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Donald Trump’s Gangster Ethic Is Perverting the Jury System

For days leading up to Paul Manafort’s conviction earlier this week, President Trump did his best to sway Manafort’s unsequestered jurors into letting his former campaign chairman off the hook.

He repeatedly held up his former campaign chairman as a model of virtue not because he believes Manafort is an innocent man, but because of Manafort’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the government. In Trump’s telling the corrupt actors in the story were federal prosecutors, who targeted Manafort unfairly for committing garden-variety crimes nobody else is held accountable for. Manafort, Trump suggested, stood in contrast to other members of his inner circle, or to famous cooperators like Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean, because he stood against this corruption, unlike a lousy “rat.”

Trump’s strategic logic was fairly sound. After all, it would only take one committed juror out of 12—one Fox News watching Trump loyalist—to corrupt the whole proceeding. Even in Democratic precincts like northern Virginia, where Manafort stood trial, Trump won more than one in 12 votes, and the odds that one or two jurors would be members of his frothing, cult-like base, inclined toward jury nullification, were pretty decent.

With this first special counsel prosecution behind us, Trump is not relenting. At 1 a.m., he tweeted “NO COLLUSION – RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” In a Thursday morning Fox News interview, he embraced more of the mob’s moral language, arguing that flipping—the strategy by which prosecutors pressure lower-ranking crime figures to turn states evidence against their bosses—“almost ought to be outlawed.” It is, after all, flipped witnesses, like former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and perhaps eventually Manafort himself, who will help prosecutors build cases against members of Trump’s family and possibly Trump himself. Convincing his supporters that the whole process is sordid, even illegitimate, will be key to overcoming any charges Robert Mueller levels against them.

Trump’s approach to corrupting the jury system is a microcosm of his corruption of American governing institutions more broadly, and today we’re learning that he has nearly succeeded.

On Wednesday night, Fox interviewed a Manafort juror and avid Trump supporter named Paula Duncan, who claims to have reluctantly concluded Manafort was guilty of all 18 charges against him. In her telling, the jury only deadlocked on 10 of the charges because another juror refused to convict Manafort unanimously across all counts.

Some observers, like the New Republic‘s Jeet Heer, and TPM‘s Josh Marshall, are interpreting Duncan’s story as a hopeful one, in which even someone like Duncan, who keeps a MAGA hat in her car, and wanted Manafort to be innocent, is susceptible to reason. But the story is much more ominous than that.

“Certainly Mr. Manafort got caught breaking the law, but he wouldn’t have gotten caught if they weren’t after President Trump,” Duncan told Fox, describing the special counsel’s investigation as a “witch hunt to try to find Russian collusion.”

Duncan did the right thing in this case, and should be applauded for it, but it is difficult to imagine that she would have hewed to her instructions so closely had she been a juror on a case that was about “Russian collusion”—that actually touched Trump directly.

The closer Mueller’s cases come to Trump, the less susceptible people like Duncan will be to reason, and one other juror was already less susceptible to it than she was. The lesson Trump has already taken from this experience, apparently, is that his wildly improper, gangster-like messages to jurors were only resounding enough to spare Manafort from 10 of 18 convictions—that he is successfully spoiling lots of potential jurors, but not quite enough of them yet.

As Mueller turns the corner and begins prosecuting Americans involved in the conspiracy to subvert the 2016 election, he will have a harder and harder time finding a jury untainted enough to validate what more than half of all Trump supporters consider a “witch hunt.” This is doubly so because Trump will now escalate his attacks on the investigation itself, so that the number of Trump supporters who are unable to discharge their duties as jurors faithfully increases. And in this system the odds are stacked against the special counsel. He needs all 12 jurors to be uncompromised. Trump only needs to compromise one.