Below is my column in The Hill on the Manafort plea agreement, which continued to release an unrestrained joy and ecstasy among commentators, who (yet again) predicted the imminent demise of Donald Trump. Norman Eisen, who served as White House Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform in the Obama administration, predicted that President Trump wouldn’t “survive” Manafort’s testimony. That is of course without knowing if Manafort has anything damaging on Trump. This appears an example of hope over experience in light of prior predictions of imminent indictments and resignations. Manafort may have damaging information or he may not. There are however some clear winners and losers in the Manafort plea that are not based on pure speculation.
Here is the column:
Paul Manafort’s plea bargain with special counsel Robert Mueller is the latest harbinger of disaster for the Trump administration, according to various media reports. Salon described it as nothing short of a hurricane landing in Washington, while Democratic strategist and MSNBC contributor Scott Dworkin predicted President Trump would resign within two weeks of the plea. Others, like Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, declared that “this is a big gain because he (Mueller) gets access to somebody.”
In any plea deal the operative language should be “caveat emptor” — buyer beware. Many pundits declared the plea bargain of former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos to be a disaster for Trump; Huffington Post said it “establishes conclusively that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian representatives.” Moreover, it declared that the decision to seek zero to six months of prison time was cited as proof that Papadopoulos would deliver the coup de grace to Trump since the Mueller team was unlikely to “hold out the possibility of no jail time without getting something valuable in return.”
A week ago, Papadopoulos fizzled out, and the special counsel sought the six-month maximum allowed by the deal; Papadopoulos received a mere 14 days in jail. Caveat emptor.
The Manafort deal may be a “big deal” or it may not. We have no idea of any “deliverables” offered by Trump’s former presidential campaign manager after his “queen for the day” disclosures to Mueller. It is likely that Manafort would have pleaded guilty even if he had not reached a deal. He never presented a cognizable defense in Virginia and reportedly came within one juror of losing on every count, rather than just the eight convicted counts — and that was the easier of his two scheduled trials. The D.C. trial had twice the evidence and a parade of horribles of alleged criminal conduct.
Manafort was not known to be a close confidant of Trump’s and served as campaign chairman only for a couple of months. Trump’s personal exposure could be far more limited with Manafort than it is with someone like his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Nevertheless, there is an array of clear winners and losers from this deal.
Paul Manafort: Whatever this deal brings him, it will not be what he most wants or needs — a walkaway deal. He already is a convicted felon and just pleaded guilty to an impressive array of criminal conduct in open court. While specifically pleading to only two counts, Mueller had Manafort admit to a broad narrative of underlying criminal acts of fraud and obstruction. Even with cooperation, Manafort could face ten years (with five year maximum sentencing in D.C. plus the convictions from Virginia). At age 69, even a 10 year sentence would put him at roughly 80 years old, if he survives. Prosecutors have alleged that he owes at least $15 million in taxes. He must hand over a brownstone in Brooklyn (estimated value: $4 million), his Trump Tower condo ($3 million), another condo in lower Manhattan ($3.2 million), a house in the Hamptons ($7.3 million), and a house in Arlington, Va. ($1.7 million). He must turn over three bank accounts and a life insurance policy; by signing over the policy, his family will not even financially benefit from his demise. It is assumed there is enough left to allow his family to continue to live in the top one percent — though his daughter Jessica, an aspiring filmmaker, is taking her mother’s maiden name, Bond, to break the association with her father.
Beltway Bandits and Powerhouses: The Manafort plea is most dangerous for an array of Washington power-brokers implicated in the very same underlying conduct. This includes former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig, who failed to register as a foreign agent, and his former firm, the powerhouse law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, which could face charges. Then there is the work Democratic super-lobbyist Tony Podesta — brother of Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager, John Podesta —
who worked with Manafort for the same pro-Russian interests. And there is Mercury Public Affairs, a lobbying shop run by former Congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.). The firms of both Podesta and Weber are referenced in the indictment. Already criticized for focusing on alleged crimes by Trump rather than Clinton, the Justice Department will be under considerable pressure to show equal vigor in pursuing some of these Beltway bandits.
Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.: A cooperating Manafort is more of a threat, not to Trump (who has not given statements to investigators), but to son-in-law Jared Kusher and son Donald Jr. If Manafort contradicts their accounts of the Trump Tower meeting or its aftermath, Mueller could bring false statement charges against them, which he has used as his primary prosecutorial device. President Trump could then act impulsively but self-destructively by firing Mueller and taking other steps that could be cited for impeachment or even later indictment. This is why the targets of opportunity for Mueller are Kushner and Trump Jr.
Robert Mueller: When it comes to prosecutions there is strength in numbers, and Mueller now has an even larger stable of potential witnesses. Moreover, Manafort’s plea gives Mueller another major victory only weeks before some believe Trump could move against either the investigation or Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the midterm elections. Polls show that the public supports Mueller’s investigation, and the Manafort deal would make any move following the midterms look more like raw obstruction.
Donald Trump: Strangely, Trump could be both a winner and a loser in this deal. While the potential damage is still speculative, a real benefit is the cancellation of an embarrassing trial playing out in the days leading to the midterm elections. The D.C. trial was going to highlight the sleazy world of Manafort and his work on behalf of pro-Russian interests. The plea puts Manafort and his deals into a sealed criminal investigatory process at a time when Republicans are struggling to retain the Senate — a vital protection for Trump if he does face impeachment.
Of course, this does not mean Manafort could not prove damaging to Trump, but it is less likely to be a direct (as opposed to an indirect) attack. Trump faces a Venn diagram threat as these various witnesses form circles of potentially overlapping accounts. It is the overlapping circles that should most concern the Trump team. As shown in the Virginia Manafort trial, a single cooperating witness like Rick Gates can be destroyed before a jury. It is far, far more difficult to get a jury to disregard multiple witnesses. For Trump, the danger is if multiple Mueller witnesses lock in accounts on any given crime.
Trump’s greatest threat, however, could be from the pressure now mounting on collateral figures like his son and son-in-law. Mueller is again metastasizing within Trump’s inner circle … and there are markedly fewer and fewer people in that circle.