President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty Friday to two criminal charges under terms of a plea deal that includes his cooperation as a potential witness for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The decision by Manafort to provide evidence in exchange for leniency on sentencing is a stunning development in the long-running probe into whether any Trump associates may have conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
Manafort’s defenders have long insisted that he would not cooperate with Mueller, and didn’t know any incriminating information against the president.
Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said at the beginning of Friday’s plea hearing that Manafort had agreed to cooperate with investigators.
That’s the news Trump never wanted to hear. The prospect of just such a deal is why his lawyers reportedly dangled the promise of a pardon in front of Manafort’s lawyers. A plea deal that could put the Russians inside Trump’s campaign blows to smithereens the notion that only low-level, non-players or those distantly related to the campaign had Russian connections. Trump, who was praising Manafort to the heavens just weeks ago, will find it hard (but not impossible) to now smear him as a liar.
“The relentless Mueller push continues — as does that of the rule of law,” observes former White House ethics counsel Norman Eisen. “The reported cooperation agreement could be devastating to the president — and those around him. Manafort for example could implicate not only the president in the Trump Tower meeting — but also others who were involved such as Don Jr. or [Jared] Kushner. The same is true on the mysterious [RNC] platform change, and indeed on all the possible collusion offenses.”
The plea certainly explodes Trump’s claim that Mueller is engaged in a “witch hunt.” The only “hoax” here is the pretense that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on inside the Trump campaign or that it was too disorganized to have spent time colluding with Russians.
Trump also loses the argument that Mueller is wasting taxpayer money. As part of the plea deal, Manafort is going to cough up $46 million in forfeited assets, according to news reports. That more than pays for Mueller and his team (who at last glance had spent $20 million). Then again, it all depends how high a price you put on restoration of American democracy.
Trump was already crashing in the polls and Mueller’s approval rising, in large part due to, in August, the trial and conviction of Manafort and the plea deal with Michael Cohen. The recording of Trump discussing a payoff with Cohen surely didn’t help his credibility.
What we will find out in the days and weeks ahead is just how much Manafort knows and how much he can tell us about what Trump knew regarding Russian interference on his behalf. For Republicans who have been carrying water for the president, it might be time to put down the buckets and run for their political lives. Frankly, voting for impeachment and removal might be a good option for Republicans at some point. Before we get there, however, there are the midterms, which are shaping up to be a wipeout for the GOP.