Two major reports about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort dropped the last two days. Neither is good news for the criminally narcissistic liar. But what do they mean for Donald Trump, or for the Mueller investigation generally?
On Monday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Manafort’s legal team filed in federal court a jointly drafted statement alleging Manafort had “committed federal crimes by lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Special Counsel’s Office on a variety of subject matters, which constitute breaches of the [plea] agreement.” Manafort’s lawyers for their part disputed the accusation, saying their client maintains he “answered the government’s questions” and “provided information to the government in an effort to live up to his cooperation obligations.” Manafort contends he “provided truthful information and does not agree with the government’s characterization or that he has breached the agreement.”
I quote Manafort’s side at length because their statement doesn’t say that Manafort didn’t lie to the FBI and/or Mueller.
By far the most important takeaways from this story—from both stories—are that: a) Mueller has hard evidence Manafort lied; and b) perhaps more importantly, Manafort didn’t know Mueller had this evidence and didn’t even think it was possible Mueller could have that evidence.
In other words, Mueller’s further into the conspiracy than the conspirators thought was possible. This should terrify Trump, and seems it has—the following morning he once more tried to undermine the investigation on Twitter.
But that same morning, we got the second story. The Guardian published a surprising report alleging Manafort had met with WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange three times between 2013 and 2016 in London—where Assange has grown incrementally more translucent in his Ecuadorian embassy exile. The first of these meetings mentions “Russians” were in attendance, and the last of these meetings, in March 2016, coincided with Manafort’s ascension to the Trump campaign and Russia’s hacks of Democratic Party networks. That visit also wasn’t logged by embassy security.
So, two questions: Are these stories, so perfectly paired, possibly related? And more broadly, is Paul Manafort’s help critical to the investigation beyond the predicament he’s entirely brought on himself?
As for question one, probably not. As for question two, probably not. Look: As central as Manafort was to the conspiracy itself, if we take anything from these two stories, it’s that Mueller doesn’t need him. No one does.
On the surface, it sure seems these things are important. After all, Manafort, if he’d actually fully cooperated, would be a key witness in Mueller’s investigation into the Trump-Russia criminal conspiracy to undermine American democracy. For instance, Manafort steered Trump’s campaign through the summer of 2016, including the WikiLeaks DNC email dumps and the Republican National Convention, of which he was the principal architect and the whole reason the campaign brought him on in the first place. He was also, along with Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr, present at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Seems Mueller could really use this guy.
Plus, considering we now know Manafort likely met with Assange in March 2016, we can connect some dots incredibly damning for Manafort and Trump. A timeline:
February 2016: Manafort writes in an email to his friend Tom Barrack, a real estate developer and Trump confidante for 40 years, that “I really need to get to” Trump. Barrack obliged, later forwarding to the Trump campaign a memo Manafort wrote pitching himself as the perfect match for the candidate.
March 15, 2016: Russian hackers start feeling out vulnerabilities in the Democratic National Committee’s computer network.
March 19 – 21 2016: Hackers send Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta and others on the campaign spear-phishing emails to hack their accounts. On March 21 they steal more than 50,000 of Podesta’s emails.
March 28, 2016: Trump campaign hires Manafort to help corral delegates for the Republican National Convention.
Sometime in March 2016: Manafort meets with Assange.
So that’s pretty damning. But wait, there’s more!
April 11, 2016 Manafort emails Russian-Ukranian political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik, “How do we use to get whole? Has OVD operation seen?” “OVD” is Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, to whom Manafort was in serious, serious financial debt. Manafort worked for Trump for free.
Mid-April 2016: Hackers steal DNC emails.
April 27, 2016: Trump gives a major foreign policy speech expressing a desire to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
May 21, 2016: Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos emails Manafort with subject line “Request from Russia to meet Mr. Trump.” Manafort forwarded Papadopoulos’s email to another campaign member, adding: “We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips [to Russia.] It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
June 9, 2016: Manafort meets in Trump Tower with representatives of the Russian government. He reportedly scribbles “RNC” on a notepad. Again, Manafort was Trump’s point man for the Republican convention.
Mid-June 2016: WikiLeaks releases first batch of hacked Democrat emails.
Late June 2016: Manafort named Trump campaign chairman.
July 18, 2016: Ahead of the RNC, the Trump campaign changes the GOP’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to a pro-Putin position.
Weeks later: WikiLeaks dumps hacked DNC emails.
So yeah, Manafort is clearly in the thick of it. At the very least, it’s nearly a lock that he designed the quid pro quo: Pro-Russia in exchange for WikiLeaks emails. And the Guardian story actually places Manafort even deeper: He certainly would have discussed the proposition with Assange that March, and it also seems certain he wouldn’t want Mueller to know about that.
But is that really what Manafort lied about? And what does this mean for Mueller, for Trump, and for our hopes of justice?
Though these stories give the public a lot of sensational new information that helps us fill out what we know of the conspiracy, they mean something altogether different to Mueller’s team. And they might mean nothing at all.
First, it’s unreasonable to think Mueller thought for a second that pathological criminal and liar Paul Manafort—or any of the dumb punks involved in this thing—would be honest. We can actually see this in the terms Mueller set forth in the original cooperation agreement:
The defendant must at all times give complete, truthful, and accurate information and testimony, and must not commit, or attempt to commit, any further crimes.
Your client shall testify fully, completely and truthfully before any and all Grand Juries in the District of Columbia and elsewhere, and at any and all trials of cases or other court proceedings in the District of Columbia and elsewhere.
“Complete” and “fully” are high standards for the truth, and this indicates that Mueller assumed Manafort would give misleading information, lie by omission, or just outright lie. Importantly, Manafort also waived his right to have an attorney with him during his interviews. This puts full responsibility for any breach of the deal solely on Manafort—Mueller thought Manafort might try to hide behind his lawyers for any misleading or incomplete statements provided through them.
Most important, though: Mueller had evidence that Manafort didn’t know about, and he probably also knew Manafort didn’t know Mueller had this evidence. This means Manafort’s lies, no matter what they’re about, don’t mean much beyond prison time for him. Mueller didn’t need him to be truthful. Of course, Manafort’s lies also express his contemptible contempt for law enforcement and the U.S. criminal justice system.
In other words, Mueller probably never thought Paul Manafort would be useful for anything other than serving overdue justice to Paul Manafort. So why offer Manafort the deal? And what did Manafort lie about?
Given the logic above, probably the most reasonable conclusion we can draw about Mueller’s offer is he believed Manafort might try to shuttle inside information about the investigation to co-conspirators, including Trump, possibly in exchange for a pardon Trump had dangled in front of him, patently or tacitly. After all, Manafort, if convicted on the charges he faced at the time of the deal—hours away from his trial for conspiracy against the United States, a slam dunk for the prosecution—he would likely serve, by Mueller’s own estimation, well over 200 months in prison, meaning even if Manafort eluded murder he might die there anyway. Faced with the absolute certainty of extended prison time, Manafort might well have chosen at zero-hour to take his chances on a pardon from Trump, even though those chances were hilariously small, for him or anyone.
Mueller’s team might have anticipated this, because, well, it would be a dumb and obvious choice by a guy famous for committing dumb and obvious crimes. So it’s possible Mueller, during his interviews with Manafort, withheld information or used incomplete or misleading evidence or statements the prosecution acquired from other witnesses to give Manafort a distorted impression of the investigation.
In fact, we know Mueller did give Manafort a distorted impression of the investigation: Mueller had evidence Manafort wasn’t aware of, and wasn’t even aware of how Mueller could have possibly obtained that evidence.
With this in mind, let’s look at another coincidence: In early November, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appointed in his place Matt Whitaker, who served as Sessions’ chief of staff as well as Trump’s “eyes and ears” inside the Mueller investigation. We also know that Manafort’s lawyers, by their own admission, had an information sharing agreement with the White House. Put those things together, then add this: The week after Trump appointed Whitaker, Mueller filed for a 10-day delay in Manafort’s status report, meaning something had recently gone sideways in the plea deal, and Mueller needed more time to update the status. We now know that “something” was Manafort telling a buncha lies.
Then, just days after Mueller filed that report, Trump says publicly he finally filled out Professor Mueller’s take-home test on Russian collusion. Trump was reportedly in possession of these questions for nearly nine months, but, in what’s probably another improbable but certainly benign coincidence, answered them just a few days after appointing Whitaker. He also said stupidly that he answered them all by himself, a statement that will be problematic if he later tries to blame his lawyers for any lies or misleading answers.
So yeah, we can see a scenario where Mueller played Manafort, using him to feed Whitaker and/or Trump misinformation to make the president overconfident about lying in his answers. Except Mueller would have telegraphed it days before Trump actually answered the questions, which complicates that scenario. And look: Trump was going to lie anyway. Mueller didn’t need to set any traps.
Plus Manafort lied about multiple subjects. Not just what he was sharing with third parties.
Okay, so then what did Manafort lie about?
Well, the Assange report sure seems too symmetrical to be a coincidence. But if you’re Paul Manafort, and Robert Mueller in the course of your conversations raises the prospect you’d met with Assange or visited the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and you’d gone there three times, you’re probably going to assume the dude knows something. So even though the Guardian report certainly incriminates Manafort, we have no reason (yet) to believe he chose to lie about this.
Further, there’s no reason to connect these stories beyond the timing of their release: We learn Manafort lied; we get a sensational story it seems he’d want to lie about. But where does that story come from? Let’s assume Manafort did lie about meeting Assange. Who would know that and then leak this story in order to insinuate the connection to Manafort’s lying to Mueller? Only Manafort or Mueller. But Mueller doesn’t leak and Manafort wouldn’t leak this story for any reason on the face of the planet.
And Mueller knew about it long before you and I did.
Indeed, Manafort has a lot he’d want to lie about. Hiding his personal wealth, for instance. (Thanks to Mueller, the government has confiscated about $46 million in Manafort’s assets, which means the $30 million Mueller investigation has actually turned a profit.) Or possibly Manafort wants to protect oligarchs and other associates—such as Deripaska and Kilimnik—out of the reasonable fear he will otherwise be murdered. Manafort might also lie to protect his family and/or their assets.
These all seem just as reasonable as lying for Donald Trump, though it’s worth noting that Trump tweeted support for Manafort this summer following Manafort’s conviction on money laundering and other charges.
It’s also worth noting that they’re all going down, and if we have learned anything from these stories, it’s that Mueller doesn’t need their help.