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Opinion Manafort surprise: Uh oh, another set of contemporaneous notes?

Then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort talks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Being neophytes at government and foreigners to anything but family-run businesses, the Trump clan probably was surprised to learn its conversations might be captured as part of surveillance of Russians. The team likely has been even more shocked to learn that people take notes in Washington, D.C. — sometimes to exonerate themselves and sometimes to implicate themselves. We saw how much damage former FBI director James B. Comey’s contemporaneous notes have done. Now, according to Politico, we have something potentially even more damning:

Paul Manafort will meet with Senate investigators in the next 48 hours and has agreed to provide notes of the meeting at Trump Tower last year with a Russian lawyer, according to a person close to the investigation.
This person said Manafort would answer questions about the June 9, 2016, meeting, which was precipitated by the attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, offering to help Donald Trump’s campaign by providing dirt on Clinton. Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, will also provide contemporaneous notes of the session, this person said.

That this information comes to light the day after Jared Kushner spoke to the Senate Intelligence Committee, I suspect, is not coincidental. This is how experienced prosecutors work — pinning down one participant, checking his story against others, finding inconsistencies, striking deals to “flip” witnesses and then seeing if the lies add up to criminal conduct.

Here's what investigators want to ask Trump's son, son-in-law and former campaign manager. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Manafort’s testimony and notes confirm one troubling fact for the Trump team and open up a host of new problems. Manafort, who was reportedly under investigation for alleged financial crimes, appears to have struck a deal (whether transactional to cover all his conduct or “use immunity,” simply to prevent his words in such testimony from being used against him). He has no loyalty to Trump, is not bound by any privilege (since he never made it to the White House) and has every reason now to be forthcoming. He also may be the one clear link between Russian help to the Trump campaign and “favors,” such as a change in the RNC platform to remove a plan pledging arms support for Ukraine against Russia. (This might all have something to do with Trump’s especially unhinged tweets of late.)

Manafort’s reported cooperation suggest all sort of queries:

  • How do we know his notes are accurate?
  • Did anyone else take notes?
  • If Manafort was taking notes in a meeting — one attended by both Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. — wasn’t this a pretty big deal? If so, how could so many people have “forgotten” all about the meeting?
  • In addition to Manafort, former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn may have real liability (for example, if he lied to FBI investigators about his contacts with Russians). To what degree is he cooperating, and does he have notes of his own?
  • If Trump’s family members are implicated in wrongdoing, does he pardon them, thereby threatening his presidency?
  • If Manafort is talking to Senate investigators, has he already been assisting the special counsel?
  • Can Manafort tie now-President Trump to these Russian meetings? (In other words, did Trump authorize them or was he aware of them?)

Trump’s arrogant obliviousness and lack of experienced White House aides have blinded him to the multiple ways in which his own conduct and that of his family members can be brought to light. He could fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions or even special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but the FBI investigation would continue, as would the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation. No wonder Trump is frantically tweeting. #TheWallsAreClosingIn.