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Ex-FBI agent warns Trump could pardon Paul Manafort next week — triggering an epic legal struggle

When former Trump Campaign Chair Paul Manafort received a surprisingly light sentence Thursday night in a Virginia court, he may have been relieved, but he's not yet out of the woods. Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C., will issue his second sentence on a separate set of charges next week, and she could add up to another 10 years on to his current 47-month sentence.

But as CNN analyst and former FBI Special Agent Asha Rangappa warned on Twitter, even Jackson's sentence may not be the final say on Manafort's fate. She said she "won't be surprised" if President Donald Trump tries to pardon Manafort "after his sentencing next week."

She pointed to a piece she had written for CNN last June to explain why.

"Even if the President doesn't try to pardon himself, the pardons he has granted or may grant to others could be viewed as self-pardons by proxy," she wrote. "That's because almost to a person, the crimes that Trump has selected for leniency are ones that he might be on the hook for himself."

This claim, that Trump might pardon Manafort as a proxy for pardoning himself, gained credibility Friday when the president falsely claimed on Twitter that both the Virginia judge and Manafort's lawyers said, "there was NO COLLUSION with Russia." Even if this were true, of course, it would be no defense of Manaforts myriad crimes, but Trump and his supporters have tried to suggest that he and his circle shouldn't have to answer for non-collusion crimes. (Trump's team also, conveniently, argues that "collusion" is not a crime, essentially making the claim that there's no crime they can be held responsible for.)

Rangappa also argued that Trump's exercise of the pardon could help achieve his aim of thwarting investigators:

By showing his willingness to use his pardon power so early and often in his term, the President may be giving hope to former friends and associates ... who may be weighing whether or not to cooperate with the feds. But the signal he is sending goes beyond just reassuring them to stay strong. He's also giving them permission to undermine the investigation itself.

She pointed out that Trump's previous pardons of controversial figures like Joe Arpaio, Dinesh D'Souza, and Scooter Libby have served another purpose: desensitizing the public to extreme uses of the power. With that desensitization achieved, he may now use a pardon of Manafort to discredit his opponents.

"Trump's pardons fit into a convenient narrative where he targets for mercy those who were supposedly treated unfairly by overzealous FBI agents and prosecutors with an agenda," Rangappa explained. "It's convenient because many of them are the same people who are investigating him now."

Manafort's case could present another opportunity to do that yet again, especially if Jackson comes down hard on him. That would then leave Manafort with two conflicting messages from the judiciary. Judge T.S. Ellis in Virginia, a Reagan appointee, having given him a particularly low sentence, and Jackson, an Obama appointee, giving him a particularly harsh sentence. The apparent politicization of his sentencing could give Trump just enough excuse to say that Manafort was unfairly targeted, and he might go as far as to vacate the sentences entirely. This would also serve to pave the way for a pardon of his long-time friend Roger Stone, whose case is also before Judge Jackson.

So what would happen if Trump pardoned Manafort? It's unclear. The pardon would almost certainly be valid, but Democrats, and perhaps even some Republicans, might see the interference in an ongoing investigation that implicates the president and his inner circle as an impeachable offense. How this would get resolved is anyone's guess, but if I had to wager, I would suspect it could cause an immediate uproar before becoming just another part of the corrupt background noise of the administration. The only wild card would be whether Mueller ends up considering the pardon a part of a pattern of obstruction of justice.

Even with a federal pardon, though, Manafort may not be off the legal hook. Multiple reports have found that state district attorneys in New York have plans to bring state charges against Manafort in the case he receives a pardon. A president cannot pardon state crimes. Manafort may try to resist such charges by using a double jeopardy defense, but whether that is successful depends on how the state prosecutors play their hand. If prosecutors were successful, they could undermine Trump's attempts to save Manafort, while the president would still face the blowback triggered by an undeniably corrupt pardon.

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