Paul Manafort had something very, very special that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wanted so badly: His cooperation.
Today, as he promised to plead guilty to a set of reduced charges, Manafort agreed to cooperate “fully, truthfully, completely, and forthrightly” with the special counsel’s investigation. Documents Mueller might want to inspect? Manafort has agreed to provide them. His attendance and participation at prosecutor debriefings? Done. Perform from the witness stand for prosecutors? You betcha.
Why is Manafort’s cooperation so valuable to Mueller? He’s been operating inside Trump World for almost four decades and, as Trump’s campaign chairman for the crucial period including the Republican convention, he is the most powerful of all Trump’s aides and associates to be indicted. As an experienced political strategist and lobbyist, he excels at snooping out the weakness and strengths of other operators. He has kept score over the years and now his score is about to drop onto Robert Mueller’s desk. Manafort’s defection also stands as a personal rebuke to President Donald Trump, who as recently as Aug. 22 was tweeting his admiration for Manafort for refusing to flip. “Such respect for a brave man!” Trump wrote. Manafort’s move likewise sends a signal to others in the investigation to cut a deal before Mueller cuts them down in court.
The plea seems to have caught the Trump team off guard. After Manafort agreed to cooperate, the president’s legal team released a statement attributed to Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani that stated, “Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign. The reason: the President did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth.”
Moments later, the team released a “corrected“ statement that was identical to the first except that it deleted the words “and Paul Manafort will tell the truth.”
Rather than marking the winding down of the Mueller investigation, the Manafort cooperation portends a widening of the probe that will likely increase Trump’s propensity to head-bang. Manafort—convicted last month of tax and bank fraud and now a fresh confessor to charges of conspiracy against the United States and obstruction of justice—will presumably direct Mueller’s team to other acts of lawbreaking in his orbit.
It’s a rich orbit. Manafort became ever-tighter with Trump, whom he has known for decades, during his five-month tenure with the campaign. He attended the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, convened by an agent of the Russian government on the pretext of peddling dirt on Hillary Clinton directly to Donald Trump Jr. He earned millions from pro-Russia interests for years of work swinging Ukraine politics in their direction. His business protégé in Ukraine and fellow indictee, Konstantin Kilimnik, is believed to be a Russian intelligence operative.
One measure of the plea deal’s impact is that reduces the chance Trump might give Manafort a pardon and thereby still the investigation. If Trump did issue a pardon, it would prevent him from going to jail for the crimes he’s admitted and been convicted of, but it would not slow the investigation because Mueller has already asked and gotten satisfying answers to the main questions he had for Manafort. “There will be no pardon,” criminal defense whiz and Trump defender Alan Dershowitz confidently predicted on MSNBC this afternoon. “It will backfire at this point. If [Manafort] is given a pardon, then he can’t take the Fifth Amendment.” Blue-state attorney generals would likely use available evidence to bring Manafort up on state charges for his financial crimes and convict him, and a president can’t pardon a state felon out of jail. Manafort’s pardon moment has passed.
Dershowitz went on to say that the depending on what Manafort knows, “potentially, it opens up a lot of doors that probably haven’t been opened before.”
Who is behind those closed doors? Donald Jr., for one, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom were with Manafort at the Trump Tower meeting. What sauce might Manafort be able to add to the soup? According to the Washington Post, the president already believes the Trump Tower meeting might have inadvertently gotten his son into legal trouble. This New York Times story from August notes additional legal exposure: Donald Jr. might have lied to Congress when he said he had never sought foreign assistance for the Trump campaign when in fact he met with Arab princes and an Israeli social manipulation specialist. Perhaps Manafort knows something useful about the December 2017 meeting Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn and Kushner took with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi. And let’s not forget Roger Stone, Manafort’s one-time partner, who has openly speculated Mueller might come after him for his contacts with WikiLeaks over the hacked Clinton campaign emails.
The most heavily guarded door, of course, leads to Trump himself. What goods, if any, might Manafort have on the president? We still don’t know whether Manafort was enabling collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign or if he was just using the campaign as part of a scheme to get himself out of deep hock with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. If the Russian exerted indirect influence on the Trump campaign, Manafort would have been an obvious pressure point. If the Russian exerted direct influence on Trump, surely he would have gained a glimpse of it. (It’s worth noting that previous cooperators George Papadopoulous, Rick Gates, Sam Patten, Alex Van der Zwaan, Richard Pinedo, and the aforementioned Flynn have yet to surface information that proves an iron-tight collusion case. It doesn’t mean they ultimately won’t, only that they haven’t. See this Nation piece for this against-the-grain view.)
Manafort is still looking at a prison sentence of 10 years. And the plea deal hits him hard in the portfolio. He’s forfeiting tens of millions of dollars in real estate and investments, my Politico colleagues write. There goes his Trump Tower apartment, there goes his Chinatown apartment, his Brooklyn townhouse, his Hamptons estate and even his life insurance policy.
This was Trump worst week since the last week of August, when Manafort lost his first trial and Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in New York. And it’s far from being his last worst week.
Omertà is a dish best served fresh. If you want to rat out your associates, send email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts will plead guilty to any Mueller charge but please, please, they say, let us keep our property. My Twitter feed is holding out for a better deal than Manafort got. My RSS feed is flying to Brazil now and will fight any extradition request.