The end of Paul Manafort’s brief tenure as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s star cooperating witnesses is a bombshell of unknown payload.
Mueller stunned close watchers of his investigation on Monday with a filing in DC district court alleging that, after signing his plea agreement with the government, “Manafort 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 agreement,” and promising to follow up with “a detailed sentencing submission to the Probation Department and the Court in advance of sentencing that sets forth the nature of the defendant’s crimes and lies, including those after signing the plea agreement herein.”
In other words, Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller in exchange for leniency, then lied to Mueller’s investigators about a bunch of things. He will thus receive his prison sentence in short order, and Mueller will submit to the court—and hopefully to the public—the full story of Manafort’s bad acts.
For better or worse, we can finally see that Mueller’s investigation is coming to a head, and that a Trump campaign conspiracy with Russia remains at the center of it.
The development has teed up a virtual online debate over what Manafort’s latest turn lying to Mueller will mean for Manafort, Mueller, the Russia investigation, and President Trump. To some observers, like veteran reporter Barton Gellman, this is likely to be a big problem for Mueller, who leaned on Manafort to cooperate for months and months, and was seemingly counting on him to be his most critical witness—a man at the nexus of Russian oligarchy, the subversion of western democracy, Republican Party dark arts, and Trump’s campaign.
Independent journalist Marcy Wheeler has a brighter outlook in the advertised sentencing submission, which Mueller could use as a vehicle for informing the public about the entire 2016 election conspiracy. If Mueller knew Manafort was lying to him, and we assume the lies were pertinent to the Russia conspiracy, then Mueller must be sitting on a great deal of evidence—enough, conceivably, to prove the conspiracy Manafort has been trying to conceal.
But it may also be the case that these two plausible interpretations are both correct, because they aren’t really in conflict with one another. Mueller may have the goods, and may be days away form disclosing them to the court, and yet losing Manafort’s cooperation might still be devastating.
Mueller teased this development almost two weeks ago, with what in hindsight looks like comical subtlety. On November 15, his office and Manafort’s attorneys requested a 10 day extension of a court-imposed deadline to provide a status update on Manfort’s cooperation, promising that the extra time would allow them to “provide the Court with a report that will be of greater assistance in the Court’s management of this matter.”
The update, it turns out, is that Manafort violated his plea agreement, and thus loses all of his promised leniency, while the government will retain his guilty pleas, and all of the assets Manafort forfeited under the terms of the deal. This is a terrible outcome for Manafort, unless he expects Trump to pardon him, and to somehow avoid state-level charges for his financial crimes.
But beyond what’s visible, we know almost nothing. We don’t know when Manafort learned that Mueller was ready to cut him loose, we don’t know when Mueller decided to do that himself, we don’t know what Mueller was up to behind the scenes in the past two weeks, we don’t know what Manafort lied about, we don’t know how much useful information, if any, he provided Mueller since September, and whether that information generated leads that will live on despite the abrupt end of their cooperative relationship. The most we can say is that Manafort seemed to understand that he was trying Mueller’s patience early this month.
It’s thus possible to project almost any meaning on to the development, because almost any hypothesis fits the few known facts.
In one light, it is unimaginably bad news for Manafort, Trump, and any number of unnamed conspirators. Mueller didn’t make this announcement until after Trump submitted sworn, written answers to a series of questions about his campaign’s ties to Russia. If Mueller knows that Manafort lied, he could easily know if Trump lied, too, and that’s particularly true if Manafort and Trump have been getting their stories straight together. In an extremely unusual arrangement, Manafort’s and Trump’s legal teams reportedly continued to maintain a joint-defense agreement, even after Manafort flipped. We don’t yet know what real and significant information, if any, Manafort ferreted out of the special counsel’s office to Trump, or whether Trump gathered the shape of the false story Manafort was telling Mueller, and then retold the same false story in his written answers.
Twelve hours after the Manafort news broke, Trump erupted at Mueller on Twitter in a way that suggests he knows recent developments are not good for him. And to be sure, if Mueller reveals in a court filing that Trump orchestrated an effort to throw Mueller off the scent, and it becomes public, it will be devastating for Trump, and, importantly, a prosecutorial step that Trump’s hand-selected Mueller tormenter, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, can’t stop.
Yet at the same time, we can imagine that Mueller’s latest move creates political and legal exposure for Trump without assuming it’s the outcome Mueller wanted. When Manafort flipped, “more than 20 members of the special counsel’s investigation team appeared in the second-floor courtroom Friday morning,” according to Politico, “where lead prosecutors Andrew Weissmann, Greg Andres and Brandon Van Grack were joined by a phalanx of FBI and IRS agents who did significant grunt work preparing for Manafort’s trial.”
Mueller’s team clearly thought securing Manafort’s cooperation was a huge deal at the time. It at least feels a bit convenient to imagine that, two months later, they simply have no further use for him.
We don’t know how significant Manafort’s lies have been, so we don’t know how significant it is that Mueller knew he was lying. Even if we assume Manafort lied constantly, and Mueller caught him out every time, the fact that Mueller’s standing on a mountain of evidence might not be enough to deliver us, the people who deserve to know what happened in our election, the full truth.
Mueller could know for a provable fact that Manafort was a foreign agent, planted intentionally in the Trump campaign to facilitate Russian efforts to get Trump elected. But if Manafort’s value as a witness was his ability to attest publicly to the nature of the criminal scheme, and particularly to the fact that Trump was in on it, much of that value could now be lost, and with Trump’s plausible deniability, and his pardon power, still in tact. Manafort could have lied to Mueller’s investigators with abandon, fooling literally no one, yet losing his cooperation might still be devastating. And the worst part of living in this state of conjecture is that as close as we seem to learning the truth once and for all, Mueller could provide the court the goods on Manafort’s lies under seal, and leave the public in the dark indefinitely once again.