Last night, a federal judge ruled that Paul Manafort violated his plea agreement by lying repeatedly to federal prosecutors about the Russia investigation. Some of Manafort’s lies go “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating,” a prosecutor told the court. In particular, Manafort deceived prosecutors about a meeting he had with his former partner and active Russian agent, Konstantin Kilimnik. At this meeting, the two discussed a peace plan to resolve Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the top Russian foreign policy priority. Manafort passed on polling data to Kilimnik, data that was “very detailed” and “very focused,” not just some topline numbers. And according to prosecutors, Manafort did all this in hopes of getting a pardon from President Trump.
Here we have, in this case alone, every single element one would need to establish collusion. There was a meeting between Trump’s campaign manager and a Russian operative; the discussion of something Russia would gain from a Trump victory (a favorable Ukraine settlement); the exchange of information that would assist Russian campaign intervention (polling data that would allow Russia to target its social-media attacks). Also, they left the meeting place via separate entrances. This isn’t merely suspicious. It’s a scene from The Americans.
And perhaps most curious of all, you have the interest of the president. If Manafort was just running a side hustle behind Trump’s back, Trump would have little reason to care about him getting caught. Prosecutors have already charged that Manafort maintained secret contacts with the White House as recently as 2018. Howard Fineman reported last year that, according to “friends and aides” of the president, Trump believes Manafort “isn’t going to ‘flip’ and sell him out.”
The revelations about Manafort have dribbled out slowly enough that it’s easy to lose track of how far along they have come. The prosecution of Manafort began by nabbing him for the most easily detected crimes. This is exactly what you’d expect in the prosecution of a massive conspiracy: The prosecution works its way from the bottom up and the outside in, finding crimes by key figures to force them to testify against higher-ups. Instead, conservatives have treated every step in the prosecution as evidence that Manafort did nothing wrong with Russia.
When the first Manafort indictment came down in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reassured its readers that Trump was guilty of nothing more than “poor judgement” in hiring a “notorious Beltway operator,” as it called the man who had been directing Russian overseas political operations in Ukraine. “One popular theory is that Mr. Mueller is throwing the book at Mr. Manafort so he will cop a plea and tell what he knows about Russian-Trump campaign chicanery,” reasoned an editorial. “But that assumes he knows something that to date no Congressional investigation has found.”
The next year, a gimmick filing by Manafort’s attorneys seized on the fact that prosecutors had not charged him with colluding with Russia yet to present him as innocent. Mollie Hemingway breathlessly wrote it up in the Federalist. Manafort’s “legal team also reveals the government has provided no evidence of any contact between Manafort and Russian officials,” she declared. Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, impressed by this “evidence,” declared, “If Manafort did not illegally collide [sic] with Russia, it’s hard to imagine anyone who did.”
Last summer, Byron York was still proclaiming, “There’s no collusion in the case against Manafort.”
This defense has been smashed to pieces. There’s a ton of collusion in the case against Manafort. Of course we haven’t even seen the full extent of the charges, much of which is still hidden in the procession of indictments beneath tantalizing black lines. What we already know is that Trump’s campaign manager was working tightly and in secret with Russia during the campaign, and that his interests and those of Donald Trump have been very much in alignment.