Manafort flips: What does this mean for Trump?
Special counsel Robert Mueller has “finally nabbed his white whale,” said Matt Zapotosky in The Washington Post. Since the Russia investigation’s launch in 2017, Mueller’s team has worked doggedly to secure the cooperation of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager, whose decades of shady, highly paid consulting work in Russia and Ukraine make him a likely key player in any collusion effort between the Trump team and the Kremlin during the 2016 election. But even as Mueller “methodically turned allies of Trump into witnesses,” Manafort refused to “flip.” Until last week. On the brink of a second trial that could have meant decades in jail, Manafort struck a deal. In exchange for a dismissal of five of seven charges and leniency on a prison sentence that will still total at least 10 years, he pleaded guilty to fraud and obstruction of justice; agreed to forfeit luxury homes, cash, and other assets totaling more than $40 million; and promised to cooperate “fully, truthfully, completely, and forthrightly” with Mueller’s team. The White House downplayed the news, said Andrew Prokop in Vox.com, with the familiar refrain that Manafort’s crimes have nothing to do with Trump or his 2016 campaign. But the question that could determine Trump’s fate is “What does Manafort know?”
A lot, said Jack Shafer in Politico.com, and it’s all “about to drop onto Mueller’s desk.” Manafort, whose longtime business associate Konstanin Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence, was present at the infamous Trump Tower meeting, where Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner tried to solicit Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Manafort can presumably also tell Mueller why, and in exchange for what, Trump has been so adamant about forging friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. We don’t know exactly what Manafort has on Trump, said Randall Eliason in The Washington Post, but Mueller evidently found it “important and credible enough to be worthy of a deal—and a pretty sweet deal at that.”
“Anti-Trumpers have visions of the walls closing in on the president,” said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. But what do they think Manafort can tell Mueller that Mueller hasn’t already learned from Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner, who started cooperating six months ago? A more plausible interpretation is that Mueller had nothing to gain by convicting Manafort a second time of charges unrelated to Trump, and wanted to wrap up that part of the investigation. So far, Mueller has publicly produced no evidence of collusion with Russia; the special counsel seems focused on alleging that Trump obstructed justice in trying to influence the investigation—a legally questionable claim, since presidents oversee the Justice Department.
If Mueller doesn’t think Manafort has anything on Trump, said Josh Gerstein in Politico.com, why go to such lengths to “Trump-proof” the plea agreement? Experts say the deal has been carefully crafted to ensure Manafort will face almost certain prosecution by state officials in New York and Virginia if Trump pardons him for his federal crimes. “Trump cannot be resting easy,” said Noah Bookbinder, Barry Berke, and Norman Eisen in The New York Times. Mueller has been methodically building cases against people in the president’s “immediate orbit,” pressuring them to flip, and working his way up the chain. As Manafort languishes in jail, Trump “would do well to study the heights from which his former top aide has fallen, and the depth of his plunge.” ■