Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller
Trump never expected Manafort to flip on him. The plea and cooperation agreement Mueller won proves that truth is truth, whatever Rudy Giuliani says.
It’s tempting to view Paul Manafort’s guilty plea and cooperation agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe in gladiatorial terms: Manafort brought utterly to heel; Mueller in full triumph; and the vainglorious orange-haired Emperor sulking in the royal box, his chosen warrior having turned tail and abandoned him.
The actual story is even more exhilarating. In his all-out, morally bankrupt assault on the Mueller probe, the president had chosen Manafort as his poster child for justice. Manafort, the multi-million dollar tax cheat and mercenary servant of Russia’s interests, became Manafort, the stand-up guy. And the two men appeared to be enacting an obstruction of justice in plain view: Manafort keeping quiet and going to jail in the expectation of a corrupt pardon from Trump, which the president had shown himself very willing to give.
All that is blown to bits after the plea deal announcement, which is, more than anything, a triumph for the rule of law and the notion that, Rudy Giuliani’s buffoonish proclamations to the contrary, truth is truth.
Manafort is an object lesson in folly
Manafort’s plea had been widely expected for several days. It seemed to make sense: his chances of prevailing at trial were nil; the trial would cost him upwards of $500,000 in legal fees; and throwing in the towel would preserve his apparent strategy of angling for a pardon from the president.
So the in-court announcement from Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissman that the plea included a provision for full cooperation with the government took many (including me) by surprise.
Manafort now becomes an object lesson in folly. His hand was hopeless, and the obvious smart play for him was to seek an immediate cooperation agreement with Mueller. There is a distinct advantage for being first in the door, and Manafort had a wealth of valuable information on the Trump campaign to offer.
Instead he put all his chips on a dubious pardon strategy that required him, among other things, to trust Donald Trump. Apparently, he finally woke to what a bad bet that was, but way too late — before his money laundering trial that had been scheduled to start next week, but after he was convicted of eight counts of bank and tax fraud in another trial last month.
The upshot is that Manafort is out a fortune in legal fees, facing at age 69 a possible sentence of 10 years or more, forced to forfeit nearly an estimated $46 million in cash and property, and still required to tell all about Trump, presumably destroying any hope for a pardon.
The wheels of justice grind fine.
For the president, the plea agreement from his former campaign chair is at least a huge blow and potentially disastrous. It had been widely reported that Trump believed Manafort could incriminate him and took great relief from the thought that he would keep his lips sealed.
For starters, Manafort likely knows whether Trump had advance knowledge of the June 2016 meeting set up by Donald Trump Jr. to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, which would expose the president to co-conspirator liability. Manafort likewise was at the center of the manipulation of the Republican platform to favor Russian interests in the Ukraine.
Mueller is Trump’s worst nightmare
More generally, Manafort’s shamed, mumbled court confession to all Mueller’s charges further makes more untenable Trump’s histrionic shrieks of “witch hunt,” which already had been losing purchase.
Manafort’s cooperation promise also may bode ill for Roger Stone, his former business partner, on whom Mueller already has been turning the vise, and possibly Jared Kushner, who worked closely with Manafort during the campaign and now is a senior adviser to his father-in-law at the White House.
For Mueller, the conviction and cooperation agreement is the new crown jewel in what already has been the most successful and productive probe of its like in U.S. history. Mueller’s probe has been remarkably thorough, swift and fruitful, and all notwithstanding a fusillade of asinine criticisms from Trump and his allies. He more and more looks to be the president’s worst nightmare, an indomitable adversary who already is on to Trump’s life of lies and will not stop until the truth is out.
Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general, teaches the Supreme Court as a Political Institution at UCLA Law School. Follow him on Twitter: @harrylitman
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