Over the course of the Russia scandal, there have been a few days when we’ve said, “This is a blockbuster development,” the revelation of new information that will shape the course of the scandal. For instance, when we learned that President Trump dictated Donald Trump Jr.’s statement falsifying the rationale for the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, everyone understood it was vitally important, because the president was a key actor in covering up what seemed like a pretty clear case of collusion.
Today might turn out to be another of those blockbuster days, because we have not one but two new and potentially vital developments. Both of them involve former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and while it’s always possible they’ll turn out to be inconsequential, the fact that the president himself is highly distressed suggests otherwise:
The first development came when special counsel Robert S. Mueller III asked a federal court to begin sentencing proceedings for Manafort, sentencing that was on hold while Manafort cooperated with Mueller’s team. According to the filing: “After signing the plea agreement, 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.”
This is obviously bad news for Manafort, because without his plea agreement he could spend many more years in jail. But it could also be bad news for President Trump.
This is where, I must stress, things get speculative. But before we get to the speculation, there are some important pieces of context. First, it’s unlikely that Mueller would be withdrawing Manafort’s plea agreement unless he had specific evidence demonstrating that Manafort lied. He’s going to lay that evidence out for the court as the judge considers what sentence to give Manafort, in what amounts to another indictment.
Second, Trump’s lawyers and Manafort’s lawyers have a joint defense agreement that allows them to share information. And third, Trump recently completed a set of written answers to Mueller’s questions.
Marcy Wheeler explains what all that might mean:
Mueller’s team appears to have no doubt that Manafort was lying to them. That means they didn’t really need his testimony, at all. It also means they had no need to keep secrets — they could keep giving Manafort the impression that he was pulling a fast one over the prosecutors, all while reporting misleading information to Trump that he could use to fill out his open book test. Which increases the likelihood that Trump just submitted sworn answers to those questions full of lies.
That Manafort would lie to prosecutors after signing an agreement with them is not exactly surprising. This is someone who spent a career somersaulting across every imaginable ethical and legal line; he even allegedly engaged in witness tampering while under house arrest as he awaited trial. But even if Mueller is right that Manafort has been lying to him, we don’t yet know what about. It could have nothing to do with Trump.
But if it does, and if Trump made the same assertions in his written answers that Manafort made, and if Mueller has evidence disproving those assertions, it would mean Trump committed perjury and perhaps obstruction of justice as well.
That’s a lot of ifs, which is why we’re going to have to wait until Mueller lays all his cards on the table to see the true magnitude of this development. Which brings us to the second of the day’s potentially enormous stories, from the Guardian:
Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort held secret talks with Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and visited around the time he joined Trump’s campaign, the Guardian has been told.
Sources have said Manafort went to see Assange in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016 – during the period when he was made a key figure in Trump’s push for the White House.
It is unclear why Manafort wanted to see Assange and what was discussed. But the last meeting is likely to come under scrutiny and could interest Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
A well-placed source has told the Guardian that Manafort went to see Assange around March 2016. Months later WikiLeaks released a stash of Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers.
We have to be careful about this story, because the sourcing — anonymous Ecuadorans connected to the government — is less than ironclad, even if the Guardian did its best to verify the claims. But if it is true that Manafort met with Assange in the spring of 2016, it would be almost ludicrous to think they didn’t discuss the Democratic emails stolen by Russia that WikiLeaks was soon to release in order to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. And if that were true, it would mean the Trump campaign — or at least the Trump campaign chairman — had advance knowledge of the centerpiece of the Russian effort to manipulate the 2016 election.
And — to add the final link in this chain of speculation on my part — if this meeting with Assange and whatever accompanied it is one of the things Mueller will say Manafort lied to him about, then that would mean Mueller has direct evidence of — wait for it — collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, at the very least indirectly through WikiLeaks.
These questions will hopefully be answered when Mueller submits his document to the federal court laying out the case that Manafort lied to investigators after he entered a plea agreement promising to tell them the whole truth. If that document is made public, we’ll learn what he said, what the truth is, and perhaps who he’s covering up for. And then Trump may have even more reason to be angry.