So much for the old accusation that the Republican Party has a “Cold War mentality.” Or if it still does, it has switched sides.
The 2016 presidential campaign continues to play out like a Christopher Buckley novel gone completely off the rails, perhaps most implausibly in Paul Manafort’s role in the Russia-friendly Donald Trump campaign.
Let’s consider the mind-bending reversals of the norms:
It is the outsider candidate who has a lobbyist at the heart of his campaign. And not the upstanding sort of lobbyist who merely persuades the Ways and Means Committee to bequeath tax loopholes on the likes of General Electric, but a truly sinister influence peddler who, by all accounts, made a mint working at the right hand of a small-time foreign thug and thief (Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych) who was the handmaiden of a big-time foreign thug and thief (Russia’s Vladimir Putin).
It is the candidate of the pro-Western party that traditionally champions strength abroad (i.e., the GOP) who is sending signals that he wants to abandon our commitments to NATO and doing all that he can to cozy up to a Russia that seeks to advance its interests at the cost of the interests — and the territorial integrity — of our allies.
It is the candidate of right-wing talk radio who has drawn a stirring defense from the left-wing magazine The Nation on grounds that he is the victim of “neo-McCarthyite” and “Kremlin-baiting” attacks.
It is the nationalist who is benefiting from the propaganda of the Russian media and whose prospects of winning the election may depend, in part, on an “October surprise” engineered by Russian intelligence or its associates.
If he were still with us, Henry Wallace, the Soviet-friendly New Dealer, might wonder what the hell is going on. We’ve come a long way from Mitt Romney calling Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” baby.
Paul Manafort always seemed like the kind of fixer whose name might turn up on a secret black ledger for off-the-books cash payments in a room with safes stuffed with $100 bills in some Eastern European country — but we didn’t know for sure until The New York Times reported this week that Manafort’s name appeared on just such a ledger for Yanukovych’s party in Ukraine.
According to the Times, the ledger has 22 entries for Manafort, totaling $12.7 million in payments from 2007 to 2012. Since the transparency of cash payments from corrupt, Kremlin-backed political parties doesn’t quite meet the strictures established by the International Accounting Standards Board, there is no proof that Manafort actually received the money.
For his part, Manafort is outraged at the suggestion of anything untoward, just because an apparatchik from a political party whose business model was plundering Ukraine happened — perhaps in a fit of absent-mindedness? in a transcription error? — to write his name nearly two dozen times next to specific money amounts.
Manafort’s lawyer denies that his client took cash payments, and, further, denies that he “might have countenanced corruption or been involved with people who took part in illegal activities.” In his lawyer’s version, Manafort served — and routinely played tennis with — a man whose name is synonymous with electoral fraud and political corruption, without ever suspecting that everything might not be on the up and up.
Given his reputation, other presidential campaigns might be hesitant to hold meetings with Paul Manafort, let alone put him in charge. From Trump’s perspective, though, Manafort’s Russian-friendly views and connections are a feature rather than a bug. Trump’s softness on Putin surely reflects his admiration for strongmen; his longtime instinct to kowtow to powerful politicians who might be able to help his business; his distaste for allies who allegedly are ripping us off; and his appreciation for Putin’s perceived flattery of him.
The latest Trump campaign shakeup may diminish Manafort’s role, and eventually lead to his ouster. But don’t worry — chances are that he will luck into a shady payday somewhere else soon enough.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.