CLEVELAND — Even more than the candidate himself, Donald Trump’s campaign chief has emerged as the early star of the Republican National Convention.
Paul Manafort is the force behind the fight to stop a delegate uprising, a leading attack dog against the New York billionaire’s Republican critics — former presidents among them — and a public defender of Melania Trump’s convention speech, which may have been plagiarized under his watch.
Manafort answered with a simple, “No,” when asked Tuesday whether the campaign made a mistake with Mrs. Trump’s primetime address, which used remarkably similar language at times to Michelle Obama’s convention speech eight years earlier.
“Nobody believes she did it,” Manafort said of the theft charge during a brief interview with The Associated Press. “This is totally blown out of proportion.”
It is not Manafort’s first brush with plagiarism. And it is certainly not his first bout with drama inside the Trump campaign, an organization dominated by infighting and dysfunction since before he joined the team in March.
Yet rarely has Manafort played a more public role on Trump’s behalf than he has this week in Cleveland, where he is a fixture inside the city’s convention halls and makeshift television studios.
The 67-year-old campaign chairman caused a stir on the opening day of the convention by criticizing the Bush family, considered political royalty among many Republicans, as “part of the past” — even as he called for party unity. And he raised eyebrows on the next by deflecting responsibility on the speech fallout to Melania Trump herself.
Frustrated Republicans cheered his management of a possible delegate rebellion on the first day, but also worried that his recent performance could jeopardize his leadership position within the Trump campaign.
Yet Manafort remained squarely atop Trump Tower’s internal power structure on Tuesday afternoon, his power limited only by Trump himself and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. There is no area in Trump’s political organization that he does not control directly or indirectly.
An organization chart obtained by the AP late last month listed his responsibilities as strategy, polling, political operations, media, communications strategies, budgeting, scheduling, vice presidential vetting and debate negotiations.
Manafort favored Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to serve as Trump’s running mate, a suggestion that put him at odds with some in Trump’s family.
Yet Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., lavished Manafort with praise on Tuesday. The family “couldn’t be more happy with the work that he’s doing, the way he’s tackling these things, the way he’s handling the organization of everything going forward,” Trump Jr. said. “He’s done a phenomenal job. I wish we had him on earlier.”
With campaign finance reports suggesting Manafort works for no salary, the relative newcomer to the Trump campaign has recently been willing to walk away if necessary. He issued Trump an ultimatum last month, saying he would not stay on the campaign if former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski remained.
“He is not afraid to play hardball,” said Barry Bennett, a Trump adviser who was forced out of the campaign soon after Lewandowski’s departure.
Indeed, Manafort is no stranger to power politics.
He has worked in national and international politics for nearly four decades, a run that began on former President Gerald Ford’s convention team and includes runs with an African military leader, an ousted Ukrainian president, and a dictator from the Philippines.
Reed described Manafort’s management style as “all about execution.” ”He does not suffer fools well,” he added.
This is not his first plagiarism controversy, either.
In 2011, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whom Manafort advised, was accused of plagiarizing entire passages in an English-language book on reforming his country that he authored. One passage in “Opportunity Ukraine” bore a striking resemblance to an article in a top Ukrainian magazine; another borrowed heavily from a speech by a Communist lawmaker, yet another section was similar to a college paper posted on a Russian essay-sharing web site.
While it’s unlikely that Manafort played a direct role with the book, the scandal further bolstered Yanukovych’s image as a deeply corrupt and unprincipled politician.
Donald Trump Jr. said he was pleased that his father ultimately picked Manafort to lead the campaign over Lewandowski.
“There’s a reason Paul’s in the position that he is today and Corey’s not. And it’s not because Paul’s amateur hour,” Trump Jr. said.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Cleveland and Maria Danilova In Washington contributed to this report.