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The Memo: Manafort pulls surprise on Trump with Mueller deal

The pressure on President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE was ratcheted up a few more notches on Friday with news of Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDOJ veteran says he's quitting over Barr's 'slavish obedience' to Trump Bruce Ohr retires from DOJ Don't forget: The Trump campaign gave its most sensitive data to a Russian spy MORE striking a deal to cooperate with Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s prosecutors.

The decision by Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, came as a surprise even to seasoned observers of the Mueller probe who were expecting a guilty plea but not a “flip” by the former aide.

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Manafort has firsthand knowledge of a number of key issues, including the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower which he attended along with a Russian lawyer, the president’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr.Don John TrumpTrump's company paid at least .5M by federal government: report Latest 'Borat' footage appears to show star at the White House, meeting Trump Jr. Trump Jr. returning to campaign trail after quarantining MORE and Trump’s son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump says ex-staffer who penned 'Anonymous' op-ed should be 'prosecuted' Kushner told Woodward in April Trump was 'getting the country back from the doctors' What a Biden administration should look like MORE. 

Last month, when Manafort was convicted on eight separate felony charges in Virginia, the president praised him for having “refused to ‘break.’ ”

As of Friday evening, Trump had not directly responded to the news of Manafort’s cooperation. It is improbable that his silence will last long. 

Legal observers say the Manafort deal is highly significant, even as the exact nature of his cooperation remains unknown.

“For months now, we have thought Manafort is one of the two or three big witnesses if [Mueller] could crack him, and he couldn’t,” said Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney. “Now he’s cracked him like an egg.”

Manafort’s decision comes on top of several other convictions and guilty pleas chalked up by Mueller’s team.

Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former deputy campaign manager Richard Gates and a former foreign policy adviser, George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosNot treason, not a crime — but definitely a gross abuse of power Tale of two FBI cases: Clinton got warned, Trump got investigated Trump says he would consider pardons for those implicated in Mueller investigation MORE, have all pleaded guilty in the probe.

Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, has also pleaded guilty — and implicated the president in a campaign finance violation — in an investigation that is being handled separately from the Mueller investigation, but which grew out of it.

Even some figures who are normally sympathetic to the president acknowledged the importance of the Manafort news.

“I think from the point of view of Mueller, this is a big win, this is a big gain, because he gets access to somebody,” said attorney and law professor Alan Dershowitz during an appearance on MSNBC on Friday.

Dershowitz, also an opinion contributor for The Hill, noted that the Manafort deal potentially “opens up lots of doors that probably haven't been opened before.”

Deepening the fear, from Team Trump’s perspective, is the theory that prosecutors would not have been willing to strike a deal with Manafort — one that appears likely to sharply reduce his potential sentence — unless he had meaningful information to offer on bigger targets than himself.

Attorney Caroline Polisi, who has recently begun representing Papadopoulos, acknowledged that predictions about exactly what Manafort had to barter with prosecutors were “speculation.” 

But, she added, “if you think about it as a pyramid, you don’t get much higher up than Paul Manafort. So if he has information on people higher up, it’s pretty obvious who that is.”

Polisi gave little credence to the idea that prosecutors would have been willing to strike a deal with Manafort if he only had incriminating information on, for example, his business associates in Ukraine. That idea was “a little far-fetched," she said.

From a political standpoint, Republicans are in an unenviable position. They had hoped to focus on the strong economy as they campaign for midterm elections that are now less than eight weeks away.

Instead, new developments in the Russia investigation could overshadow their preferred agenda. 

The White House has sought to minimize the likely damage to the president from the Manafort deal.

“This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign. It is totally unrelated,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Friday.

Stephen Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, said before Manafort's plea that Republicans must seek to keep faith with their electoral agenda, and not be distracted with the Mueller happenings.

“The Mueller stuff, the flash-bang grenades, are just going to continue to go off. You just have to focus on what the program is,” he said.

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who joined the president’s legal team in April, insisted in an interview with The Hill that Trump had nothing to fear from the Manafort news.

Giuliani said that if Manafort had incriminating evidence on Trump, Mueller’s team “would have had him plead to a conspiracy that would encompass the president.”

That interpretation was contested by other legal experts, however. Attorney Mark Zaid, who has represented clients from both major parties, called it “nonsensical,” arguing that cooperating witnesses often provide evidence on crimes that they themselves did not plead guilty to.

Still, Giuliani’s view was amplified by other Trump allies.

Joe DiGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, jabbed at “nitwits” on cable news who, he contended, “continue, with no evidence whatsoever, engaging in rank speculation that this is bad for the President Trump. It is not.”

DiGenova further suggested that while Manafort could have evidence on wrongdoing in other cases, “he is not going to cooperate against the president because he doesn’t have anything on the president, so the president could care less.” 

Trump supporters also emphasize that the crimes uncovered by Mueller so far do not seem to demonstrate the conscious collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia that has often been alleged by Democrats and other critics.

Still, there is no getting away from the fact that, for Trump, the heat has just been turned up once again.

The Mueller deal, said Litman, “is the biggest achievement to date of the Muller investigation. 

“Surely, it brings him much closer to Trump.”

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