On that particular April 1 in Washington, in the midst of a presidential primary season trending toward a Reagan landslide, Paul Manafort had a lot to celebrate.
The Republican operative with the thick, meticulously parted black hair and magnetic smile was turning 31. And by a quirk of bureaucratic fate, his new business happened to be officially launching on that same day in 1980.
The little shop that Manafort opened in Alexandria, Va., was envisioned as a political consulting business, like so many others in the capital. But in the coming months — as the candidate he worked for, Ronald Reagan, swept into the White House — Manafort had another idea to bounce off his two partners, Charlie Black and Roger Stone.
They should be lobbyists, too.
“I said, ‘Why in the hell would we want to do that? It’s boring as hell!’ ” Black recalled in a recent interview. “Paul said it wasn’t at all boring.”
Manafort had one more thing to say: “It paid well.”
That caught Stone’s attention.
“You bet,” Stone recalled. “I’m interested in making a living!”
None of them knew it then, but that one conversation, a chat among three ambitious young Reaganites — Stone was just 28 and Black only 33 — would have a transformative effect on the capital, nudging Washington into a generation-long evolution. Their business would morph into a then-unheard-of hybrid, a bipartisan firm that would help elect politicians — sometimes hedging by playing both sides in the same race — then lobby those same politicians. Radical, disruptive and frequently criticized as ethically unsavory at the time, the mix is de rigueur now.
“I don’t think they invented the swamp,” said John Donaldson, a veteran Washington strategist who was an early employee of the firm. “They invented an innovative way to navigate the swamp.”
One of the first clients of the firm they christened Black, Manafort & Stone was a New York developer named Donald J. Trump, brought into their portfolio by Stone, who’d met him through the notorious Gotham lawyer Roy Cohn.
The brash Reagan boys would become essential architects of the city Trump now dominates, a place where the line between the lobbyists and the lobbied is so blurred that some question whether it exists at all.
By the time their business was born, they were already expert navigators of loopholes — Black and Stone, along with GOP operative John T. “Terry” Dolan, had founded the National Conservative Political Action Committee, best known as Nick-Pac, five years earlier. The hyperaggressive group was one of the first to bundle contributions to circumvent limits on individual campaign contributions, and was a precursor to the rise of super PACs, which candidate Trump lambasted four decades later as prime examples of Washington’s swamp problem.
The partners’ new full-service influence business so prospered that they soon shrugged off their humble digs in a modest townhouse office across the Potomac from the capital and built their own swanky lobbying palace a few blocks away.
From that perch, they set in motion a chain of events that led straight to the Trump White House.
It was Stone who ushered then-candidate Trump into the fringy netherworld of Internet conspiracy enthusiasts and far-right activists by arranging for him to appear on “Infowars,” the program hosted by Alex Jones that boasts a massive digital following and has a penchant for spreading outrageously false stories.
Stone would also help Trump reach out to mainstream Republicans by suggesting that he hire Manafort as campaign chairman. Manafort, who owned an apartment in Trump Tower but wasn’t close to the candidate, was sold to Trump by Stone and others as the perfect man to tap long-standing connections with party regulars in the event of a floor fight at the Republican convention.
Trump — who vowed to bring “all the best people” to Washington as president — is now knit in scandal with both Manafort and Stone. Manafort has been convicted in a fraud case and has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice in another legal matter in return for cooperating in the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in support of Trump in 2016.
Stone, an early adviser to Trump’s election effort, has been the subject of intensifying grand jury scrutiny in the same special counsel probe related to statements he made in 2016 predicting the release by WikiLeaks of documents damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
But on that April day long ago, with grand juries and subpoenas far off in their futures, Manafort and Stone were about to make themselves star players in a Washington game of their own devising, a game with rules they were writing as they played it. In a button-down town, they were randy, flashy and flush with cash.
They would sell an idea as much as a service — the notion that everyone ought to have a lobbyist. Not just corporations and special-interest groups, but also African warlords and Western Pacific strongmen. The politicians they’d help to elect would be their allies in the sales game.
“That was a new game. Nobody had done that before,” said longtime Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who worked with Manafort and Stone in the Reagan campaign. “It’s the epitome of everything everybody wants to clean up.”
A lesson in loyalty
In 1970, a high school kid named Roger Stone arrived at the Connecticut state convention of Young Republicans, a group of fresh-faced conservative activists that had played an outsize role in shifting the GOP to the right in the previous decade.
Stone, born in Norwalk, Conn., the son of a well-drilling company owner, had shown up with more than his share of bravado — but without a hotel room. Dolan, Stone’s friend and a future Republican kingmaker, walked the teenager over to meet a guy who could help.
Paul Manafort Jr. had a pedigree in Connecticut politics. His father, Paul Manafort Sr., was a local Republican macher and mayor of New Britain, Conn. The younger Manafort served in a leadership role with the Young Republicans. To Stone, he looked like a budding master of the universe.
“Hey, kid, how ya’ doin’?” Stone recalled Manafort saying before getting down to sussing him out. “Why are you supporting Weicker?”
Manafort was referring to Lowell Weicker, a moderate Republican candidate for U.S. senator. Manafort, clearly, was testing the kid.
“You think I give a f--- about Weicker? I’m here to elect Meskill,” Stone shot back, meaning Thomas Meskill, a conservative gubernatorial candidate admired by youthful Republicans, such as Manafort, who were trying to steer the party to the right.
Stone, who’d become an arch right-winger after reading Barry Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative,” had passed the test.
In a city saturated with visitors, Manafort almost magically found Stone a hotel room.
Stone eventually became entranced with Richard M. Nixon and earned the respect of the Nixon team with a dirty trick in New Hampshire: Stone made a contribution to one of Nixon’s rivals in the 1972 presidential campaign in the name of a socialist group and then passed the receipt to a local newspaper.
During Nixon’s first term, Stone said, he rented a room from the president’s influential campaign aide, Herbert L. “Bart” Porter, in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington. On the night of the Watergate break-in, Stone said, Porter was out of town and Stone spent the evening taking urgent phone messages from Watergate figures, such as G. Gordon Liddy, who organized the burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
What animated Stone and Manafort in those days wasn’t the mechanics of running the government. “Government is impossibly dull,” Stone is wont to say. What juiced him, rather, was the thrill of scheming how to win campaigns.
Manafort was a master strategist, but in the mid-1970s he made a miscalculation. Going against his friends Stone and Black, in 1976 he supported a full term for President Gerald Ford, who’d become chief executive after Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal.
Black said he and Stone “thought Ford was a loser.”
Manafort had been expected to become president of the national Young Republicans. Ford’s loss to Democrat Jimmy Carter turned Manafort into a liability.
“It’s almost Shakespearean,” said Donaldson, who would become Manafort’s colleague at Black, Manafort & Stone. “There had been all these people who had been asking Paul for favors. Ford loses, now nobody was returning his phone calls. He’s ostracized.”
Manafort wasn’t about to remain outside the power structure. He and Black crafted a plan: Stone, despite his dirty-trickster reputation, would run for the Young Republican presidency in his buddy’s place.
Manafort, meanwhile, got on a plane and persuaded Stone’s chief rival to run for treasurer rather than president.
“Paul Manafort’s a dealmaker,” Stone recalled. “He told him it’s better to be treasurer.”
In 1977, Stone was elected head of the Young Republicans.
The experience changed Manafort, friends say. “He remembered people who didn’t return his phone calls,” Donaldson said.
From then on, Donaldson said, Manafort saw the world in starker terms. There were Manafort loyalists. Then there was everyone else.
New dawn for lobbying
In 1980, Stone signed on as Northeast coordinator for the Reagan campaign. Black and Manafort would also join the campaign in senior roles.
Michael Deaver, the Reagan adviser, gave Stone a Rolodex of the candidate’s contacts in New York. Stone flipped through it and scoffed.
“Of 50 names, 40 were dead,” Stone recalled. “The rest were show business relationships.”
Only one name in the Rolodex interested him: Roy M. Cohn.
Cohn was Stone’s sort of guy. He’d been the prosecutor in the 1950s espionage trials of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and he’d been chief counsel to Sen. Joseph P. McCarthy, the communist-hunting rabble-rouser. When Stone arrived at Cohn’s Manhattan apartment, the lawyer was sitting with one of his clients, Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno of the Genovese mob family.
Cohn suggested Stone go meet a friend: Donald Trump. The dashing young real estate developer, still in his early 30s and building his empire both in business and as a tabloid celebrity, was also busy conjuring the legend that he was a self-made success story, rather than the son of a wealthy man who set him up in business. In Stone, he encountered a bon vivant with a similar gift for grand illusion.
Trump made a contribution to Reagan. As the campaign moved along, he called Stone frequently, Stone said.
“He kept track of his investment,” Stone said. “He was constantly checking in. He’d say, ‘Carter’s a piece of s---. If you can’t beat that guy!’ ”
Just as Reagan’s candidacy was about to take off with a February victory in the New Hampshire primary, Black was fired as part of a campaign shake-up. He turned to his friends, Manafort and Stone, and the three decided to launch their own firm, with the Reagan campaign as an early client.
Reagan’s victory in 1980 supercharged the fledgling firm. Manafort, shunned after Ford’s loss, was fielding calls again. Blue-chip corporations wanted lobbyists with connections to the new administration. Eventually, the three partners pulled in clients such as household products giant Johnson & Johnson, the investment banking firm Salomon Brothers, and for a short time, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., according to lobbying registration reports.
Black, Manafort & Stone were an unusual combination.
“It was a marriage of convenience,” Donaldson said. “That’s not a group you would see talking together at a cocktail party.”
Black was the insider’s insider, a tactician with a long list of contacts, content to eat lunch at his desk. Manafort was the chess player, a triangulator extraordinaire who was getting a taste for the high life.
Stone was the enigma, a flashy character in public with his Cab Calloway-style tailor-made suits, suspenders — he insisted they be called by their proper name, “braces”— and felt hats. He was a mystery even to those who worked down the hall from him.
“He was on his own wavelength,” Donaldson said. “He would sit through meetings not saying a word, then say something cryptic.”
Stone could be biting. K. Riva Levinson, who joined the firm in her mid-20s, remembered him staring at her during a meeting. She’d just bought a new outfit with a checked pattern — her first formal business ensemble. Stone turned to her and said, “Riva, you look like you could be on the cover of a box of Purina Dog Chow.”
Levinson couldn’t afford mascara, so she’d sometimes put Vaseline on her eyelashes. Stone told her it looked like sex lubricant.
Stone said he recalled making similar comments but remembered the setting differently, saying his remarks were part of an annual office roast.
Manafort and Black each presided over teams of young associates. Stone preferred to work with a skeleton crew — usually just one assistant — all the better to keep his secret activities on political campaigns opaque and build his mystique. He burned through assistants.
Business poured in. Stone inked political clients, such as New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean (R), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), a future presidential contender. Corporate clients brought in the big money, but it was the firm’s reputation as a politically connected shop that lured them.
“I went out and signed the Trump Organization,” Stone said. “That was my big client.”
There was little that Stone wasn’t willing to do for Trump in those days, as now. When the New York developer bought a yacht — then one of the largest in the world — from the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, Stone maneuvered to get approval for a dredging operation so it could be docked at a marina in New Jersey.
“Those permits can take years,” Stone recalled. “I got it done in months.”
“I’m Roger Stone,” he said.
Trump was a famous client but not necessarily a huge revenue generator for the firm, even as they worked on projects such as getting around height restrictions for a Chicago skyscraper and blocking competition for his casinos from Indian tribes.
“Donald Trump never pays anybody a lot,” Stone said.
Nor was he particularly easy to handle when bills came due, Black said.
“We had trouble getting paid on time,” he recalled.
A pattern developed, Black said. He would call Trump to ask him to pay an overdue bill, and Trump would start off saying he’d pay half.
“When I have cash, I’ll pay you the rest,” Trump would say, according to Black.
Black would respond: “I’m sure, Donald, you’ve got cash.”
Trump would then tell Black to come up to New York to see him. Black would fly to Manhattan to collect a check.
After Reagan’s reelection in 1984, the firm added Peter Kelly, the former finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee, as a named partner. It has often been said that the addition made the new firm — Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly — the first bipartisan lobbying shop in town.
That’s mythology, Black says. In fact, he says, there was another bipartisan operation, headed by William Timmons, a former Ford administration official. But Black and partners scaled the idea, signing a larger roster of clients.
“I broke his business model,” Black said.
Breaking business models was profitable. By Reagan’s second term, they were rich men. Stone boasted to The Washington Post that each of the partners was on track to make $450,000 a year — an unfathomable amount for Washington in that era.
Stone made his presence known around town, holding court at his regular tables at the Palm and A.V. Ristorante, the Italian joint that was a favorite of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Stone’s caricature on the wall at the Palm was accompanied by the caption “Whiz Kid”; he jauntily recounted that he once found a steak knife stuck into the drawing.
Stone drove around in a Euro-cool Citroën, then switched to a Jaguar and a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. He and his first wife, Ann “Bitsey” Stone, hosted an annual Calvin Coolidge birthday party that became one of the capital’s more coveted invites. He’d introduce everyone to his dog Milhous (Nixon’s middle name).
Stone was like a gatekeeper to Nixon, whom he’d befriended in the disgraced president’s post-Watergate years. He arranged off-the-record get-togethers at Nixon’s New Jersey home for some of the capital’s most prominent journalists.
With success came scrutiny and no small measure of disdain for the young hotshots widely touted as some of the capital’s biggest power brokers. In a Post profile, one Republican luminary called him the party’s “single best consultant,” and another dismissed him as “one of the great all-time frauds of American politics.”
“We were controversial,” Stone recalled with a shrug and a grin. “Yeah, I helped Arlen Specter get elected, and yeah, I lobbied Arlen Specter. So what?”
In another Newsweek column, the prominent Democratic campaign consultant Raymond Strother worried that the changes Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly and other firms were bringing to Washington were a threat “to the democratic process.” Strother singled out the firm for raising money for two opponents in a Louisiana Senate race: Democrat John Breaux and Republican Henson Moore.
“When one firm works for both candidates, it’s not hard to guess who wins on election night,” Strother wrote.
Kelly remembers responding: “Do you have to lose to be American?”
“It was something new, and Washington doesn’t like new things,” Kelly said. “But within five years, every firm was bipartisan.”
Stone wasn’t about to apologize for their new prominence and power. Once “laughed at as an outcast” for supporting Reagan, now he threw lawn parties catered by French chefs and hired consultants just to advise him about flower arrangements.
“They were very good,” said James Carville, who faced off against the firm in a Senate race, “at painting targets on themselves.”
‘The Torturers’ Lobby’
One day in 1985, Kelly awoke to bad news. A story was breaking that Manafort was secretly working on behalf of the Chamber of Philippines Manufacturers, Exporters and Tourist Associations under a contract that would pay the firm $950,000.
The name of the group was anodyne. But everyone knew it was a front group for Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos, whose corrupt regime was ransacking that country’s treasury.
Kelly says he had no idea Manafort had taken on the group as a client. Kelly was furious because, at the time, he was chairman of the Center for Democracy, an organization working to support the democracy movement in the Philippines.
“It was a terrible embarrassment for me,” said Kelly, who had to remove himself from the project to avoid a conflict of interest.
Colleagues began to joke about Manafort. “We used to say, ‘He never met a conflict of interest,’ ” Donaldson said.
Manafort, in spin mode, told Newsweek he’d merely been “trying to help both sides understand each other better” in the Philippines.
The firm was well on its way to becoming Exhibit A of a Washington phenomenon known as “The Torturers’ Lobby” — highly paid firms working for despots and tyrants. Manafort allies argued that the firm generally vetted his clients through the State Department and that it was not uncommon in that era for the United States to align itself with controversial governments that had bad human rights records but were nonetheless allies in the global battle against communism.
The Philippines misadventure led to some bad press. The firm was eventually forced to pull out of the contract. But it didn’t temper Manafort’s swagger.
“He’s an amazingly charismatic and exciting person to be around,” Levinson recalled. “He projects strength, power and confidence. . . . It was the place to be.”
In 1986, the firm once again showed its muscle when it took credit for getting Reagan to include Angolan rebels in his State of the Union address as “freedom fighters” who deserved U.S. support. That same year, the firm arranged for its client, Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, to appear onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference seated alongside Vice President George H.W. Bush.
The firm also inked a $1 million-a-year deal with Mobutu Sese Seko, the leader of Zaire who had been accused of rampant human rights abuses.
It was more than just the big fees that attracted Manafort, according to Black. It was also the rush. “He liked adventure,” Black said.
In 1989, Manafort dispatched Donaldson and Levinson to Somalia in the hope of signing the warlord Mohamed Siad Barre to a $1 million consulting contract to polish his image and, hopefully, persuade him to cease human rights abuses.
“We all know Barre is a bad guy, Riva,” Manafort told Levinson, as she wrote in her memoir and in a recent Post column. “We just have to make sure he’s our bad guy.”
Levinson and Donaldson returned from a harrowing trip to a nation overwhelmed by violence without a deal.
“We should never have been pitching the president of Somalia,” Donaldson said. “But Paul kept pushing it.”
At home, Manafort played the role of the alpha male at boozy golf weekends for men at the firm.
“He’d take his cart and roll over your ball,” Donaldson recalled. “He would rearrange the rules to suit him. His golf game could be kind of like a cipher for some of his other activities.”
Manafort was starting to favor fancier clothes and pricey real estate.
“I think Paul started chasing money a little too much,” Black said.
Former associates recall a master pitchman. But Manafort’s belief that he could sell anything to anyone could get him into trouble.
In 1989, staffers begged him not to make a bold pronouncement when he appeared at a congressional hearing prompted by a scandal in which the firm made more than $300,000 in fees to steer Housing and Urban Development renovation funds to a New Jersey development in which Manafort was a part owner. In a staff meeting, Manafort declared that he wanted to concede that he was involved in “influence peddling.”
“We said, ‘That is a horrible idea!’ ” Donaldson recalled.
But Manafort insisted. He used the term during his prepared remarks, saying, “For the purposes of today, I will admit that in a narrow sense some people might term it ‘influence peddling.’ ” And he repeated it in response to questions, a hint of a smile crossing his face.
“It was a combination of being proud of what he did and not wanting to BS the committee,” Donaldson said. “He never thought there was anything wrong with what we did.”
Levinson ultimately concluded that Manafort “lacked a moral compass,” a characterization Black calls unfair.
“It’s not true that Paul always lacked a moral compass,” Black said. “I think he tried to do the right thing.”
The firm was sold in 1991 to the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, but the partners stayed on. In 1996, Manafort left to start his own firm.
That same year, Rollins — who’d known Manafort from the Reagan campaign — wrote in his memoir about having dinner in 1991 with a Philippine power broker who said he’d delivered a suitcase with $10 million in cash from Marcos to give to the Reagan campaign. The man said the money went to a well-known lobbyist, whom Rollins didn’t identify. Rollins wrote that the money was no doubt sitting in “some offshore bank.”
For years, amid rampant speculation that the unnamed lobbyist was Manafort, Rollins steadfastly refused to name him publicly. But in a recent interview, Rollins confirmed that the lobbyist was Manafort.
“By that point in time, everybody knew that Manafort was pretty sleazy,” Rollins said.
Manafort, via a spokesman, called the allegation “total fiction.”
Back into Trump’s orbit
The sale of the firm that changed Washington splintered the young crew that had put it together. Black stayed at the new firm. But Manafort was gone, and so was Stone.
“Roger’s style — that’s the reason we parted company,” Black recalled. “He had developed a desire to have a bad-boy image and be famous.”
Stone also had a knack for making himself infamous. In 1996, he was forced to drop out of a volunteer position with Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign after a National Enquirer story said Stone and his second wife, Nydia, had placed an ad looking for sex partners in a swingers magazine. He denied it at the time, blaming a domestic employee who supposedly had access to his computer. Years later, he confirmed in a New Yorker interview that it was true.
Stone eventually moved to Florida, shuttling between there and an apartment he keeps in Manhattan. He consorted with like-minded conspiracy theorists and wrote books with provocative themes, such as “The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The case against LBJ,” “The Bush Crime Family” and “The Clintons’ War on Women,” which included an endorsement on the cover from Trump, who called it “one tough book.”
Manafort dived deeper into foreign business adventures, building a multimillion-dollar business and indulging his massive appetite for expensive clothes and luxury real estate. Manafort made millions working for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian leader of Ukraine — an entanglement that would lead to his conviction on fraud charges. Rick Gates, who had been a young researcher at Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, would be the prosecution’s star witness, testifying that he committed crimes on Manafort’s behalf and stole money from him.
Manafort and Stone stayed in touch. But years would go by when Black barely saw his former partners.
In 2016, Manafort got a call he couldn’t resist. Stone was pushing him to join the Trump campaign, as were other Trump confidants. According to a person close to Manafort, he had to reintroduce himself to Trump.
Manafort’s arrival gave Stone a crucial ally inside an operation he had left months earlier. Stone recalled getting phone calls from Manafort while his old friend was a having a private dinner with Trump and two other campaign officials at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach resort.
Eventually, Manafort was forced off the campaign. He’d pushed for Trump to embrace a more temperate style but quit after his role was diminished in a staff shake-up that gave more power to Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart News chief whose pugnacious manner aligned with Trump’s.
Though Manafort and Stone were no longer inside the campaign, the two friends had already left their stamp on the presidency to come.
“Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected that it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald,” Manafort said in the documentary “Get Me Roger Stone.” “While it will be clearly a Trump presidency, I think it’s influenced by a Stone philosophy.”
On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, the three partners got together, along with their wives, for dinner at the Palm, one of their old hangouts. It was the first time they’d had a meal together in at least two decades, Stone said.
Before they ordered, they got word that an article was coming out saying that Stone and Manafort were under investigation as part of a probe of possible Russian influence in the 2016 campaign, and that the inquiry included intercepted communications.
It was worrisome. But it seemed to Stone as more of a curiosity than a serious threat. They didn’t think they had too much to worry about, he said.
After all, their man was now in the White House.
Tom Hamburger, Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.