News that lawyers for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had entered into plea-deal discussions with prosecutors for the special counsel was intriguing for less the stated reason -- to avoid a second costly criminal trial -- than the possibility of a huge unstated reason. Manafort knows where the campaign collusion bodies are buried and if he decides to flip it would give Robert Mueller a potent ace in the hole as he wraps up his Russia scandal investigation with a recommendation that the president be impeached.
Well, in a stunning development that will shake the Trump presidency to its rotten core, the man that Trump called "such a brave man" for not cooperating, has flipped and will plead guilty to two of the seven charges he faced at that now short-circuited second trial in hopes of being treated leniently at sentencing, and forfeit a staggering $46 million in ill-gotten goods. The deadlocked charges from his first trial also will be dismissed.
"I plead guilty," Manafort told U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who accepted Manafort's pleas after it took prosecutor Andrew Weissman 40 minutes to spell out his crimes.
Manafort had been stripped of his house arrest status in June while awaiting his first trial and has been jailed since June when Mueller's prosecutors charged him with witness tampering.
Kevin Downing, one of Manafort's attorneys later said, "He wanted to make sure his family remained safe and live a good life. He has accepted responsibility."
The entire purpose of the Manafort prosecution had been to get him to talk.
Through squeezing Manafort on the bank and tax fraud charges for which he was (mostly) found guilty after his first trial last month and the money laundering charges he faced at his second trial, scheduled to begin on September 24, prosecutors sought to wear down his sorry 69-year-old ass and eventually succeeded.
Defenders of Manafort the sleazebag lobbyist, influence peddler and convicted felon have long insisted that he would not cooperate with Mueller because he didn't know any incriminating information involving Trump. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Saunders dismissed the news as expected, saying "This had absolutely nothing to do with the President or his victorious 2016 Presidential campaign. It is totally unrelated."
Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, said "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. Manafort will tell the truth." Minutes later, a new statement was released that simply said "The president did nothing wrong."
As of Saturday morning, the president himself -- who seldom misses an opportunity to savage his perceived enemies -- was conspicuous in his silence.
Few observers have expected Trump to not pardon Manafort, but knowledgeable observers like Marcy Wheeler believe the plea deal is "pardon proof."
Indeed, Trump may change his mind now that Manafort has become a "snitch" in the parlance of a president who believes that it should be illegal for people facing prosecution to co-operate with the government in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Manafort is, in the words of one pundit, Mueller's "golden goose" because he is the key to unlocking the collusion puzzle for the special prosecutor as Trump's primary conduit to Russia:
Trump was one of the first clients retained by Manafort, Roger Stone and Charlie Black when they founded a lobbying business in 1980. Spy magazine was to name the firm the "sleaziest of all in the Beltway" in 1992.
In 2005, Manafort began a long business relationship with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian with extensive Russian intelligence connections, who has been indicted by Mueller.
In 2006, Manafort bought a condo on an upper floor of Trump Tower for $3.6 million and subsequently bought a brownstone in Brooklyn and a Trump SoHo condo using shell companies and paying with cash for the properties.
By 2016, Manafort had taken at least 14 trips to Moscow and his ties to the Kremlin through his Vladimir Putin-allied clients in Ukraine were extensive.
In February 2016, Stone (who is likely to be indicted) recommended to Trump that he hire Manafort, who curiously offered to work for Trump's campaign for free although he was in dire financial straits, suggesting the possibility he already was working for Moscow in its nascent effort to interfere in the presidential election.
On June 6, 2016, Manafort attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian cut-out promising "dirt" on Hillary Clinton and took contemporaneous notes later seized by FBI agents working for Mueller.
On June 20, 2016, Manafort, who had been under FBI surveillance approved by the FISA Court, became Trump's campaign manager.
Working behind the scenes in mid-July 2016, Manafort helps to dramatically water down the Republican National Convention platform on Ukraine, ostensibly in a nod to Putin. Kilimnik later brags to friends in Kiev that he was involved in the effort.
In late July 2016, former British spy Christopher Steele stated in one of the memos that were to make up his dossier that one of his Russian sources had determined that Manafort "managed" the campaign side of a Russian-campaign collaboration to interfere in the election by cybersabotaging Clinton.
On August 19, 2016, Manafort was dismissed by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner on Trump's orders after The Washington Post reported that he had been paid millions of dollars by a pro-Moscow Ukrainian political party.
The FISA Court warrant was renewed a few days before Trump took office on January 20, 2017, and includes a subsequent period when he was known to still talk to then-President Trump.
This may seem like a convincing case for collusion, but it's largely circumstantial and is larded with hypotheticals.
Moving that case from circumstantial to provable in a court of law may not have required Manafort. After all, seven other people associated with the campaign or players who sought to influence the election on Trump's behalf have entered guilty pleas to charges and are cooperating -- Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, W. Samuel Patten, Alex van der Zwann and Richard Pinedo.
But Manafort, a man once called "The American Hustler" by a news magazine, was haunted by the looming possibility he will spend the rest of his life in orange prison jumpsuits and not garb like the $15,000 silk-lined ostrich leather bomber jacket to which he had become accustomed while strolling around his four luxurious homes, and so he will talk.
Mueller has caught an awful lot of witches in his "witch hunt," some 35 in all with the end not yet in sight. But bagging Manafort and then flipping him is the biggest catch of all.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.