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Opinion What you need to know about Paul Manafort

Then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort talks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016. (Photo: AP/Matt Rourke)

The Post reports:

A federal judge ordered Paul Manafort to jail Friday over charges he tampered with witnesses while out on bail — a major blow for President Trump’s former campaign chairman as he awaits trial on federal conspiracy and money-laundering charges next month.
“You have abused the trust placed in you six months ago,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson told Manafort. “The government motion will be granted, and the defendant will be detained.”

President Trump simultaneously expressed concern (“Unfair!”) for Manafort and tried to disown him, first saying he had nothing to do with the campaign and then adding that Manafort “worked for me for a very short period of time.” Even worse, in what looks like a blatant attempt to keep Manafort quiet, TV lawyer Rudolph Giuliani hinted that the investigation might get cleared up by pardons. Is this an attempt to impede the investigation hiding in plain sight?

Despite Trump’s suggestion Manafort is a nobody, Manafort headed the campaign for months (March to August 2016), during which the Republican National Convention was held. However, at least so far, there is no public indication Trump is prepared to pardon Manafort. However, this March the New York Times reported, “A lawyer for President Trump broached the idea of Mr. Trump’s pardoning two of his former top advisers, Michael T. Flynn and Paul Manafort, with their lawyers last year, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.”

Going to jail has a way of focusing the mind, as criminal defense lawyers say. To the extent Manafort has not truly accepted the depth of his legal peril, his incarceration might provide a jolt of reality. Plainly, the most important consequence of revoking Manafort’s bail is to increase the chances he will start cooperating with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Coming at a time when Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen is reportedly facing imminent arrest, the Trump team has good reason to worry that the people who know the most may soon be helping Mueller.

What you need to know about Paul Manafort's ties to Russia. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti tells me, “Today’s decision to remand Manafort into custody pending trial will increase the pressure on him to flip and plead guilty. That helps explain why Trump and Giuliani have made public overtures to Manafort after the ruling. Until now, Manafort has pursued an aggressive, in-your-face strategy that appeared to be positioning himself for a pardon. Now he might receive one. If he doesn’t, he might be forced to flip on Trump, with significant consequences for both men.”

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There are three other ways in which Manafort’s incarceration may make life  harder for Trump.

First, it is a reminder that far from a “hoax” or a waste of time, Manafort is one of 20 indicted individuals (five of whom pled guilty). He was, at a critical time in the race, running the president’s campaign. If he alone is convicted of a raft of serious financial crimes, the investigation would still be meaningful. Trump’s former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, his former national security adviser Michael Flynn and a former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos have already pled guilty.

That’s an astounding treasure trove of criminals, and one has to believe Mueller isn’t nearly done with his investigation. If, for example, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe, his deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, his national security adviser Thomas Donilon and a campaign foreign policy adviser (say, Samantha Power or Denis McDonough) all pleaded guilty to crimes, the GOP would have long ago started screaming for the president to resign.

Second, Manafort is also a key player in the clearest example of cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Manafort, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. all attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Kremlin-linked characters. Trump, he has acknowledged, drafted an explanation of that meeting although he did not attend. Trump’s explanation was false. Each time Trump hollers “No Collusion!” the appropriate follow-up should be, “What about the Trump Tower meeting?” (The Moscow Project has documented “80 contacts between Trump’s team and Russia linked operatives, including at least 23 meetings. And we know that at least 24 high-ranking campaign officials and Trump advisors were aware of contacts with Russia-linked operatives during the campaign and transition.”)

Manafort is the most likely figure to have had other contact with Russian-related figures. (Says The Post, “Prosecutors have said that Manafort’s role in the campaign and long-standing ties to Russian-backed politicians, financiers and others merited investigation into whether any of them served as back channels to Russia. The obstruction charges flow out of lobbying work in 2012 on behalf of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, and his Party of Regions.”)

In short, the highest ranked campaign official documented to have met with Russian operatives promising dirt on Hillary Clinton is now in a jail cell.

Third, Manafort sits in jail because he suggested untrue testimony to witnesses. The New York Times reported:

The witnesses at issue in Monday’s court filing relate to allegations that Mr. Manafort secretly retained a group of former European officials to act as lobbyists on issues related to Ukraine. Mr. Manafort paid them 2 million euros in 2012 and 2013, according to court documents.
Prosecutors say that was part of a secret lobbying campaign in the United States. Mr. Manafort argues the lobbying was focused on the European Union — a key point in his defense.
In court documents, prosecutors accused Mr. Manafort of trying to reach members of a public relations firm who could get word to the Europeans and help shape their story.

One has to wonder what conversations, if any, Trump had with potential witnesses and whether he suggested a false version of events that would be helpful to him. We don’t know that such conversations took place, but Trump is not one to hold back in the company of sympathetic listeners. Given Trump’s propensity to say and even believe things that simply are not true, Mueller no doubt has been asking every witness who had contact with Trump what they discussed with Trump and whether he suggested any untrue “facts.” Witness tampering is a serious crime and there is no argument that such conduct would be permitted for the head of the executive branch, who is charged with implementing the laws.