A short three-page filing in federal court by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has again sent Washington into a frenzy. Mueller informed a court that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was not cooperating and thus in violation of his plea deal. Some experts immediately declared that the breakdown of cooperation was “good news for Trump” while others insisted that Mueller’s willingness to toss an important witness must mean that the case against Trump is overwhelming.
Welcome to November in Washington. With little information on the status of the investigation and Mueller reportedly preparing his final report, experts now regularly engage in a type of legal Kremlinology — akin to how experts once gauged inner workings of secretive Russian politburo based on who was standing closest to the Russian premier on Lenin’s tomb during the November military parade. Your distance from the premier often reflected if you were ascending or descending in power.
Manafort's not the first on wrong side of Mueller
For two years, the plea deals with Mueller have offered the only indication of the direction of the Russian investigation with a smattering of indictments. When key figures appeared next to the special counsel in federal court, their cooperation would be immediately interpreted as a new and menacing stage for President Trump.
Manafort was treated as the most significant and ominous change for investigation. It was described as a “nightmare” and a hurricane hitting Washington. Democratic strategist and MSNBC contributor Scott Dworkin predicted President Trump would resign within two weeks of the plea.
At the time, I was less convinced that the move was as apocalyptic as portrayed. I wrote that the plea agreement could well fizzle out and, given Manafort’s history, that the operative language of the deal for Mueller should be “caveat emptor,” buyer beware. While Manafort lost much in taking a plea to 10 felony counts, he was already convicted in Virginia and facing an even more brutal trial in Washington D.C. Most importantly, it was not clear Manafort had real “deliverables” on Trump.
Mueller of course did not come away empty handed. Manafort has given him months of testimony and cooperation. Manafort also cannot back out of his guilty pleas, though the crimes are virtually all unrelated to the Trump campaign. Mueller will now seek sentencing above the agreed upon range — a sentence that could easily result in Manafort dying in prison unless he is pardoned by President Trump.
Manafort is not the first person to make news by standing with Mueller only to find himself on the wrong side of the special counsel. Former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was one of the first cooperating witnesses for Mueller and the filing confirming his cooperation led to the Huffington Post to declare that it “establishes conclusively that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian representatives.” However, like Manafort, Mueller would insist that Papadopoulos was not cooperating and seek a higher sentence. Papadopoulos insisted that he would not lie and only said what he knew to be true. While Mueller sought the six-month maximum allowed by the deal. Papadopoulos received a mere 14 days in jail — a sentence that he began on Monday.
Other have also accused the special counsel of conditioning a plea on giving false testimony. Jerome Corsi, an associate of former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, said last week that he turned down a plea deal because it required him to lie about knowledge of Russian collusion. He said “They want me to swear in front of a judge that I am a felon. I believe I did not lie to them. I handed over everything.”
Manafort did not give Mueller what he wanted
Manafort, Stone, Papadopoulos, Corsi and others could be used later by the Trump team to paint the Mueller investigation as coercive and biased. Manafort and Papadopoulos now occupy a bizarre category of hostile “cooperating” witnesses while Corsi and Stone insist that they would rather face jail than falsely testify for Mueller.
In the short-term, the Manafort dispute could yield a long-awaited insight into Mueller’s evidence and the direction of his investigation. Mueller has indicated that he would likely be filing details of Manafort’s “crimes and lies” after his plea in the days to come. While he could seek to file under seal, he will have to establish with a fair degree of certainty that Manafort intentionally lied to undo the plea deal. To do so, he will have to disclose other sources of evidence contradicting Manafort.
Mueller has only said that Manafort lied — not what he lied about. Mueller prosecuted Manafort on crimes wholly unrelated to the Trump campaign, though Manafort did work for shady Ukrainian figures with close Russian connections. If Russians were looking for a conduit for collusion, Manafort would have seemed a natural choice.
One intriguing possibility is a new account today that says that Manafort visited Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks who leaked the hacked emails of Democratic figures, in Ecuador’s London embassy in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016. That last visit is particularly intriguing because it coincided with Manafort’s selection as Trump campaign chair. Ecuador’s Senain intelligence agency reportedly said that the logs include “Paul Manaford [sic]” and mentioned “Russians.”
At a minimum, Mueller's filing suggests that, on the areas of factual conflict, Mueller had some degree of redundancy in his evidence to be able to show Manafort had lied. That makes sense in that no responsible prosecutor would build a case solely on such a highly unreliable witness as Manafort. Yet, Manafort has the broadest array of criminal acts and those contradictions could involve a host of different matters, including conflicts with intercepts on his shady foreign dealings in Ukraine.
So the figures have shifted again and pundits are struggling to find some cryptic Kremlinological meaning in this latest development. The most that can be said is that (like Papadopoulos and Corsi) Manafort did not give Mueller what he wanted — or at least all that he wanted. Indeed, what Mueller wanted from Manafort is the far more interesting question than what he got.