Early in my career, I worked for Paul Manafort. He was strategic, canny, demanding and, it will surprise no one to learn after his 12-count indictment this week, played by his own rules, in an industry where you usually got away with it. I was young, wanted to do right by the world, and my boss lacked a moral compass. Working for him nearly broke my spirit.
A few years out of college, in 1987, I landed a job as an international field operative for BMS&K — Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, the capital’s very 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 more than a decade working for him, there was no place that Manafort would not send me.
According to a Newsweek cover story that year, 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 our nation’s capital. 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. Following 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 of dollars to ensure that they were properly allied with the United States. And we did it all: We organized congressional delegations and advocacy trips to members’ districts, coordinated head-of-state visits to Washington, handled font-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 he was dispatching me and my colleague, John Donaldson, to Somalia. We had three days to prepare.
The mission: Meet with its ruler, Siad Barre, and get him to sign a contract for $1 million, with $250,000 up front. The deal was pre-sold to Barre by one of Manafort’s shady intermediaries. We just had to collect the signature. Our assignment would be to clean up Barre’s international reputation, which needed plenty of soap. An Africa Watch Committee and other human rights organizations, including our own U.S. State Department, had documented a long list of barbaric acts carried out by Barre and his ruthless cadre of Red Berets.
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, U.S. senators, congressmen and other notables. It was intimidating, and meant to be. Manafort was regarded by my colleagues and me as 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 John 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!”
John and I arrived in Somalia just as the capital, Mogadishu, had become encircled by rebels seeking to overthrow Barre. We never got our meeting with the embattled leader, who fled to Libya in search of arms — a pretty unique reason for canceling a meeting. John and I barely managed to get out of the city before it fell. We bribed our way onto one of the last flights leaving the country, a Somali Airlines flight to Cairo.
We returned to Washington, D.C. without our luggage or the signed contract, though we did carry back a memorable souvenir: amoebic dysentery.
The mercenary African adventure left me feeling 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 election observer in Nicaragua’s first multiparty elections, I jumped at it, and invited my traveling buddy, John, 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, John 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 they expected their leader, Daniel Ortega, to win the presidency decisively. His main challenger was Violeta Barrios Torres de Chamorro of the National Opposition Union, (UNO), or the ONE.
Our goal for the Center was to visit 10 polling stations outside of Managua, in the countryside where the guerrilla war had made citizens wary. It was the last day of the country’s 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 there are no armed police or military within 100 yards; ensure 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 entreaties to a Somali warlord!
Monday morning, as John and I awaited our flight to D.C., we decided to call Manafort. He’d likely be wondering why we hadn’t shown up for the Monday staff meeting. We never took vacation days.
In a failed attempt to disarm him, we hyped the potential marketing target for our company. “Hi, Paul,” John 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.”
I leaned close to John so that I could hear Manafort’s response. 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 goddamn 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 handwritten 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 had won an astonishing upset victory over the Sandinistas by a margin of 54 to 46 percent, Manafort asked John 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, Angola, where I was deployed in September 1992 as BMS&K’s sole representative during the country’s first-ever 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 their Soviet and Cuban allies. 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. 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 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 kept 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 had subsided, I climbed out of my sheltering place, shaking uncontrollably. It took me a while 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. Two 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.
But that was my problem. I took everything personally, questioned 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 deploy for better use elsewhere one day, when I could no longer justify the unjustifiable, it was time to leave Manafort. That was 22 years ago.
K. Riva Levinson, president & CEO of KRL International, a strategy consultancy, is the author “Choosing the Hero: Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President.”