The Memo: Mueller bears down on Manafort

Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators are ratcheting up the pressure on Paul Manafort, who once led President TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE’s election campaign.

It's a classic tactic to see if incriminating information on others can be pried out of a target. The question, seasoned prosecutors say, is how high any potential criminality could reach.

“The interesting thing with respect to this strategy is that it is always looking up,” said Jimmy Gurulé, an assistant attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush.

“When you are talking about the former campaign chairman of the Trump presidential campaign, there are not that many people higher up the ladder. So what does that suggest?”


The president has vigorously denied any wrongdoing. He has suggested the Russia probe is a political witch hunt and that Democrats have fastened onto the issue to distract from Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit More than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2020, setting record Fox News signs Trey Gowdy, Dan Bongino for new shows MORE’s crushing loss to him in November.  

But the nightmare scenario for Trump supporters — and one that his critics are gleeful about — is one in which Manafort, or other close associates like former national security adviser Michael Flynn, could “flip” and seek to save themselves by providing incriminating information on the president or people very close to him.

In this respect, another Trump controversy could prove to be of critical importance to the Russia probe.

The president's decision last month to pardon Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa Co., Ariz., resonated far and wide. The implication was that the president was willing to issue a divisive and politically risky pardon to someone who stays loyal to him.

“It could very well be that there are other people who picked up on that message: If I don’t cooperate, if I refuse to assist, maybe I will get the benefit of my loyalty. I might get the pardon like Arpaio,” said Gurulé. “I don’t think it is widely unreasonable for someone to think that, in light of what the president did with Arpaio.”

Justin Levitt, a former deputy assistant attorney general, broadly agreed.

“I think no target of a criminal investigation ever wants to rely on the prospect of a pardon,” Levitt said, “Separate from that, it is true that the president has not shown, in his exercise of the pardon authority to date, an overabundance of respect for the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigation is grinding on. 

The special counsel is now seeking records pertaining to a statement written on Air Force One that sought to explain away a June 2016 meeting between a Russian lawyer and several people close to Trump, according to a Politico report published Thursday. 

Manafort, Trump’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr., and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were present at that meeting.

A number of dramatic events have focused on Manafort. Agents raided the former campaign chairman’s Virginia home in July, picking his locks, copying his computer files and photographing the expensive suits in his closets, according to The New York Times. 

CNN revealed earlier this week that Manafort was wiretapped, under secret court orders, both before and after the election. 

It has also been widely reported that he has been told an indictment is likely.

Manafort may be innocent, as he claims, but there is little doubt he is in very hot water.

“It doesn’t mean he will be indicted tomorrow and it doesn’t mean that his indictment will necessarily be the first to be issued. But it does mean that they intend to indict him and it would be very unusual if an indictment didn’t come,” said Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general.

Litman stressed that, like everyone else, he is speculating and doesn't know what information Mueller’s team has uncovered. But he said it stood to reason Trump could have something to fear as the inquiries crowd in upon Manafort.

He suggested Manafort could have information about either the June 2016 meeting or shady business dealings with Russians.

“People think there are three possible areas [of jeopardy] for the president,” he said. “There is obstruction, where the facts are kind of public. There is collusion — illegal consorting with Russia — in the campaign. And there is the thing he fears most, which is all kinds of, essentially, money-laundering with rich criminal elements in Russia over the past 10 years, when he didn’t think he would be running for president.”

There is as yet no evidence to support any such charges, although suspicions have been stoked by Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns and by his business connections to people such as Felix Sater, described by Bloomberg as “a career criminal ... who had ties to Russian and American organized crime groups.”

There is also the related question of whether Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in May could amount to obstruction of justice.

Later in May, Trump told Lester Holt of NBC News that he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he fired Comey — an explanation that contradicted earlier assertions by the White House.

“Prosecutors call that a statement against interest, and that’s certainly a compelling piece of evidence of someone's intent,” said Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

Vance added, “I’m sure we will hear lots of explanations about why the president didn't mean what he said to Lester Holt on national television.”

The idea of a presidential pardon for targets of the Russia probe would raise the possibility of obstruction all over again. 

Yet some experts worry that even the prospect of such a reprieve could undercut Mueller’s leverage on the targets of his investigation. Gurulé suggested that the idea of a pardon could be one of the reasons “why Mueller felt he had to get Manafort’s attention” with hardball tactics.

Others, looking down the road, warned that any hint of a pardon would set off a political and constitutional firestorm.

If Trump were to even contemplate any such move, he would have to consider “the political cost,” said Vance, of something that would be seen as “tantamount to a self-pardon.”

She added that it could ultimately become “politically difficult for Congress to turn a blind eye."

"If we reach a tipping point, like we did in Watergate — where someone who is seen as objective like Mueller presents clear evidence of wrongdoing and the president starts pardoning people," she said, "one wonders if it would be the beginning of the slippery slope to impeachment.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.