News & Politics

Here's how Mueller brilliantly cornered Trump by going after Manafort

Heads, Mueller wins; tails, Trump loses.

Photo Credit: White House

Now that Paul Manafort had re-emerged among us, it might be useful to remind ourselves who he is. Currently occupying a solitary cell in a Virginia jail, he is the blow-dried preening lobbyist and political consultant who lavished $1,369,655 on his wardrobe in ill-gotten funds laundered from phony front companies on the island of Cyprus. For nearly 40 years, he ran successful con jobs across the globe. His lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., which he ran along with fellow Republicans Charlie Black and Roger Stone, represented dictatorships all over the world, according to a profile published by The Atlantic last March. “The firm’s client base grew to include dictatorial governments in Nigeria, Kenya, Zaire, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia, among others,” The Atlantic reported.

Manafort, Black and Stone also took on the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and then rehabilitated the murderous Angolan guerrilla fighter Jonas Savimbi, whose civil war against the government in that country cost hundreds of thousands of lives and “committed atrocities against children and conscripted women into sexual slavery,” according to The Atlantic.

Manafort advised the political campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole, and while he was at it, got involved with an arms dealer from Lebanon named Abdul Rahman Al Assir, who at the time was the brother-in-law of arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian billionaire involved in the Reagan administration arms-for-hostages scheme that became the Iran-Contra scandal. 

When shady arms deals lost their allure around the dawn of the millennium, Manafort turned further east to the former Soviet empire, where Russian and Ukrainian politicians and intelligence agents were busy seizing political power and glomming rubles and hryvnias. Manafort teamed up with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and parlayed that relationship into running the political campaigns of Ukrainian wannabe strongman Viktor Yanukovych. Along the way, he amassed tens of millions of dollars which he spent on a lavish lifestyle including mansions in Florida, the Hamptons, and a condo in Trump Tower.

And then he took on the job of managing the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Like so many others in the Trump orbit, all he had to do was to get close to the gaudy real-estate-huckster-turned-Republican-presidential-candidate for the whole thing to come tumbling down. When payments to Manafort from his high-flying days in the Ukraine drew media attention, he was fired from the campaign.Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate Russian influence in the presidential campaign of 2016, and he quickly focused his attention on the Russia-connected Manafort. He didn’t take long to indict Manafort and his partner Rick Gates for money laundering, tax avoidance, and defrauding the United States.

Gates flipped, and out on bail, Manafort was charged with witness tampering and was remanded to jail. He went to trial in Virginia last summer and was convicted on multiple counts. Facing a second trial in Washington on different counts and a sentence that might land him in prison for the rest of his life, Manafort followed his partner Gates’ example and agreed to cooperate with Mueller.

There things stood until Monday when Mueller went into federal court and told the judge in charge of Manafort’s case that he had breached the plea agreement he had signed with the government in September and “committed federal crimes by lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Special Counsel’s Office on a variety of subject matters.“ The plea agreement with Mueller committed Manafort to “give complete, truthful and accurate information and testimony, and must not commit, or attempt to commit, any further crimes.” Manafort’s partner, Rick Gates, has so far not broken the plea agreement he signed.

Mueller and Manafort both told the judge that “there is no reason to delay” sentencing Manafort for the crimes he was convicted of last summer.

The whole document filed on Monday is only three pages long, and the third page contains only the signatures of Mueller’s associate Andrew Weissmann and Manafort’s lawyers. It’s directness and brevity indicates that Mueller has been prepared for Manafort’s lack of cooperation all along. He is confident he can support his allegation that Manafort has lied because, like the good prosecutor he is, he already had the answers to most of the questions he asked Manafort.

The breakdown between Mueller and Manafort came on the heels of President Trump providing written answers to questions posed by Mueller’s investigators and about 12 hours before a report in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that Manafort met repeatedly with Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been holed up to avoid being questioned on sexual assault charges in Norway. “Sources have said Manafort went to see Assange in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016 — during the period when he was made a key figure in Trump’s push for the White House,” The Guardian reported yesterday.

A spokesman for Assange denied that the meetings with Manafort took place, but then, Assange had also denied that he had been in contact with Roger Stone until emails proving it came out. If The Guardian is correct about Manafort and Assange, then Manafort was colluding with the Russians at the time he worked on Trump’s campaign.

Trump has been following Manafort’s situation closely. He got up on Tuesday morning and tweeted:

On November 15, he tweeted:

Trump is implying that Manafort is the one being screamed and shouted at and being threatened "to come up with the answers they want."  Manafort is being treated horribly and viciously because he is "refusing to lie."

Late Tuesday, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani admitted that Manafort’s lawyers have been sharing information with Trump’s legal team all along. Marcy Wheeler, who blogs at Emptywheel, has opined that Manafort’s plea agreement  was simply an opportunity to act as a “mole” in Mueller’s investigation.  

Others have theorized that Trump’s lapdog acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, has been reporting to Trump on the inner workings of Mueller’s probe. Manafort’s lawyers have been doing everything they can to signal to Trump that he is staying loyal to him, and now they’ve got confirmation with Mueller’s motion in court on Monday.

This is why Mueller is pushing for a quick sentence. He figures if Manafort ends up facing what amounts to life in prison, one of two things will happen. Either Manafort will change his mind and come clean, or Trump will pardon him because Manafort has protected him.

Legal experts have said that cooperation between Trump’s and Manafort’s lawyers is unusual but not illegal.

But if Trump’s lawyers have been talking to Manafort’s lawyers about a pardon, it could expose Trump to charges of witness tampering. If Trump pardons Manafort, Mueller will go after Trump because he has him as a co-conspirator with Manafort to obstruct justice.

Mueller knows way, way more than we know, and he’s way, way ahead of Trump and his cut-rate legal team.

It’s not Manafort Mueller has in his crosshairs, it’s Trump. For Robert Mueller, when it comes to Manafort and Donald Trump, it’s heads I win, tails you lose.

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Lucian K. Truscott IV has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter, covering stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.