“He was the Keyser Söze of lobbyists.” That’s how Tucker Carlson described Paul Manafort to us last year in an interview for our documentary Get Me Roger Stone, adding that Manafort was “a figure of much mystery” with a “legend encasing him like barnacles on a stationary boat.”
The comparison of Manafort to the mythic archvillain of The Usual Suspects reinforced our impression of him. After hounding Manafort for nearly five years to give us an interview about his old partner Roger Stone—and never so much as even laying eyes upon Manafort over that stretch—we had come to imagine him as incorporeal; a diabolical specter who materialized in far-off lands to meddle in their affairs, and then dissolved back into the shadows when his work was done and his sizable fee collected.
We had first written Manafort for an interview in March of 2012, and had followed up a dozen or so times thereafter imploring him to grant us an on-camera sit-down. In terse, polite responses, Manafort would express a willingness to participate, propose a possible date to film, and then disappear without a trace. At times, Manafort emailed that he was in New York, at others in Virginia or Florida. During the long periods of silence on his end—in excess of two years, in one instance—Stone would tell us Manafort was unreachable in Ukraine.
We had practically given up on believing in Manafort’s existence, when he suddenly manifested out of the ether last March, first as an adviser to the Trump campaign and, shortly thereafter, as its chairman. Manafort’s appearance staggered us. We had spent years becoming Manafortologists through our exhaustive research into Roger’s overlapping history with Paul—his lifelong friend and business partner—and now he had not only incarnated in America, he had done so at the center of the most consequential story on earth.
Now our problem was not ferreting out a figure so elusive as to be untraceable, it was that Manafort was such a big media get that the prospect of us securing the several hours of time with him we needed to cover the breadth of his astonishing career, while he was leading a presidential campaign, were slim to none. And yet we persisted because, to us, the possibility of our film lacking his critical participation was simply inconceivable.
We suspected that Manafort would be with Trump when he gave the keynote at the New York State Republican Party’s annual gala last April, so we went with the hope we could corner him. During Trump’s speech, Manafort lurked off to the side, literally in shadow, and as soon as it was over he made a beeline for the exit. We bolted out of the ballroom and ambushed him just as he was about to leave with his wife, Kathleen. We asked if we could interview him, and he declined. Nonetheless, we pressed him on whether Stone had recommended that Trump hire him, to which he and his wife responded in unison with an adamant “no”—a claim Manafort himself would later contradict in our film. When we followed up by asking his opinion of the “Days of Rage” protests Stone had threatened to incite in Cleveland if Trump were denied the nomination at the Republican National Convention, Manafort grimaced, requested our contact information, and his wife promptly whisked him away. Afterward, he didn’t get in touch.
The next time we encountered Manafort was at the RNC three months later. We were trailing Stone everywhere he went, and Manafort had reached out to invite him to breakfast one morning in the lobby of the hotel where most of the campaign VIPs were staying.
We were excited to film their conversation, but Manafort flatly refused. Fortunately, Stone had neglected to realize he was still wearing our wireless microphone, so we set up our camera innocuously on a table across the restaurant and settled in to record them surreptitiously. Then, disaster struck in the form of Mike Pence. The vice presidential nominee joined Manafort and Stone’s booth, trailed by his Secret Service detail. Instantly, our crystal-clear wireless signal went haywire, jammed, apparently, by the Secret Service, and the agents physically blocked our shot.
Even after Pence left early in the meal, our signal was still impaired. We have subsequently tried to use audio restoration tools to piece together their long exchange, but our technical capabilities have only been able to extract scattered words from Stone’s hot mic. Ultimately, we incorporated only a single, silent shot from the meeting into our film: Manafort leaning back into a sallow light, laughing at something Stone is saying.
Immediately afterward, we asked Stone what he had discussed with Pence. Roger responded that Pence, whose carefully sculpted white mane closely resembles Stone’s, said, “Great hair.”
Our failure to interview Manafort at the RNC dimmed our hope of ever pinning him down. Then, a month later, just as abruptly as Manafort had surfaced in the campaign, he resigned, dogged by mounting controversy surrounding his work in Ukraine.
Manafort had appeared to handle his departure professionally, falling on the sword to deflect criticism from the candidate, as staffers are supposed to do. But Trump had already begun to distance himself from Manafort by trying to reduce their four-decade-long relationship, which dates back to the 1980s when Manafort and Stone’s mega-lobbying firm Black, Manafort & Stone represented Trump, to the six months Manafort had served on the campaign. Jabs at Manafort in the media, attributed to unnamed Trump aides, undermining Manafort’s character and competence, accompanied his fall from favor.
After spending half a year in the limelight, Manafort went dark, not granting press interviews to anyone. Shortly thereafter, Stone reached out to us: Manafort was ready to talk.
Stone told us that Manafort was upset at how he had been treated. He thought he had been smeared by the media, set up by his enemies, and discarded with unnecessary disrespect by the campaign. Manafort had quietly reached out to Stone to help him do damage control and strategize how best to fend off the mounting accusations against him, in particular those related to a handwritten ledger unearthed in Ukraine showing $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments to Manafort from a pro-Russian political party controlled by former Manafort client Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted ex-president of Ukraine.
Manafort, it seemed, longed to be understood. And most likely, because we had earned Stone’s confidence over the five years we had followed him up until that point for our documentary, Manafort decided he could trust us to fairly represent his take. So, on Sept. 29, four-and-a-half years after we first contacted him, Manafort finally granted us an interview.
The Manafort who showed up to the shoot didn’t come across as the dazzlingly sinister character we had once envisioned. He may have looked the part in his costly bespoke suit, and sounded it too, with his cavernous baritone voice, but his manner wasn’t the least bit threatening. On the contrary, he was amiable and obliging, and he spoke with disarming affection about his family, noting with pride that his daughter, Jessica, was a filmmaker like us.
The highlights of our interview, which covered every chapter of Manafort’s career that intersected with Stone’s over five decades, can be viewed in Get Me Roger Stone on Netflix. Of particular relevance to the specific charges brought against him this week is Black, Manafort & Stone’s history lobbying for brutal dictators across the globe who wanted to influence American foreign policy—a highly lucrative and morally dubious element of the firm’s practice that Manafort specialized in and spun off into his own enterprise after they sold the company in 1991 and subsequently went off in different directions.
While a good deal of our questions were retrospective, we did confront him with the accusations made against him up to that point regarding his work in Ukraine and his connections to Russia.
Manafort emphatically denied any wrongdoing. The ledger was a forgery, he insisted; the notion that he had ties to Vladimir Putin was “crazy,” and the accusations against him stemmed from him being “a victim of a lot of dirty tricks”—quite an audacious grievance to voice, given that he was partners with Stone, the consummate dirty trickster who boasts of being a “master of the dark arts” of political destruction. But, even while brushing aside any culpability on his part for his troubles, Manafort allowed that he understood the rules of the arena in which he was now forced to defend himself.
“It hurts to have your reputation affected by things that are blatantly not true,” he said. “But it’s part of the game and I recognize that. I didn’t think that the situation was as bad as I discovered it to be in 2016.”
By the end of the multi-hour-long interview, Manafort was noticeably weary. His swagger was gone and his meticulously molded veneer cracked just enough to reveal the 67-year-old man carefully obscured behind it. Manafort pulled himself to his feet, thanked us for our time, and headed out, alone, into the dark, rainy afternoon.
That was the last time we saw Manafort. But it wasn’t the last we heard about him.
One story that has gone inadequately reported was Manafort’s continued, behind-the-scenes role in the Trump campaign after his official ouster. Like Stone, Manafort had become too toxic from a public relations standpoint for the campaign to acknowledge him anymore as an adviser, but his counsel was apparently perceived as valuable and trusted enough that he continued to volunteer it. A Politico magazine piece disclosed that in the final days of the campaign Manafort “was back in the fold… offering [Trump] pointers on how to handle the Clinton email news and urging him to make a play in Michigan.” And Stone told us that Manafort helped strategize the response to the airing of the Access Hollywood tape that seemed at the time would be a death blow to the campaign.
Both Manafort and Stone would be on hand for Trump’s inauguration festivities. In a tweet, now deleted along with the rest of Stone’s banned account, Stone announced a “historic reunion” along with a photo of him at The Palm restaurant in D.C. with Manafort and their old partner, Charles Black, who revealed to us in a May 2016 interview that he was also advising the Trump campaign, albeit informally. In the photo, the three perennial power brokers are all smiles, each having done their part to elect their former client to the presidency.
When we wrapped our interview with Manafort we were certain that it was weighty, but little did we know that it would turn out to be the last on-camera interview he would give before his indictment this week by special counsel Robert Mueller. In the aftermath of that momentous development, we have ruminated upon our long talk with Manafort and wondered whether what we documented may one day be a noteworthy time capsule—the last occasion Manafort reflected publicly on his past without his future clouded by the possibility of prison.
One particular exchange we had with Manafort came to mind this week, because, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems to anticipate the very conversation Trump’s defenders are trying to create a year later. Arguing that the press had targeted him without applying the same scrutiny to the Clinton campaign, he pointed the finger at Clinton’s campaign chairman.
QUESTION: What do you think about how the media has tried to string together you, to Yanukovych, to Putin, to Trump?
MANAFORT: It was a crazy concept that had no basis in fact. They had no evidence of anything at all that would do that, and they ignored events that showed that Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, and [the] Clinton Foundation all had ties that were not just significant but were real and could easily be traceable. They didn’t pursue any of those things, yet they totally fabricated, you know, nuances which weren’t true into facts.
What Manafort didn’t volunteer was the swampy fact that he was well aware of Podesta’s own distasteful connection to the Putin-backed Yanukovych, because he had hired Podesta’s mega-lobbying firm, The Podesta Group, to push Yanukovych’s agenda in the United States. In the wake of Manafort’s indictment, which details the Podesta Group’s involvement with Yanukovych, Podesta’s brother and business partner, Tony, resigned from the firm this week.
In response to the charges against Manafort, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed essentially what Manafort had said to us last September, “The real collusion scandal, as we’ve said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS, and Russia.”
And on Wednesday, Stone called for Trump to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton’s role in the approval of the 2010 sale of an American uranium company to a Russian state-owned energy company. Because special counsel Mueller was FBI director at the time of the sale, Stone argues that he too would be under investigation by extension, thus neutralizing his ability to continue his probe of the Trump campaign. Stone argues, “Trump can’t afford to fire Mueller politically. But this pushes him aside.”
As the Trumpers continue their relentless deflection campaign, Manafort is currently under house arrest. With the prospect of facing up to 80 years behind bars looming over him, there has been a great deal of speculation whether Manafort will try to negotiate with the government by offering up testimony against Trump. Stone insists Manafort will not, calling him “completely loyal” to the president.
While Manafort and Stone stand by their man—at least for the time being—it’s unclear whether Trump will extend the same loyalty to these two figures who were so instrumental in making him the president. Soon, Trump may attempt to further distance himself from them, and wish that our film didn’t so clearly document their decades-long relationship.
Daniel DiMauro, Dylan Bank, and Morgan Pehme are the co-writers and directors of the Netflix Originals documentary Get Me Roger Stone.