Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign chairman, has entered into a plea agreement with the Special Counsel investigating Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election. Observers have described this as a very bad day for President Trump, and some have even predicted that the president would have to resign within two weeks. These claims may be wishful thinking rather than reality. Here’s why.
First, Manafort had little choice but to flip. Recall that he was being subjected to two separate criminal proceedings – in Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington DC. The jury unanimously found Manafort guilty of 8 counts in the Virginia trial; he faced the prospect of a retrial on 10 counts because one juror held out. The convictions related to tax fraud, bank fraud, and other financial crimes pertaining to loans he had obtained to fuel his lavish lifestyle. Crucially, Manafort’s legal prospects appeared strongest in the Virginia case because the judge – Judge Ellis – had previously been sceptical of the government’s interest in him. In relation to Manafort’s arguments that Mueller’s appointment was improper, and that the probe had exceeded the special counsel’s legal authority, Judge Ellis wrote about the potential for politicization of the special counsel process and noted that Mueller was only targeting Manafort to get at Trump. The prosecution was also rebuked on several occasions during the trial. Despite these glimmers of hope, Manafort lost and faced the prospect of spending the remainder of his life in prison.
The second trial, in DC, was before a judge who has been hostile to Manafort and related to money laundering, conspiracy, and violation of foreign lobbying laws. Under this plea agreement, Manafort pleaded guilty to two counts – conspiracy against the United States, and conspiracy to obstruct justice by witness tampering. This saves him the expense of mounting a legal defence in the trial that was to start shortly, and eliminates the possibility of the 10 previous counts being retired in Virginia.
Second, the agreement commits Manafort to “cooperate fully, truthfully, completely, and forthrightly” with the government. This extends to “all matters” the government “deems relevant.” Manafort may be required to attend meetings, produce documents, conduct undercover work, testify before a grand jury or in court, and provide truthful information. He is also required to meet with the government without the presence of counsel. In exchange for cooperation, the government will seek a reduced sentence. Mueller probably already knows much of what Manafort can tell him.
Third, Manafort’s late flip is costly for him. He has already spent lots of money on his legal defence. He also forfeits millions of dollars worth of assets under this deal. And he faces the prospect of many years in jail. His only hope is that the information he provides will be deemed to be highly valuable and that the government will ask for a light sentence. Even so, the judge has to be persuaded that a lower term in jail is warranted and Manafort’s fate remains in the balance. Bottom line: he fought but his prospects were grim and he had to cut his losses.
Express Explained | Why Trump’s day of peril will trigger outrage, but may not cost him his job
Fourth, while Manafort may have wanted to save himself additional expense, why did Mueller offer him the deal? Manafort clearly has information of value to Mueller – otherwise, there would be no deal. At a minimum, Manafort possesses information that will help Mueller to fill in the blanks, defang accusations that the investigation is a “witch hunt,” and show that crimes were committed. In addition, given Manafort’s long history with Ukrainian politicians and others linked to the Kremlin, it may offer evidence of any collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia.
Fifth, Mueller finally has a person who was a participant in the notorious Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 where there was a discussion about dirt on Hillary. The other two people – Jared Kushner and Don Trump Jr., – are directly connected to the president. Therefore, Manafort’s testimony about what happened at the meeting, an explanation of any bargain, etc., may have a bearing on collusion with Russia. In that sense, Manafort’s flipping elevates the risk for Kushner and Trump Jr.
Sixth, it is unlikely that much direct evidence of collusion exists – there doesn’t seem to have been any bargaining between the Russian lawyer who attended the meeting and the Trump trio. If such evidence had existed, Manafort could have exchanged it for a free pass from Mueller – it would have sealed Trump’s fate.
Seventh, the absence of direct evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia is probably also established by the conduct of the FBI. Notably, after the meeting and other activities occurred, the FBI – under Obama – did not state that there was collusion, or directly investigate Trump. So far, they have not offered any evidence of collusion and the indictments issued against Russian operatives reveal no connection with any Americans. Crucially, the Deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein, has repeatedly said that no Americans were involved in those indictments.
Eighth, Manafort’s plea may not worry Trump because the former may not possess knowledge of criminal wrongdoing by Trump. The president has previously described Manafort as a “brave man” and may think he is safe. Hence he may not be “terrified” as some claim.
Ninth, there is speculation about Manafort being pardoned. As I’ve written previously, the president has very broad pardon power. However, there may be little reason to pardon Manafort post this deal – if he turns over valuable information to Mueller, Trump may suffer harm. Further, Trump may have missed the window for pardoning Manafort post the Virginia conviction. Given the seriousness of those crimes, a pardon would be politically costly whereas previously there was a veneer of innocence. The plea deal makes a pardon unlikely. And a pardon won’t protect Manafort from jail for state law crimes.
Tenth, the deal may not matter to Trump’s base – they probably see the probe as a witch hunt and believe there is no collusion. And many are likely to believe that other lobbyists have engaged in Manafort-type conduct without being prosecuted – supporting the witch hunt theory. The complicating factor is if some new evidence emerges connecting Trump more directly to criminal activity. In that case, his numbers are likely to take a hit and impeachment might eventuate. Or even an indictment.
In the end, Manafort’s plea deal, while not good for Trump, may not matter as much as the president’s haters would hope. Presently, it is a pragmatic bargain for Manafort and Mueller. Kushner and Trump Jr., may, however, be facing some anxiety about being in Mueller’s cross-hairs next. The question then may be whether the president decides to pardon his son and son-in-law as a preemptive strike.