If not for President Trump’s ramped-up rhetoric over North Korea and his nearly equal assault on the Senate majority leader more might be focusing on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s work this week — in particular, the FBI raid on former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s home — and what it means for Trump’s presidency.
“The predawn raid has several indicators of just how serious this investigation is and how much trouble Donald Trump may be in,” warns ethics expert Norman Eisen. “First, a search warrant of this kind requires a judge to find probable clause that a crime was committed, and relevant evidence is likely in Manafort’s home. Second, investigative pressures of this kind often cause those lower down in the pecking order to truthfully share what they know about higher-ups.” And, third, he observes that “using a ‘no knock’ warrant as some media are saying was the case here, and serving it while the recipient is still sleeping, is reserved for the most serious cases.” He concludes, “All in all, it’s probably not only Manafort’s sleep that was likely disturbed here, but also that of his erstwhile patron, Trump.”
Let’s look at the things Trump should be most worried about.
First, he has an inferior legal team. Bloomberg reports:
As Mueller adds experienced prosecutors and broadens his investigation, Trump’s legal team still appears disorganized and understaffed. An army of well-paid lawyers would help the president get in front of the investigation: preparing responses to allegations before hearing about them from prosecutors or reporters, anticipating where Mueller is going, and developing a counternarrative to stymie him. Junior staffers could spend all night researching case law or obstruction of justice and conspiracy statutes; they could be available at a moment’s notice to draft pleadings challenging Mueller’s requests to interview witnesses or gather documents.
Instead, Trump’s defense has been almost entirely reactive — responding to the latest bombshell report with uninformed statements by surrogates.
Second, the more serious and extensive the case against Manafort, the more incentive he will have to implicate others. “Mueller’s team of investigators has sent subpoenas in recent weeks from a Washington grand jury to global banks for account information and records of transactions involving Manafort and some of his companies, as well as those of a longtime business partner, Rick Gates, according to people familiar with the matter,” Bloomberg reports. “The special counsel has also reached out to other business associates, including Manafort’s son-in-law and a Ukrainian oligarch, according to one of the people. Those efforts were characterized as an apparent attempt to gain information that could be used to squeeze Manafort, or force him to be more helpful to prosecutors.”
Third, Manafort occupies a unique role in the Trump inquiry. Manafort had financial connections with pro-Russian figures including Moscow’s man in Ukraine, former president Viktor Yanukovych; he was campaign chief during the convention when the Republican platform was drafted to exclude military support for Ukraine; he attended the controversial meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016; and he would have had access to Trump throughout the time he was campaign chief. Any prosecutor looking at the situation would conclude Manafort is a critical player where Trump and Russian officials intersect. (The question whether Trump and the Russians had connections or each was merely connected to Manafort remains at the heart of the investigation.)
In sum, Trump and his lawyers know Manafort is under heavy pressure, but they likely do not know precisely what Mueller knows. As a pivotal player in the investigation with no long-term loyalty to Trump, Manafort in the hands of a skilled prosecutor may pose a serious threat to Trump’s presidency.