|TALKING POINTS MEMO|
In the end, Paul Manafort may have feared the long arm of Vladimir Putin more than the clenched fist of Robert Mueller.
Donald Trump's former campaign manager, like his onetime mentor, is a compulsive bad actor with larceny in his heart and the narcissist's belief he can outwit any opponent. How else, short of a problematic presidential pardon, to explain Manafort's decision to game play the special prosecutor at the risk of nullifying his plea agreement and probably spending the rest of his sorry life in prison rather than risk he or a family member meeting the business end of a poisoned umbrella or door handle smeared with a nerve agent courtesy of the Russian leader?
"It is plain that Manafort has spent a lot of the time during which he was incarcerated sawing off the branch behind him," notes Charles Pierce in Esquire.
Indeed. Manafort will appear before in U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington as early as later this week after Mueller's prosecutors revoked a plea agreement under which they would recommend a lighter prison sentence in return for his cooperation because, they said, he lied repeatedly to them despite multiple warnings.
Manafort denied lying intentionally, but significantly did not fight the prosecutors' filing on Monday that he be sentenced "immediately," perhaps understanding that his luck finally had run out, his legal fees were astronomical, he already had forfeited $43 million in ill-gotten gains, several million of which creditors are fighting over, and would never be able to return to an extravagant five-home lifestyle replete with $15,000 silk-lined ostrich leather bomber jackets and $18,000 karaoke machines that had been built on a career polishing the images of a Who's Who of the most despicable world leaders.
Trump can pardon Manafort, although that begs the question of why he entered into a pardon-proof plea deal in the first place. But violating the deal doesn't make sense since the forfeiture process is well underway and many of the charges can be reinstated in state courts, which are beyond the reach of the presidential pardon pen.
Manafort still had faced as much as eight to 10 years in prison even if he had kept his part of the deal, but the sentence recommended to and carried out by Judge Jackson is likely to be substantially longer because of his obstruction of justice in the form of repeatedly lying.
The collapse of Manafort's cooperation agreement, which followed a guilty plea in September to charges of cheating the IRS, violating foreign-lobbying laws and attempting to obstruct justice, is the latest stunning turnaround in his case, but not an entirely surprising one considering his choices. Under the terms of the agreement, he cannot withdraw his guilty plea.
Manafort had been stripped of his house arrest status in June while awaiting his first trial and has been in solitary confinement in an Alexandria, Virginia detention facility for his own protection since then when Mueller's prosecutors charged him with witness tampering. In October, the 69-year-old appeared in court in a wheelchair, which his lawyers said was a result of "significant" issues relating to his jailhouse diet.
As the fifth member of the Trump campaign to plead guilty, Manafort agreed to cooperate "fully and truthfully" with investigators.
"He wanted to make sure his family remained safe and live a good life," attorney Kevin Downing had said. "He has accepted responsibility."
It turns out that Downing, in yet another stomach-churning aspect of Trump's relentless efforts to undercut Mueller, repeatedly briefed the president's lawyers on Manafort's discussions with Mueller's prosecutors after Manafort agreed to cooperate.
In 2016, Manafort had thought another despicable individual who improbably would become president of the United States with a cyber assist from Putin would be his next meal ticket following lucrative gigs with a rogue's gallery of corrupt foreign leaders, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seiko in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angolan guerrilla heavyweight Jonas Savimbi.
This high-stakes gambit worked -- running interference for Putin's cut-outs and all -- until his seamy past was laid bare in the form of a Washington Post story about his multi-million dollar contracts with a pro-Moscow Ukrainian political party that was deeply embarrassing to the Trump campaign, and then indictments, an agreement by longtime partner Rick Gates to cooperate with Mueller and testify agains him, a first trial where he was found guilty of eight of 18 counts, and the guilty pleas on the eve of a second trial.
Like Trump, Manafort also believed he was above the law, was seduced by the oligarch wealth of the former Soviet Union, put profit over principles, and ended up becoming entangled, entrapped, and then a witting tool of Russian interests. If there is a difference, it is Manafort may be getting his comeuppance before Trump.
There is a possible downside for Mueller, but it has a silver lining.
As the special counsel nears the endgame in an 18-month-long investigation, he would seem to have lost his potentially most valuable witness in Manafort, who was present at the infamous June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Russian cut-outs promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton and other sitdowns that go to the heart of making the case that the campaign colluded with Russia to tip the election to Trump.
(Meanwhile, The Guardian reported on Tuesday that Manafort held secret talks with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2013, 2015 and in March 2016 about the time he joined the Trump campaign. Assange called the opaquely sourced story a "hoax." I call it something that Mueller probably has known about for some time.)
Reading Mueller's motivations, let alone his next move, is a fool's errand. But his team may have known Manafort was lying because of information gleaned from a hitherto secret witness, as well as evidence gathered from Manafort's seized mobile phones, iPods and computer hard drives, and yet again set the kind of perjury trap that has snared others. Beyond all that, Mueller almost certainly already has direct evidence of collusion.
Furthermore, Mueller's sentencing memorandum for Manafort is likely to be lengthy and exhaustively lay out for public consumption some of the incriminating evidence further exposing the president that the special counsel would include in a final investigative report to Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.
In the court filing voiding the plea agreement, Mueller's prosecutors wrote that "The government will file a detailed sentencing submission to the Probation Department and the Court in advance of sentencing that sets forth the nature of the defendant’s crimes and lies."
Trump's new toady at the Justice Department is widely thought to have been told by the White House to suppress a final investigative report, but a sentencing submission would be beyond Whitaker's reach. There also is the possibility -- which is sheer conjecture at this point -- that Mueller will prepare two reports, one classified for Justice and the other unclassified, but in any event, the report is almost certainly be bound to be leaked if it does not come out through other means.
The threat to Manafort and his wife and daughters presented by Putin is not a spy novel fantasy.
Putin can be linked to over 30 assassinations of critics of his regime or threats to its viability, and has reached beyond Russian borders, most notably the attempt in March by two GRU agents to kill former double agent Sergei Skripal, who was living in the quaint English cathedral town of Salisbury, by smearing Novichok No. 5, a lethal Russian-made nerve agent, on his door handle.
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