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.
He wanted to live like an oligarch. Now he is a ruined man. An interesting case study of greed gone haywire. Can he at least partly redeem himself by flipping? Does he care about how future historians might regard him? Or is he more immediately concerned with Putin's thugs and how they nearly killed a former Kremlin employee and his daughter in the UK with a nerve agent?
There are no easy answers. He's a schmuck who cozied up to murderous dictators so he could live like a two-bit Trump. Does he risk spending the rest of his life in prison? (Because as you note, even if he gets a pardon, state charges would likely keep him behind bars.) Or does he risk his very life and the lives of his daughters by flipping?
In his shoes I'd probably flip and assume that not even Putin would have the nerve to commit a high-profile murder on American soil. But he knows Putin better than I do.
You shoulda been a prosecutor.
As an addendum to the above, let me raise the question of why Putin choose to poison Sergei Skripal (and, perhaps unintentionally, his daughter Yulia) last March in England. Skripal had been released from a Russian prison in 2010 as part of a spy swap and then he settled in the UK. Why, eight years later, would Putin bother? And why would he choose to use a nerve agent that would leave no doubt that the Kremlin was responsible?
It strikes me likely that intimidation of Manafort was the whole point. Manafort was out on bail at the start of this year, no doubt weighing his options and perhaps wondering why Trump had not yet pardoned him. Then his partner in crime, Rick Gates, agreed on Feb. 23 to flip, making it clear that Manafort stood no real chance in court. Then the Skripals were poisoned *just eight days later* on March 3. That's quite a coincidence -- or not.
It seems likely that Putin immediately saw the danger after Gates flipped that Manafort would follow suit unless Putin could concentrate Manafort's mind on lethal consequences. So it took just over a week to get the hit effort on Skripal set up. The fact that Skripal survived probably provides little comfort to Manafort. If Kremlin agents come after him, the objective will be to make the murder seem like an accident -- and Putin's thugs have been quite efficient at arranging lethal accidents.
In my view, you are correct, and the timing you point out is astutely telling.
As I wrote the afternoon the Manafort jury came in . . .
"Manafort, who like his former boss believes he is smarter than everyone else, gambled that it was better to take his chances with a jury than to find a strange substance smeared on his door handle one day."
Shaun: You were exactly right, and maybe that quote from your earlier post was where I first got the idea. The fact that Putin attaches so much significance to Manafort keeping silent is telling. After all, he had to anticipate sanctions against Russia after the murder attempt. And come to think of it, maybe the fact that Skripal's daughter was also poisoned was deliberate -- Manafort has two daughters, as I recall. Should you and I fear finding goo on our door handles for pointing these thing out?
Very interesting conversation, gentlemen!
Wow! Manafort seemingly did not trust Trump to come through with a pardon. The reason Manafort decided to have two trials instead of one (it was his option) probably was so that if he lost at the first trial, Trump would have a chance to pardon him before the second one. So why didn't Trump pardon him? I suspect Trump decided that the political costs would be too high. He kept signaling to Manafort that he was in his corner, but Manafort knows a treacherous snake when he sees one, and he decided he did not want to spend the rest of his life in jail. (Plus, he knew that even if he got a pardon from Trump, there was a good chance he would be charged at the state level for similar financial crimes.)
As an aside, the fact that Great Britain was able to identify and share with the world Skripal's would-be murderers perhaps gave Manafort some assurance that Putin may have learned a lesson about ordering hits on foreign soil. The Russian bear got bopped on the nose.
He's gone from ostrich jackets to orange jumpsuits and I think he's missing some of the simpler comforts of his former life. Unlike Cohen, who was lambasted by his Auschwitz-surviving father who wanted the name "kept clean", Manafort is driven by pure self-interest and greed. But who cares, as long as he can help connect Trump to Russia.
Glad to see, though of course it should have been obvious & expected, that Weissmann was the prosecutor on this one. It proves, I think, that the deal they wrung from PM was & will continue to be a stringent unwinding of monetary facts.
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