Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

The news is breaking that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has surrendered to federal authorities, after the first charges in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation were filed against him. Manafort and a junior business partner have been charged with money laundering and conspiracy against the United States, among other things.

The seriousness of the charges suggests that Mueller may be able to bring substantial pressure on Manafort to cooperate with his ongoing investigation into matters more directly relevant to President Trump himself. Mueller will try to get Manafort to disclose everything he knows about any Russian sabotage of the election, any Trump campaign collusion with it and any Trump organization dealings with Russia he might know about.

I spoke this morning to Paul Rosenzweig, a senior counsel on Ken Starr’s investigation into Bill Clinton who is now a lecturer in law at George Washington University. Rosenzweig said: “Mueller is trying to use the specter of criminal prosecution and jail time to induce Paul Manafort to be truthful in his testimony about the nature of the Trump campaign’s relations with Russia.”

Rosenzweig laid out some of the lines of inquiry that Mueller will try to pursue with Manafort, if he can get him to cooperate (which is obviously unknown at this point).

First, there’s the meeting that Donald Trump Jr., arranged with Russians in the expectation that the Trump campaign would be given damaging information on Hillary Clinton that originated with the Russian government. Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner were at the 2016 meeting, and there are reports of cryptic notes that Manafort took there that are in Mueller’s possession.

Rosenzweig says Mueller will want to question Manafort about what happened at the meeting, but that’s only the beginning. “Were you contacted after the meeting by the Russians in any follow up?” Rosenzweig says Manafort would likely be asked. “During your tenure as campaign chair, did you discuss this meeting with Donald J. Trump?”

That last one is particularly relevant, since it could shed light on what Trump knew about the meeting and when. Also recall that Trump had a hand in drafting the initial statement from Donald Trump Jr. that lied to the nation about why the meeting was held, which directly implicated Trump himself in covering up the true rationale for this meeting. Meanwhile, we also have just learned from the New York Times that the Russian lawyer at the meeting appeared to be sharing notes with a high-level figure in the Russian government. Manafort likely knows the full story of this meeting, what went into it, the surrounding context and direct relevance of it to Trump himself.

Rosenzweig also pointed out that Mueller could try to press Manafort about what he knows about any possible collaboration between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks. U.S. intelligence services believe Russian hackers gave WikiLeaks a treasure trove of hacked emails from Democrats. During the campaign, Trump confidant Roger Stone seemed to telegraph advance knowledge of a WikiLeaks dump against Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“This is a whole other set of questions,” Rosenzweig said, noting that Manafort may be asked: “Did you talk about that with Roger?”

And there’s still more — Manafort could conceivably shed light on Trump’s business dealings as well. “Obviously Manafort was deeply engaged in business with the Russians,” Rosenzweig said. “We should also remember that Manafort may have information about the Trump organization’s financial connections to Russia that are relevant to Mueller’s investigation but not directly tied to collusion.” Mueller has reportedly expanded his probe to look at Trump’s business dealings.

We don’t know whether Manafort will end up cooperating, and it should be stressed that even if he does, his truthful testimony may end up producing nothing incriminating about Trump himself. But the stakes suddenly got a lot higher. As Rosenzweig put it: “If Manafort agrees to testify truthfully, they’ll have the personal testimony of a key insider who is likely to have information about almost every incident of interest to Mueller.”

Beyond this, the stakes just ratcheted up big-time in two other ways, too. It is going to be a lot harder from here on out for Trump to use obfuscation, misdirection and lies — echoed by his dutiful media allies — to distract from Mueller’s probe, now that concrete charges and facts are emerging.

At the same time, this emergence of concrete charges and facts means we may soon finally find out whether Trump will go full authoritarian — whether he will issue any pardons or take action to remove Mueller — and whether Republicans, having seen the seriousness of these charges, will take active steps now to warn him that any such move will be met with a forceful response.

* ANOTHER POLL FINDS TRUMP’S APPROVAL IN THE TOILET: A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll finds Trump’s approval at 38 percent to 58 percent, which is the “lowest in modern times for a president at this stage of the presidency.” And:

The drop for Trump has come from independents (who shifted from 41 percent approval in September to 34 percent now), whites (who went from 51 percent to 47 percent) and whites without a college degree (from 58 percent to 51 percent).

This suggests that Trump’s base may be eroding. Also: Democrats lead in the generic House ballot match-up, 48 percent to 41 percent.

* REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT ARIZONA SEAT: The New York Times reports that Arizona Republicans are scrambling in the wake of Sen.  Jeff Flake’s retirement, now that a Trumpist may be the nominee and could lose to Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D):

Establishment Republicans … are scrambling to find a candidate to replace Mr. Flake and wage a primary challenge against Kelli Ward, a former state senator who aligns herself with Mr. Trump. Ms. Ward, derided by critics as a fringe candidate and a conspiracy theorist, was beaten badly by the senior senator from Arizona, John McCain, in a 2016 primary, and party leaders fear she would lose to Ms. Sinema in the general election.

Sinema, a centrist Democrat, could also face a primary challenge, but if it ends up being Sinema vs. Ward, Democrats might have a better chance at winning back the Senate.

* TRUMP’S SABOTAGE OF OBAMACARE WILL WORK: Politico reports that health policy experts expect the Affordable Care Act’s open enrollment to fall well short of expectations. Guess why?

From the day he took office, Trump and his administration have taken steps to undermine the markets, including gutting outreach and marketing. … Premiums have skyrocketed — partly because Trump himself cut off federal subsidies, leaving the insurers facing billions in extra costs. … That chaos has been compounded by Trump’s repeated assertions that Obamacare has somehow ceased to exist — despite the fact that more than 10 million Americans obtain insurance through the law’s insurance exchanges.

Trump and Republicans will seize on the damage they inflict to argue that the law is failing, to … well, it’s unclear what this is supposed to accomplish, since they could not pass their own alternative.

* GOP TAX PLAN HITS ANOTHER SPEED BUMP: The Post reports that the powerful National Association of Home Builders has come out against the proposal, because it nixes a tax break that the association supports:

The development underscored just how difficult the prospect of a successful tax overhaul will be, given the complex and competing interests that President Trump and GOP lawmakers are trying to serve. … Home builders are considered among the most politically influential groups, as they play a large role in the local economy for virtually every congressional district — and contribute millions to political campaigns.

Basically, the imperative of giving the rich a huge tax cut requires Trump and Republicans to target deductions that are popular and/or have very powerful patrons. Dilemmas, dilemmas …

* TRUMP WANTS TO RAISE YOUR TAXES: David Leonhardt has a good column explaining why the Trump/GOP tax plan will likely raise your taxes. Its huge cuts for the rich necessitate this:

Having lavished so much money on the wealthy, the tax package … doesn’t have much remaining to spend on middle class and poor families. … Many face a lower tax rate, but some face a higher one, and many families lose deductions. The combination creates a lot of losers. … Trump and his allies  … claim … corporate tax cuts will create an indirect windfall for workers. Funny, though, how the wealthy get most of the direct benefits, while everyone else has to hope for indirect ones somehow to materialize.

Perhaps if Trump lies about the plan again and again on his mighty Twitter feed, he can make this reality disappear.

* WE DON’T HAVE TO PLAY THE GOP’S GAME ON TAXES: E.J. Dionne Jr. smartly argues that we should be debating the impact of tax cuts in the context of all the talk about the economic struggles that supposedly helped Trump’s rise:

Ever since Trump’s election, discussion of the vast divides in our nation between prosperous regions and those battered by economic change have filled our newspapers, websites and airwaves. There is simply no way that shoveling out $2.6 trillion in business tax cuts over 10 years … does anything to help places that are ailing. On the contrary, this farrago of corporate goodies … would only aggravate existing inequalities.

But Trump told his voters that cutting taxes bigly on people like him will lead to an explosion of growth and will induce corporations to hand over bigger wages to workers, so they’ll believe him.