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From Ukraine to Trump Tower, Paul Manafort unafraid to take on controversial jobs

Paul Manafort testifies before a House subcommittee on Oct. 2, 1989. He said he ‘”played by the rules” in obtaining multimillion-dollar federal housing subsidies. (AP)
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Paul Manafort has a history of working for strong men.

Over a 40-year career as a lobbyist and political consultant, Manafort and his firms have advised, in no particular order, a business group tied to Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator of the Philippines; Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president and ally of Vladimir Putin; and Lynden Pindling, the former Bahamian prime minister who was accused of ties to drug traffickers.

Now, he works for Donald Trump.

On Thursday, Trump announced that Manafort would play an increasingly influential role in his campaign as it heads toward a possibly contested Republican convention in Cleveland. In a statement, the business mogul announced that “he is consolidating the functions related to the nomination process” and “assigning” them to Manafort.

“Mr. Manafort will oversee, manage, and be responsible for all activities that pertain to Mr. Trump’s delegate process and the Cleveland Convention,” the statement said. “Mr. Manafort will direct the campaign’s activities in areas including delegate operations, Washington, DC outreach and the DC office opening next week.”

Friends, lobbyists and former foes say that Trump is picking the right man for the job at a time when he is seeking to professionalize his political operation as it fends off talk that he will be unable to secure the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the GOP presidential nod outright. If that doesn’t happen, then Trump will be relying on the longtime party operative to corral delegates in a race that could go to a second ballot and beyond.

Manafort comes with the right calling card: He fiercely protected Gerald Ford’s delegates at the last contested convention in 1976, in what Bay Buchanan, national treasurer for Ronald Reagan’s insurgent campaign, called “hand to hand” combat.

“You’re down to the number of people you can count and meet,” Buchanan said, noting that Manafort didn’t lose a single Ford delegate. “If you’re not tough, you will lose. To suggest he’s tough is saying he’s competent.”

Since then, Manafort has been involved in many a convention operation. But that doesn’t mean Manafort is a conventional Washington figure — indeed, he remains somewhat of a mystery on K Street.

[As contested convention looms, Trump to hire ‘seasoned operatives’ to help]

Friends say Manafort hasn’t lived full time in the Washington area for years. He resides, at least part of the time, in Trump Tower in Manhattan, where he has an apartment. He and Trump have met over the years in the lobby and elevators.

Manafort splits time in Florida, New York and Alexandria, Va., and travels internationally often, and for weeks or months at a time, consulting for foreign governments, several friends said. Corporate lobbyists describe such work as “a different cup of tea” than the typical contract lobbying for corporations that keeps most K Street types in Washington full-time.

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But despite his low inside-the-Beltway profile, no one underestimates Manafort, seen as a formidable opponent who is unafraid to go to the mat for controversial, polarizing clients. The Trump job marks his reemergence onto the U.S. political scene, one longtime friend said.

“He’s going to be a major influence on Trump,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a longtime Manafort friend. “They’re close in age, so Trump doesn’t look to him like he’s some kid. He brings a level of professionalism to the Trump operation at an important time because they have to pivot from being this band of merry campaigners that fly around to actually grinding out a convention where every delegate matters.”

Reed was campaign manager for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and hired Manafort to run the San Diego convention. The two previously worked together on the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1984, when Manafort was heavily involved in the convention planning.

“Paul is very much into the basics of this business,” Reed said. “Blocking and tackling. Message discipline. Those are the things that really matter. We’ll see if he can get it done. The jury is still out.”

If anyone is capable of whipping the Trump campaign into a more organized, disciplined operation, it’s Manafort. He was recommended for the job by Roger Stone, the longtime Trump associate who officially parted ways with the campaign last summer but remains influential.

Manafort is the co-founder of two lobby and consulting firms, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly (BMS&K) and, later, Davis Manafort. Even in the lobbying industry, where the buying and selling of influence can blur ethical lines, both businesses garnered considerable scrutiny for their tactics and clients.

BMS&K, founded in 1980, was investigated by a congressional panel in 1989 for its role in obtaining millions of dollars in federal grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to rehabilitate a low-income housing complex in New Jersey.

In exchange, Manafort and his partners received consulting fees from developers. During the investigation, Manafort acknowledged that the work he performed in return for consulting fees could be termed “influence peddling,” The Post reported in 1991. The firm was sold to public relations giant Burson-Marsteller in 1991 for an undisclosed price.

BMS&K also appears to be the early link that connected Manafort and Trump decades ago. The firm lobbied on behalf of the Trump Organization on gaming, taxes and other issues related to Trump’s hotels, at both the federal and state levels in New York and Florida, said lobbyist and GOP strategist Charlie Black, Manafort’s former business partner.

Manafort “has taken on a tough task, but certainly it’s a good decision for Trump,” said Black, who has been friends with Manafort for 40 years. Black is an adviser to John Kasich’s presidential campaign.

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for an interview with Manafort. But on Thursday, in the Trump release expanding his role, Manafort described winning the GOP nod “as an intricate series of steps that requires a comprehensive strategy.”

“As part of the campaign team, my job is to secure and protect Mr. Trump’s nomination and that is what we will do,” he vowed, adding he intended to work closely with campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and deputy campaign chief Michael Glassner. “I am honored that he has allowed me to join him in this effort. Mr. Trump has created a historic campaign that has moved the American people. He is on the verge of an incredible victory.”

For much of his career, Manafort seemed to be a part of the establishment that Trump routinely rails against.

He made a name for himself working for leading Republican figures, including Ford, Reagan, Dole and George H.W. Bush.

“Paul has been involved in internal Republican politics for almost all of his adult life,” said Vin Weber, a lobbyist and a Republican former congressman from Minnesota who is a longtime friend of Manafort. “He’s one of the true first-rate professionals in the Republican Party. There’s only a handful of people, I really mean that, that can honestly say they know how a national convention works. He’s one of them.”

Weber, who advises Kasich, is no fan of Trump but lauded his choice of Manafort all the same.

“This is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen the Trump organization do,” Weber said. “Maybe the only impressive thing.”

After BMS&K was sold to Burson-Marsteller, Manafort formed Davis Manafort in 1995 with former John McCain adviser Rick Davis. It effectively disbanded after the 2008 election, Politico reported in 2014. Davis did not immediately return a request seeking comment.

Manafort then founded DMP International, a business and international-affairs firm. The firm was formed in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in 2012, according to the state’s business records.

Along the way, he seems to have picked up a masterful command of the unique traits critical to securing delegates, a dance that combines math, management skills, discipline and a knack for knowing when and how to apply pressure. He has a keen ability to “size people up pretty well” to gauge whether they can be trusted, Black said.

“A delegate operation is a big undertaking,” Black said. “You need several hundred people contacting the delegates to back up the efforts the candidate and others are making. You have to be very organized and make sure people are following through and accountable.”

Buchanan recalls the aggressive convention strategy deployed by the Reagan campaign to try to win over Ford-aligned delegates. Not a single one budged. “The spirit in the room was so pro-Reagan, it was astounding, yet we didn’t get one [delegate] to come over,” Buchanan said. “That says a great deal about Paul Manafort’s ability to know these delegates, become familiar with them and make certain they remained in the camp he needed them to be in. Paul Manafort made certain no delegate moved no matter what we did.”

In Cleveland, Manafort will find himself on the opposite side of some of his former business partners — and not for the first time, in what seems to be a small circle of delegate wranglers. In 1976, Manafort worked for Ford and Black worked for Reagan. In 1988, Manafort backed Dole and Black worked for Jack Kemp.

Black said he has not spoken to Manafort since he was tapped for the Kasich campaign and Manafort signed on with Trump. But to Black, it’s business as usual.

“We’ll be friends regardless,” Black said. “We don’t always have to be on the same side to be friends.”