On Monday night, the New York Times reported that after a no-knock entry to execute a search warrant of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort‘s home, the special counsel informed Manafort that he is likely to be indicted. That indictment might entail “violations of tax laws, money-laundering prohibitions and requirements to disclose foreign lobbying.” If true, that’s a lot of leverage special counsel Robert S. Mueller III could apply to get Manafort to disclose what, if anything, he knows about possible collaboration between Russia and the Trump team during the campaign. The pressure to “flip” and begin cooperating fully with Mueller will be intense.
That revelation was not the only shock Trump’s team received on Monday. In a stunning revelation, CNN reports:
US investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election, sources tell CNN, an extraordinary step involving a high-ranking campaign official now at the center of the Russia meddling probe.
The government snooping continued into early this year, including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump.
It does not seem that Manafort was wiretapped while he served as Trump’s campaign chairman. However, “The conversations between Manafort and Trump continued after the President took office, long after the FBI investigation into Manafort was publicly known, the sources told CNN. … It’s unclear whether Trump himself was picked up on the surveillance.”
Remember that Manafort was present at the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russian officials, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. — a meeting for which the president participated in crafting a false statement as to its purpose, according to news reports.
These developments suggest multiple lines of inquiry:
- Was Manafort indeed involved in efforts to change the Republican National Committee platform to omit support for arming Ukraine? If so, was that a result of his past dealings with a Russian loyalist in Ukraine, former president Viktor Yanukovych?
- Was Trump or anyone on the campaign aware of Manafort’s past connections? Of the effort to change the platform?
- Which Russian officials, if any, did Manafort communicate with during the campaign? CNN reports: “Manafort previously has denied that he ever ‘knowingly’ communicated with Russian intelligence operatives during the election and also has denied participating in any Russian efforts to ‘undermine the interests of the United States.’ ” That leaves a whole lot of territory, including possible “collusion” with Russians to benefit his candidate at the time.
- Did Manafort inform Trump after the fact of any involvement with Russian officials? (That would provide motive for Trump to fire James B. Comey and/or try to derail the Russia investigation.)
On top of all that, we now know Mueller “has obtained a separate warrant for materials from Facebook connected to Russian ad buys during the campaign — which again suggests that a judge found probable cause of a crime,” the Lawfare blog explains. “Combined with a flurry of stories about subpoenas, grand-jury appearances and other activity, it’s reasonable to expect that Mueller is moving forward on a number of different fronts and is getting close to entering a litigation phase.”
The flurry of reports go to the biggest question of all: Was Manafort engaging or assisting a foreign country (Ukraine and/or Russia) in clandestine activities, and if so, what did Trump know and when did he know it?
All of this comes with a huge caveat: We do not know whether press reports are entirely accurate, and if so, whether the conduct that might trigger Manafort’s indictment goes to alleged collusion with Russia during the campaign. We don’t know what the special counsel has on tape (ironically, Trump falsely suggested that he had Comey on tape). Perhaps the only thing we can say with certainty is that Manafort better have lawyers more competent than the Keystone Kops whom Trump has hired.