Paul Manafort Just Flipped. Here’s What He Could Tell Mueller About Trump’s Campaign.
The Lede: At 12:11 pm, September 14th, yet another shockwave was sent through Washington, and surely, through the Oval Office. The President’s former Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort told a federal judge “I plead guilty.” One of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s longtime objectives in his investigation has long been to flip Paul Manafort into a cooperating witness. This has also been one of President Trump’s greatest fears. It just happened.
Paul Manafort has pleaded guilty to 1 count of conspiracy against the United States (money laundering, working as an unregistered foreign agent, and lying to investigators) and 1 count of obstruction of justice (witness tampering). Manafort did not contest the other five counts against him. All were set to be tried in court in D.C. on September 24th. That is no longer necessary.
As part of this plea agreement (which you can read in full here), Manafort has agreed to waive his right to have his counsel present during his future interviews with Robert Mueller. Manafort must provide all the information that the Special Counsel asks for. Manafort must also forfeit $46 million in assets to the government.
In his Virginia trial last month, Manafort was found guilty on 8 counts (5 tax fraud, 2 bank fraud, and 1 of hiding foreign accounts), with verdicts unable to be reached for the remaining 10 counts. Andrew Weissmann, a federal prosecutor on Mueller’s team, said that other charges may be dropped at sentencing or “or at the agreement of successful cooperation.” Manafort faces potentially 10 years as part of this plea agreement. He is 69 years old.
Manafort is the fifth Trump associate to plead guilty to felony charges during the Trump presidency. Trump’s former personal lawyer/fixer (and RNC deputy finance chair) Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to 8 counts that include bank fraud, tax fraud, and campaign finance violations (2 campaign finance counts implicate President Trump). Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn, former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, also pleaded guilty to felony charges. All of them secured cooperating agreements with federal investigators.
Manafort’s cooperation could yield Mueller the most important information yet when it comes to President Trump’s potential conspiracy with the Russian government to win the 2016 election. Manafort is the first Trump associate to flip who was inside the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives.
The Context (What Manafort Knows): Paul Manafort was originally forced out of the Trump campaign after reports of his foreign ties began to overwhelm Trump in late 2016. He worked on the campaign as an unregistered foreign agent. He finally registered in June 2017, but it was too late.
In November 2017, Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates were slapped with a 31-page, 12-count indictment. Those counts included laundering $18 million of the $75 million they made acting as unregistered foreign agents while lobbying on behalf of the Government of Ukraine between 2006–2016 and making false statements to the Justice Department. Both Manafort and Gates pleaded “Not Guilty” at the time. Gates later pleaded guilty and began cooperating with Mueller. Even after his subsequent superseding indictment, a Manafort plea deal remained elusive.
We’ve since learned that Paul Manafort was wiretapped via FISA surveillance in 2014 as part of an investigation into Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych. It was discontinued and then reinstated in 2016 after investigators caught a series of odd connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. The surveillance reportedly continued into early 2017 and involved conversations with Donald Trump. Intelligence gathered reportedly “includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign.”
It’s been reported that two weeks before Trump accepted the GOP nomination, Paul Manafort offered “private briefings” on the state of the 2016 election to Russian Oligarch, and close Putin ally, Oleg Deripaska (who also has ties to Kilimnik). Manafort reportedly met twice with Kilimnik during the 2016 campaign. A Kiev operative suggested that Kilimnik may have played a role in the Trump campaign’s gutting of anti-Russian stances from the Republican Party platform. Kilimnik also sent emails regarding Deripaska, and they met in August to speak on it.
Manafort began his work as a lobbyist and political consultant for Yanukovych in 2004 upon the advice of Deripaska. Manafort also reportedly had a $10 million a year contract with Oleg Deripaska. The contract was part of a plan to assert pro-Russia influence in U.S. politics and lasted from 2006–2009. Paul Manafort moved into Trump Tower in 2006. Before this, Manafort innovated what we now know as modern lobbying with Roger Stone. Who knew that the industry he helped build would bring him down?
Manafort’s involvement in the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Natalia Veselnitskaya (a Russian lawyer and self-described informant), and Russian operatives is also of interest to Mueller. We now know the meeting was in an effort to obtain damaging information on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, admitted by Trump himself and Rudy Giuliani.
Investigators are reportedly reviewing Manafort’s notes of the meeting which “contained the words ‘donations,’ and ‘RNC’ in close proximity.” According to NBC News, congressional investigators who are examining the meeting are “focused on determining whether it included any discussion of donations from Russian sources to either the Trump campaign or the Republican Party.”
Federal law, Section 30121 of Title 52, states that it is a crime for a foreign national to contribute money or other items of value to an American.
The Analysis: This is of great benefit to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and great detriment to Donald Trump. Manafort can shed light on his involvement in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, role in adding pro-Russia policies to the Republican platform, and the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian operatives. The jeopardy this puts President Trump in goes beyond what Mueller may find. Now, not only are legal experts arguing that Manafort is pardon-proof, Trump is in a political bind:
It is truly amazing how thoroughly Mueller has boxed Trump in. Pardon a guilty man, he looks guilty. Shut down an investigation that has convicted so many, he looks guilty. A political disaster if he moves against Sessions and Rosenstein.
— Adam (@aalali44) September 14, 2018
As we know, Mueller has indicted 25 Russians (13 Russian entities were indicted earlier this year for their propaganda campaign, and 12 Russian intelligence officers (GRU) were indicted for hacking the DNC, DCCC, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign during the 2016 election and leaking through DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0).
What appears to be next are their potential American co-conspirators. With Flynn likely still cooperating, Manafort freshly flipped, Roger Stone in Mueller’s sights, and Mueller’s reports on conspiracy and potential obstruction of justice incoming, things will only get more interesting from here.