President Trump and his legal team are working feverishly to discredit the Russia probe, dismissing it as a “witch hunt” at every opportunity, and filling the media with increasingly audacious claims about the president being above the law. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is using opposite tactics: avoid the press, don’t leak, and occasionally file a court document that shows you’re several steps ahead of those seeking to thwart your investigation.
Mueller’s team did it again on Monday when they interrupted the current discussion about whether Trump could kill James Comey and get away with it (theoretically!) to accuse former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of attempted witness tampering. Trump’s former campaign chairman — who has pleaded not guilty to nearly two dozen charges related to money laundering, bank fraud, and foreign lobbying — was released on home confinement and $10 million bail following his arraignment in October. Now he could wind up in jail until his two trials, scheduled for July and September, which would increase the pressure to cut a plea deal considerably.
The court documents describe a truly boneheaded attempt to influence witnesses in a criminal lobbying case. Manafort has been accused of secretly hiring a firm of former European officials in 2012 to act as lobbyists on issues related to Ukraine. Federal prosecutors say the group was illegally lobbying in the United States, but Manafort claims their work was confined to the European Union.
Mueller’s team alleges that while under house arrest from February to April, Manafort made repeated attempts to coordinate his story with the firm, urging two employees to tell investigators they “never lobbied in the U.S., and the purpose of the program was E.U.” He reached out via phone, on WhatsApp, and through an intermediary (a longtime associate with Russian intelligence ties).
The FBI was able to confirm that Manafort made the calls and sent what he thought were encrypted messages because he had it all backing up to his iCloud. Also he said in one of the secret messages “This is paul.” Prosecutors made up a handy chart of these communications:
To be fair, the people Manafort was trying to tamper also ratted him out to the FBI. One witness told the government “that he understood Manafort’s outreach to be an effort to ‘suborn perjury,’” because he knew the firm conducted lobbying in the U.S., not just Europe.
It’s long been believed that Mueller is approaching the Russia probe like the prosecution of a crime family, pressuring underlings to flip on the boss. Multiple former Trump associates have folded, taking plea deals and agreeing to cooperate with federal prosecutors. But even as prosecutors hit Manafort with more charges, flipped his longtime business associate Rick Gates, and struck a deal with his former son-in-law, he’s held strong.
There are all kind of theories about why Manafort hasn’t taken a deal. Perhaps, as his lawyer claims, he’s innocent and is confident that he’ll be acquitted. He might actually think he can get the case dismissed on the grounds that it’s outside the scope of Mueller’s probe. Or perhaps in his many shady business dealings he got mixed up with figures who are scarier than Trump.
There’s one more compelling possibility: Manafort believes that if he’s loyal to the president, he’ll return the favor. Trump’s former lawyer, John Dowd, reportedly broached the idea of a pardon with Manafort’s lawyer before he was indicted in October.
If that’s what’s kept Manafort from flipping all this time, recent events may have him questioning that decision. Manafort has yet to be charged with witness tampering, but federal prosecutors want a judge to revise the terms of his release; that means there’s a good chance he’ll wind up in jail before his trial. While there’s speculation that Trump’s cavalier pardoning in recent weeks was meant to send a message to associates caught up in the Russia probe, he can’t pardon them just yet, as it would create a major legal and political storm.
Plus, Trump’s been sending other signals to Manafort that don’t require much reading between the lines. The White House has been downplaying Manafort’s relationship with Trump since before he was indicted, and over the weekend the president randomly announced that he barely knew the man who ran his campaign in the summer of 2016 — and if he was up to no good, the FBI should have warned him.
Do those sound like the words of a man planning to pardon his former campaign manager? Those tweets may help convince Manafort that the man he can trust to reduce his prison time is Mueller, not Trump.