Just out of college, in 1985, I landed a job as an international field operative for BMS&K — Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, the capital’s first bipartisan lobbying firm. Manafort himself hired me after I promised that “there is no place in the world I will not go.” And I got what I signed up for: In nearly a decade working for him, there was no place that Manafort would not send me.
According to a Newsweek story in 1986, BMS&K was “the hottest shop in town.” The service it provided to clients was part politics, part public policy and part commerce, a curious mix of self-interest, selflessness and opportunism that could exist only in Washington. BMS&K got paid to change policy and alter opinions. It could be for something as narrow as a modified export regulation or as all-encompassing as building strategic alliances against America’s enemies, real or perceived.
The late ’80s was a time of global upheaval. After Ronald Reagan’s presidency, we were in an era of proxy wars and “freedom fighters.” The Soviet Union was beginning to teeter. So foreign governments and other political interests were willing to pay us millions to ensure that they were properly allied with the United States. And we did it all: We organized congressional delegations and advocacy trips to lawmakers’ districts, coordinated head-of-state visits to Washington, handled front-page media placements, prepared white papers. Whatever it took.
You never knew what would come at you at BMS&K. It felt random and totally unpredictable. One autumn afternoon in 1989, Manafort summoned me to his office and announced that he was dispatching me and my colleague John Donaldson to Somalia. We had three days to prepare.
The mission: Meet with the country’s ruler, Mohamed Siad Barre, and have him sign a contract for $1 million, with $250,000 up front. The deal had been pre-sold to Siad Barre by one of Manafort’s shady intermediaries. We just had to collect the signature. Our assignment would then be to clean up Siad Barre’s international reputation, which needed plenty of soap. The Africa Watch Committee and other human rights organizations, including our own State Department, had documented a long list of barbaric acts carried out by Siad Barre and his ruthless cadre of Red Berets.
I told Manafort it didn’t seem like a promising strategy to march into a murderous dictator’s office and point out to him and his lieutenants that he had a public relations problem. “Are we sure we want this guy as a client?” I asked, in a garish display of naivete. Manafort sounded annoyed, as if I had asked the right question at the wrong time. He waved off my concerns as he settled into his large leather armchair in his spacious corner office overlooking the Potomac River, the walls adorned with photos of past presidents, senators, congressmen and other notables. It was intimidating, and meant to be.
My colleagues and I considered Manafort a master geopolitical strategist. He was one of those rare individuals who could cut through the noise, get to the heart of a problem and hit on a solution. And he didn’t care about the collateral damage. I eventually learned that the hard way.
As he showed Donaldson and me out the door, he said: “We all know Barre is a bad guy, Riva. We just have to make sure he’s our bad guy. Have a great trip!”
Donaldson and I arrived in Somalia as rebels seeking to overthrow Siad Barre were putting more and more pressure on the regime. We never got our meeting with the embattled leader. We only managed to get out of Mogadishu by bribing our way onto a Somali Airlines flight to Cairo.
We returned to Washington without our luggage or the signed contract, though we did carry back a memorable souvenir: amoebic dysentery.
The mercenary African adventure left me dispirited. I needed to cleanse my soul. So when I received a last-minute request several weeks later from the Center for Democracy to serve as an observer in Nicaragua’s first free multiparty elections, I jumped at it and invited Donaldson to join me.
Here was a chance to do something good. And Manafort was away, so we could conveniently depart without seeking his permission. The guy was a control freak, and even though he had no say in how we used our personal time, Donaldson and I knew he would veto the trip, since it wouldn’t directly benefit BMS&K. Plus, he generally showed no interest in ideas that he didn’t generate.
Under international pressure, the Soviet-backed Sandinista government had agreed to hold elections, partly because officials expected their leader, Daniel Ortega, to win the presidency decisively. His main challenger was Violeta Chamorro of the National Opposition Union (UNO).
Our goal for the center was to visit 10 polling stations outside Managua, in the countryside where the guerrilla war had made citizens wary. It was the last day of voter registration.
At 5:30 a.m., the temperature already approaching 90 degrees, our team of five set off in a Toyota SUV with our checklist: Review the registrar list at each precinct; confirm that there were no armed police or military troops within 100 yards; ensure that the registration process was free from intimidation.
At Jinotega, in the hills not far from the Honduran border, thousands were waiting in the main square to register. The excitement was infectious and the atmosphere festive. Most of the women and girls were attired in shiny, taffeta-like dresses in pastel shades of pink, purple, yellow and lime; the men wore their Sunday best, many sporting ties. While a colleague from our entourage interviewed the poll workers, I approached a middle-aged couple standing hundreds back in the line. I asked them: “Por quién usted va a votar?” Who will you vote for?
The man smiled, revealing his yellowing teeth. His eyes shined as he pointed his index finger into the air. It was the sign for UNO. All at once, everyone in line followed suit, index fingers raised. I knew I wasn’t supposed to ask about voter preference, and I was later admonished by the center staff. But I was glad to see that people felt free to vote against the Sandinistas. Moreover, I was now convinced from my impromptu focus group that Ortega was going to lose. I felt I had just witnessed democracy being born. A nice change from my attempted entreaties to a Somali warlord!
Monday morning, as Donaldson and I awaited our flight to D.C., we decided to call Manafort. He’d probably be wondering why we hadn’t shown up for the Monday staff meeting. We never took vacation days.
In an attempt to disarm him, we hyped the potential marketing target for our company. “Hi, Paul,” Donaldson began. “I’m here in Miami with Riva on our way back to D.C. We went to Nicaragua with the Center for Democracy, and we’re convinced Chamorro will win. This may be a great opportunity for the firm.”
So I could hear Manafort’s response, I leaned close to Donaldson. But I didn’t need to. “Who gave you permission to leave the country?” Manafort screamed into the receiver. “Why didn’t you inform me? You’re wasting your g–d— time! The Sandinistas have this election all sewn up! Client priorities are not being met! You both have horrible judgment!” Then he hung up.
The next day at the office, I got the word from my co-workers. They’d never seen Manafort like this. “Stay away from him,” warned Mary Kay, his secretary. Piled on my chair were a half-dozen notes in Manafort’s scribble on yellow legal paper. Each one was an action item that he wanted done ASAP, and each one would take hours. My penance. I’d be working every night that week to pay for my side trip.
Months later, after Chamorro won an astonishing upset victory over the Sandinistas, 54 to 40 percent, Manafort asked Donaldson and me to secure a contract with her and her party. I wanted to raise a finger into the air when he asked — my middle one. (We never ended up making a deal.)
It would go on like that with me and Paul for another five years and through my most challenging mission, in Angola, where I was deployed in September 1992 as BMS&K’s sole representative during the country’s first democratic election. The historic contest pitted the communist government against the firm’s client, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
By the time of the election, BMS&K had been working with UNITA for several years and was responsible, in no small part, for the Reagan administration designating UNITA as a “freedom fighter” movement, making it eligible for covert funding to fight the government and its Soviet and Cuban allies. After 17 years of conflict, the international community hoped that the ’92 elections would finally bring peace to the country and permit democracy to take root. And Manafort was convinced that UNITA would win. Both assumptions proved false.
The U.N.-administered election was a logistical disaster, with only 17 helicopters deployed to move completed ballots in a country twice the size of Texas, according to my notes from the time. When early results from the urban areas showed the government’s clear advantage, UNITA cried foul, and the capital, Luanda, became extraordinarily tense. You could tell that the various party militias were ready to start fighting.
I went to the National Electoral Commission downtown to urge that UNITA’s concerns be taken seriously so that calm could be maintained while the final vote count continued. After a pointless two-hour visit, I emerged from the smoke-filled office, famished and looking for my vehicle. As I approached the street, a firefight broke out — rapid, staccato automatic gunshots. Everyone scattered. I dove under a white Jeep with “U.N.” emblazoned on its side, and waited, and waited. I felt extremely alone. Why had Manafort sent me here by myself?
After the shots subsided, I climbed out of my sheltering place, shaking uncontrollably. It took me awhile to reset myself, remember where I was and what I was doing. After the incident, the U.S. mission urged me to leave the country. Officials there were unsure whether I was a target. Four weeks later, the country was at war with itself. The election process was never completed. Thousands of UNITA sympathizers were killed, along with many friends, including some who had escorted me onto my flight out.
I was traumatized, depressed, almost in mourning. Worse, I felt responsible. Our efforts might have contributed to the misery inflicted on the Angolan people. As for Manafort — well, there was no self-reflection. It was simple: They lost. He saw no reason to dwell on it. I shouldn’t take it personally, he told me.
But that was my problem. I took everything personally, questioning myself, the firm, the mission and the point of it all. And when it wasn’t enough to rationalize that I was gaining experience to put to better use elsewhere one day, when I could no longer justify the unjustifiable, it was time to leave Manafort. That was 22 years ago.
CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this article gave the wrong dates for a Newsweek cover story, the fall of Mogadishu and the year the author started at Manafort’s firm. The Sandinistas won 40, not 46 percent of the vote. Angola’s civil war began four weeks, not two, after the author’s departure.