Top Trump Aide Led the ‘Torturers’ Lobby’

Paul Manafort and the partners at his firm made a fortune repping some of the most despicable dictators of the 20th century.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Over the course of a long lobbying career in D.C., top Trump aide Paul Manafort and his firm made a fortune fronting for a group of clients once referred to as the “torturers’ lobby.”

So when Manafort accused opponent Ted Cruz of using “gestapo tactics” to court Republican delegates on Meet the Press this past Sunday—it’s something he may have quite a bit of experience with firsthand.

Manafort was a principal at the lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly (along with another top Trump ally, Nixon alum Roger Stone), a K Street powerhouse with close ties to the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, as well as top Republicans on Capitol Hill.

But over the years, they made millions by representing a rogue’s gallery of clients far away from D.C.’s genteel corridors of power: dictators, guerilla groups, and despots with no regard for human rights—including one man responsible for mass amputations, and another who oversaw state-sanctioned rape.

One such client was Jonas Savimbi, who led a guerilla army trying to wrest control of the Angolan government from Marxists during the country’s brutal civil war. Savimbi hired Manafort’s lobbying firm to help him get financial support from the U.S. government for his guerilla army, UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola).

And Manafort and co. delivered.

“What the firm achieved was quickly dubbed ‘Savimbi chic,’” reported Time magazine in 1986. “Doors swung open all over town for the guerrilla leader, who was dapperly attired in a Nehru suit and ferried about in a stretch limousine.”

Savimbi paid the firm $600,000 in 1985 for their trouble, The Washington Post reported. The lobbying paid off: then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole urged the State Department to send heavy arms to Savimbi’s guerilla army. Savimbi came back for more in 1989, putting the firm on retainer to orchestrate a media blitz. They got him booked on 60 Minutes and Nightline, as the Post noted, and they shelled out more than $200,000 to put him up at the Waldorf-Astoria and Grand Hotel.

“It greatly helped repackage Savimbi as a valiant anti-communist ‘freedom fighter,’” reported Nairobi’s The Daily Nation.

And that so-called freedom fight was quite lucrative for Manafort’s firm—so lucrative, in fact, that they didn’t want it to stop. Spy Magazine reported that the firm’s “hawkish congressional lobbying for more military aid” may have kept a ceasefire in the country’s civil war from coming sooner.

“Clearly, Savimbi wanted peace negotiations for a longer time than Black, Manafort wanted negotiations,” said one conservative Hill aide sympathetic with Savimbi, according to the magazine.

In his memoir, former Sen. Bill Bradley credited Savimbi’s lobbying team with lengthening the war.

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“I thought we were making a colossal blunder in Angola,” he wrote. “I had no sense that Jonas Savimbi, our client guerilla warrior, was any more committed to democracy than was the country’s dictatorial leftist leadership. When Gorbachev pulled the plug on Soviet aid to the Angolan government, we had absolutely no reason to persist in aiding Savimbi. But by then he had hired an effective Washington lobbying firm, which successfully obtained further funding.”

The slow peace process meant protracted violence. From 1986 to 1987, the Reagan administration sent a total of $42 million to UNITA. According to Joy James’s book Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender, and Race in U.S. Culture, Savimbi’s army “maimed or killed tens of thousands, creating one of the largest amputee populations in the world through its laying of landmines in farm fields, roads, and school yards.”

As is often the case, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. And Savimbi’s army was particularly violent.

“Indiscriminate killings, mutilation of limbs or ears, and beatings were used by rebels to punish suspected government sympathizers or as a warning against betraying UNITA,” reads a Human Rights Watch report. “UNITA continued to forcibly recruit men and teenage boys to fight. Girls were held in sexual slavery and used as a source of forced labor.”

Savimbi and UNITA were not the only Manafort clients comfortable with brutality.

A 1992 report from the Center for Public Integrity listed Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly as one of the lobbying firms to profit the most by doing business with foreign governments that violated their people’s human rights.

From 1991 to 1992, the firm made $3.3 million from what the Center for Public Integrity dubbed “the torturers’ lobby.”

From 1990 to 1993, the Kenyan government paid Manafort’s firm more than $1.4 million to lobby the U.S. government to send them more aid. In that window of time, the U.S. was highly critical of the country’s human rights record, as the Center for Public Integrity detailed.

Severe police brutality, prisoner abuse, and crackdowns on hunger strikers all drew opprobrium. The country still raked in $38.3 million in aid from the U.S. government—thanks in part to the hard work of Manafort and his partners.

Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) also benefitted from Manafort’s lobbying expertise. The Guardian described him as “one of Africa’s most flamboyantly corrupt leaders.”

He was also one of its worst. Human-rights activists hold the dictator responsible for government-sanctioned torture, detainment, and rape.

“Quantitatively, I think Zaire has the worst human rights record in Africa,” one UN official told the Chicago Tribune in 1997. “In terms of social and economic rights and the number of state actors violating those rights, it’s massive. And the bulk of human rights violations in this country never will be known. It’s a black hole.”

And the black hole had a powerful ally. The dictator retained Manafort’s firm in 1989 to help remedy some longstanding PR problems—for a cool $1 million a year.

Manafort partner Charlie Black, who backs Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the presidential race, pushed back on the assertion that his firm’s foreign clients were anything but above board and said they “never (1981-present) accepted a foreign client without informally clearing with the State Department that our scope of work is in U.S. interests.”

“In the case of Mobutu, he told US he would have democratic elections for a parliament. US State asked us to organize those elections,” Black said. “We did. He did not like the results and fired us.”

But, of course, there’s more. In 1985, Manafort himself announced that his firm would take on the Chamber of Philippine Manufacturers, Exporters, and Tourists Associations as a client. That group had close ties with dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose regime put the country under martial law and was responsible for hundreds of cases of torture. In 2004, Transparency International listed him as one of the world’s 10 most notorious leaders of the previous two decades (along with Mobutu Sese Seko, another Manafort client). They estimate Marcos embezzled between $5 billion and $10 billion from his people. Almost 50,000 Filipinos have filed claims for reparations for crimes against them during Marcos’s era of martial law, according to the Philippine news site

Marcos enlisted Manafort’s team as part of an effort to appear more democratic. Time reported that he paid the firm $900,000, and that they said they were trying to make Americans have more faith in the country’s democratic process.

“What we’ve tried to do is make it more of a Chicago-style election and not Mexico’s,” Manafort told the magazine.

When the Reagan administration finally soured on the dictator—the whole “Chicago-style election” thing didn’t exactly work out—they helped out their pals at the firm.

“The firm was so entwined with the Reagan White House that administration officials gave it a heads-up so it could cancel its contract with a client, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, two hours before Reagan withdrew his support,” reported The New York Times in 2008.

Another dictator who both made Transparency International’s list and Paul Manafort’s was Sani Abacha of Nigeria. He hired a different Manafort firm—Davis, Manafort & Freedman—in 1998 as part of “an aggressive public relations and lobbying campaign to persuade Americans that he was the leader of a progressive emerging democracy,” according to The New York Times. Richard Davis, one of the principals in that firm, took a leave of absence to run John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. When a reporter asked McCain’s campaign about his campaign manager’s association with Abacha, the campaign pointed to Manafort.

“Howard Opinsky, a press secretary for the McCain campaign, said tonight that Mr. Davis did not actually work on the Nigeria account and that it was handled by a partner, Paul Manafort,” The New York Times noted in a 2000 report.

Highlights of the Nigeria account include lots of torture. A 1997 State Department report detailed persistent torture and abuse under the Abacha regime.

“[D]etainees frequently died while in custody,” reads the report, “and there were credible reports that security officers seeking to extract confessions regularly beat suspects, detainees, and convicted prisoners. Security officers tortured prisoners with whippings, suspension by the limbs from the ceiling, burning with candles, and extraction of teeth.”

Then there was Manafort’s work for Putinite Viktor Yanukovych, who became president in 2010. Manafort had been introduced to Yanukovych by Ukraine’s richest man, an industrialist named Rinat Akhmetov, The New York Times reported.

It was Manafort’s most recent high-profile political consulting job, and while his candidate was victorious, Yanukovych was eventually drummed out of office in disgrace in 2014 after accusations that he undercut freedom of the press and tried to suppress opposition political parties.

At the time of the election, Manafort had spun that Yanukovych was merely misunderstood, and that “the West has not been willing to move beyond the cold war mentality and to see this man and the outreach that he has extended.”

As the seminal Euromaidan protests, which pressed the pro-Putin Yanukovych to develop closer ties with Europe, grew to a climax and reports of Yanukovych’s lavish spending became public, he was removed from the presidency—but not before being accused of using a special police force to violently disband protesters. Even his own political party would eventually condemn him and cast him out.

Supporters of transparency and reform in Ukraine are appalled that a former Yanukovych adviser is now involved with the American presidential elections.

“Now we hear that an adviser of Yanukovych, Paul Manafort, has been hired by the Donald Trump campaign. This is someone who took part in perversion of democracy in Ukraine and if [Manafort’s] role in that fiasco turns out to be substantial, then he should not be allowed within 100 feet of government buildings of any self-respecting democracy,” Pavel Yarmolenko, a spokesman for the Ukraine Freedom Support Group, told The Daily Beast. The UFSG is dedicated to urging Congress to approve aid to Ukraine.

The list of unsavory clients continues on: In the mid-1980s, during the Reagan era, Manafort peddled influence on behalf of Saudi Arabia, urging Congress not to pass legislation to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—a longstanding contention in the broader Arab-Israeli dispute. Manafort’s lobbying then is counter to Trump’s current position on the issue, and most political candidates seeking support from the pro-Israel community have advocated for moving the embassy to Jerusalem, which Israel has declared to be its capital.

To this day, Saudi Arabia continues to have one of the world’s worst human rights records—but that never seemed to bother Manafort: Ultimately for his efforts to lobby for and advise the Saudi government, he was paid what with inflation would today be more than $1.5 million.

Manafort’s firm also made $450,000 a year from the now-deposed Somalian dictatorship of Siad Barre, according to the now-defunct Spy Magazine in 1992.

Barre, who took power as president through a coup, ruled for 22 years before he was overthrown during a civil war. The dictator sought ties with the Soviet Union and attempted to implement an official ideology called “scientific socialism,” but later attempted to switch course and seek U.S. aid. Barre’s exile left the country on the edge of mass starvation, The New York Times reported in the dictator’s obituary, and his time as its president was most notable for a war with Ethiopia and numerous human-rights abuses.

Trump’s campaign has stirred controversy not only for his contentious comments and puzzling proposals, but also for the company he keeps. He has hired as senior staffers a lawyer who doesn’t think spousal rape is a crime and a campaign manager who has been charged with assault, for example.

So a lobbyist to the world’s most reprehensible dictators might fit in just fine.