The official White House statement justifying the pardon of Paul Manafort explains that his prosecution “was premised on the Russian collusion hoax.” But Trump’s pardon — a ploy so well signaled its inevitability was clear even before he stepped into the Oval Office and that he has floated for years to keep Manafort quiet — is the final proof the Russia investigation was not a hoax but a scandal Trump used his powers to thwart.
The Manafort pardon is the final piece of his Russiagate cover-up. Before Trump hired him as campaign manager in 2016, Manafort spent the bulk of the decade managing the campaign of corrupt, pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort was being paid for this job by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and Manafort — who had grown accustomed to a lavish lifestyle — apparently fell into such debt to Deripaska that he disappeared before resurfacing as Trump’s campaign chairman, a job he oddly accepted at no pay in spite of his severe financial distress.
Manafort was almost surely not an instrument for Putin to control Trump’s campaign in anything like as direct a fashion as the Kremlin seemed to control Yanukovych’s puppet regime in Kiev. Manafort did, however, maintain a continuous line of contact with Russia throughout the 2016 campaign though his former business partner, the Russian spy Konstantin Kilimnik. At one point during the campaign, Manafort met Kilimnik in New York and passed him 75 pages of detailed polling information. Robert Mueller’s investigators never learned what this polling was for. It is possible that Kilimnik’s bosses simply had an intense fan interest in the campaign and wanted more detailed polling data than they could get from FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics. But it seems more likely that Manafort was giving Russia specific help in its operations on behalf of his campaign.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report on Trump’s ties to Russia, which advanced beyond Mueller’s tightly-limited criminal investigation, collected information on Manafort’s work with Kilimnik and Deripaska. The committee found “some evidence suggests Kilimnik may be connected to the GRU hack-and-leak operation related to the 2016 U.S. election,” and “two pieces of information” that “raise the possibility of Manafort’s potential connection to the hack-and-leak operations.”
The fact Manafort withheld cooperation from prosecutors, and then received a pardon from Trump, may have been sufficient to insulate either man from legal consequences. But the pattern of facts creates an overwhelming presumption of guilt. Manafort possesses the legal right to withhold cooperation from prosecutors, and Trump possesses the constitutional right to reward him for doing so with a pardon. But neither man is owed the suspension of disbelief required to consider them innocent. They have surrendered every opportunity to dispel the cloud of suspicion created by their corrupt acts.
Trump has benefited all along from the appropriately high standard of proof required to sustain a conviction in a court of law. His supporters have transmuted this standard to the court of public opinion, treating Mueller’s failure to establish a criminal conspiracy with Moscow as proof of “no collusion.” Yet those of us acting outside the legal system are not actually bound to respect a presumption of innocence. Very few people actually treat O.J. Simpson as innocent of murder, despite his not-guilty verdict in the famous 1995 trial.
The only suspense surrounding Trump’s pardon was the theatrics he would use to disguise it. He has decided, also somewhat predictably, to cover his corrupt pardons for his co-conspirators with a spray-fire of unrelated pardons, as if Trump has been seized with charity and wishes to empty the federal prison system before Christmas so that a spirit of forgiveness can spread throughout the land.
In reality, the notion that Trump would act out of any principled belief in clemency is too absurd even for his defenders to maintain with a straight face. “Transactional” is the term of art Trump’s admirers generally use to cleanse his chilling sociopathy. With his use of pardons, what is being transacted? Trump is employing his leverage to protect his criminal associates and persuade them to stay loyal.
Trump’s end-of-term pardon spree has been anticipated literally for years. He has attempted to construct a ruse to cover its utterly corrupt character, issuing mass pardons to various figures, almost like revolutionaries emptying the prisons in order to flood the streets with more escapees than the authorities can round up.
Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported earlier this month that Trump has been seeking out pardon recipients, even among those of his aides who haven’t committed any crimes. Trump has also interrupted conversations to spontaneously suggest that he add the person he’s speaking with to his pardon list, these sources said. One staffer approached by Trump with an offer of a pardon reportedly “felt awkward” because they “didn’t believe they had committed any crimes” — that “believe” is a nice touch, one can never be certain in an administration like this — and worried that “being on the list could hurt their public persona.”
Well, yes, having one’s name added to a list of probable offenders, in an administration swarming with crooks, might have adverse reputational consequences.
Trump made clear early in his presidency that he expected his aides to follow the Mafia ethos of omertà and regarded flipping on the boss as the most unforgivable sin. Trump is the only person I have ever seen who is not a crime boss (in real life or a Hollywood version thereof) who has called cooperative witnesses “rats” or opined that turning state’s evidence on one’s boss should be illegal.
He has repeatedly floated future pardons to his partners to prevent them from ratting him out. Robert Mueller bound himself tightly not only to the law but to his sense of propriety, fearing both a backlash and any aggressive step that would bump against the limits of his powers. He refused even to imply that the president could have committed a crime. He declined to pursue the counterintelligence case into Russia’s influence over Trump or even to examine his financial links to Russia.
None of these constraints bound Trump. He ran the Mafia-boss playbook, but one enhanced by a power no godfather could dream of wielding.
Trump has continued his bizarre Russophilic behavior right through the end of his presidency, most recently refusing to concede that Russia had poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny or that it directed a massive hack against the United States. He has locked his party into the view that all questions of his ties to Russia have been answered in his favor by keeping his two top co-conspirators quiet.
There is an old cliché in Washington that says it’s the cover-up, not the crime, that gets you. The line comes from an era when the crimes were more modest and cover-ups harder to sustain. Sometimes cover-ups succeed.