts—Paul Manafort stood in the foyer of the third-floor ballroom of the Charles Hotel, across the street from the Taubman Building of the Harvard Kennedy School, on Wednesday. Having left his mafioso uniform of gleaming pinstripe suit and tie at home in favor of a half-zip sweater and casual slacks, he went mostly unnoticed, even at an event for political operatives and junkies, where a man of his status should be a star. And Harvard, it turns out, is not the only place the ex-chairman of the Donald Trump presidential campaign and former lobbyist for some of the worst dictators and killers of the 20th century is operating in the shadows these days.
According to two sources with knowledge of the Trump presidential transition process, Manafort—whose formal association with the president-elect ended in August—is heavily involved with the staffing of the nascent administration.
Manafort was hired by the Trump campaign in April. A veteran political operative and lobbyist who’d worked on the Republican conventions nominating everyone from Gerald Ford to Bob Dole, he was cut from a different cloth than the novices who’d worked for Trump since his 2015 announcement. His presence was viewed as an effort to professionalize the operation and to herd delegates for the upcoming convention in July, which at that time looked as though it might be contested.
But immediately, there was a clash of egos between Manafort, whose official title was campaign chairman, and then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, a notoriously short-fused man who’d never run a presidential campaign before. When Lewandowski was eventually let go in late June, it seemed a victory for Manafort—but it wouldn’t last for long.
Amid a stream of investigative journalism scrutinizing his political work in Ukraine, of particular interest given Trump’s praise of autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin, Manafort was axed and replaced by a combination of Steve Bannon, the president of Breitbart News, and Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, who served as the campaign CEO and manager, respectively.
How far he faded into the margins of Trump’s orbit is unclear.
Even in his role as the campaign’s chairman, Manafort was not exactly visible, save for the odd Sunday show appearance. And Lewandowski, after being fired and taking a job as a cable TV pundit, continued to receive payment from the campaign and advise the candidate. Manafort, who keeps an apartment in Trump Tower, was never compensated for his work, making it more difficult to keep an account of his entanglement with the campaign.
But now, a few months and an election night victory later, it seems Manafort is back, and in a position he surely finds more comfortable: one shrouded in almost total mystery.
“When they’re picking a cabinet, unless he contacts me, I don’t bother him,” one former campaign official who worked closely with Manafort told The Daily Beast. “It’s a heady time for everyone.”
“I think he’s weighing in on everything,” the former official said, “I think he still talks to Trump every day. I mean, Pence? That was all Manafort. Pence is on the phone with Manafort regularly.”
As a lobbyist, Manafort is particularly concerned with decisions the president-elect might make that will affect his industry, the former official explained. “A guy like Manafort tries to make sure that the government is as comfortable for business as possible. He wants names he knows on every door.”
“He’s not worried as much about who’s the secretary of HHS,” the former official added, “as he is about who’s the secretary of HUD.”
Another Trump campaign source who worked alongside Manafort confirmed to The Daily Beast that he is heavily involved in selecting the incoming administration’s “personnel picks.”
When The Daily Beast caught up with Manafort sometime later, he would neither confirm nor deny his presence on the Trump transition team.
“I don’t want to get into that,” he said. “I’m here to talk about the campaign, I don’t want to talk about transition.”
When pressed on the issue, he reemphasized, “no comment,” before continuing a conversation with several other people.
Meanwhile in Cambridge, Conway, who now acts as a senior adviser to the president-elect, was making her way through the hotel lobby for check-in.
She told The Daily Beast she had “no comment” on the Manafort matter. “But I can research that and get back to you,” she added.
She winked and continued walking with her roller bag.
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, later told The Daily Beast, “Paul Manafort has no association with the transition team or communication with the President-elect.”
Updated 12/1 to add comment from Trump spokeswoman.