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Story highlights

Michael D'Antonio: Donald Trump is clearly attracted to figures who enjoy having bad reputations

His cohort of boundary breakers, including the now-indicted Manafort, reveals who Trump really is, D'Antonio writes

Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

For a man with such bright ambitions, Donald Trump sure keeps himself in shady company. First there are all the guys with connections to Russia and its former satellites – like Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and Felix Sater. Then there are the fringe political characters like Roger Stone, Sebastian Gorka, Steve Bannon, and the late Roy Cohn. In choosing over the years to ally himself with these men, with their murky dealings and extremist ways, Donald Trump tells us who he is. Examine the men whose company Trump keeps and you will know him.

For a group of people who presented themselves as superpatriots, complete with American flag lapel pins, Trump’s campaign crew entered the fray of the 2016 presidential campaign with an astounding number of ties to America’s chief geopolitical antagonist: Vladimir Putin’s Russia. If they weren’t the type to team up with the Russians, they sure seemed to be disposed to use whatever means necessary, perhaps even a foreign power’s aid or financial backing, to get what they want.

Manafort is now in the brightest spotlight, as the Trump campaign’s former chairman has been indicted by special prosecutor Robert Mueller. Manafort has spent much of his career doing the kind of dirty business that would make him untouchable for a regular president. As a political consultant he became so well known as far back as 1992 for helping the world’s strongman dictators that the Center for Public Integrity included him in a report entitled “The Torturers’ Lobby: How Human Rights-Abusing Nations are Represented in Washington.” In a single year his then-firm, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, got paid more than $3 million by the likes of Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines and Angola’s UNITA rebel group – all of whom were widely criticized for their dark records on human rights.

As Trump’s campaign chief from early spring 2016 to the Republican National Convention, Manafort paraded around in fancy suits and bright ties, cutting just the right public figure for Trump, who always wants the people around him to look the part. Behind the scenes, Manafort was a campaign contact for the candidate’s young foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos as the latter communicated with Russian contacts about offers to help the Trump campaign and visits to Russia.

Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, was a marginal political player who, prior to working for Trump, may have been best-known for smearing an opponent in a 2002 Senate campaign about his stance on terrorism. Now he appears to have been another one of the higher campaign officials Papadopoulos contacted about Russia.

Manafort, meanwhile, is now under indictment for hiding millions of dollars, some of which was gained for work done in Ukraine for a president the Russians favored.

Although another campaign chairman would likely recognize the danger, and possible betrayal, of American interests in these Russian overtures and report them to authorities, it appears that Manafort did not. This is consistent with the kind of risk-taking Donald Trump has often embraced. He likes people who, like him, flout convention and go to extremes.

A case in point is Stone, Manafort’s former business partner, who was recently banned from Twitter for life after he used the social media platform for profanity-laced tirades. Like Trump and Manafort, Stone is known for his fancy clothes and tendency to push the limits. A Nixon dirty trickster as a youth, he became Trump’s longest-standing political adviser. He preaches aggression and disruption. One of his main maxims is “nothing is on the level.”

Trump met Stone through Cohn, his most notorious, well-dressed shadowy friend. New York’s impresario of the political dark arts, Cohn was notorious for playing the henchman for Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, and then became a lawyer/fixer for anyone who could pay, including mobsters and corrupt union officials.

In Cohn, Trump found a lawyer so menacing that his mere name would prompt opponents to shiver. Cohn served as a role model in the use of threats and intimidation and also taught Trump how to manipulate the press. Shortly before he died of AIDS, Cohn was disbarred for practices a court found ”unethical,” ”unprofessional” and ”particularly reprehensible.”

Cohn radiated the kind of odious charm that repelled some and attracted others, including Trump. According to Stone, Cohn once told mob boss “Fat” Tony Salerno that “everything’s fixed” including the Supreme Court, which can be bought “for a few more dollars.”

In more recent years, Trump’s shady playmates have included his development partner Sater, a convicted felon with ties to mobsters who was prosecuted on charges related to investment scams by one of the lawyers now helping Mueller.

There’s also Boris Epshteyn, whose background includes a bar fight conviction that required he take court-ordered anger management classes. Brash and aggressive, Epshteyn was prominent in the campaign and worked briefly in the White House. He too had business ties to Russia. In September he testified in secret to the Congressional committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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Another Trump adviser with deep Russia ties, Page, was an obscure business and financial adviser until then-candidate Trump offered his name in response to a question about his team. By September 2016 his contacts with Russians had captured the attention of US intelligence officials, and a judge authorized surveillance of his communications. On Monday, he said that Russia “may have come up” in his conversations with Papadopoulos during the campaign.

Page is not the kind of person most reputable people would seek as an adviser. Then again, neither are Manafort, Stone, Sater, Epshteyn, Cohn and many others whom Trump has drawn close to him over the years.

There’s no other way to say it: Trump is clearly attracted to figures who enjoy having bad reputations. Michael Flynn, who was briefly his national security adviser, was famously known as a hot-headed defense official who failed to disclose money taken from Russian sources in 2015. Former White House adviser Gorka was linked to members of an ultranationalist group in Hungary and recently compared Hillary Clinton to Ethel Rosenberg in an interview with Sean Hannity. Bannon, a former campaign official and co-chief-of-staff at the White House, had promoted the views of white nationalists in his media empire at Breitbart.

The thing Trump’s men have in common is a willingness to go beyond the boundaries normally respected by others. Donald Trump is the same kind of heedless risk-taker who sees no reason to adhere to ethical norms. This is why, in the long run-up to his election, so many reputable and sober Republicans like Mitt Romney and both Presidents Bush would not endorse him. They understood that we are known by the company we keep.