Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is clearly building a case against Paul Manafort, President Trump's former top campaign aide. The inescapable conclusion from that is that he is hoping Manafort will cut a deal — that he'll “flip” on Trump and spill whatever beans he might have to spill.
With that possibility looking increasingly real, the White House must figure out its Manafort strategy. How the administration handles the former Trump aide who might wind up being its worst enemy is perhaps the most intriguing personal subplot of the Hollywood drama that is the Russia investigation.
And if the initial response to the latest Manafort news is any indication, the White House is preparing to fight Manafort head-on.
The Post broke a big story Wednesday, publishing some contents of the emails Mueller's investigators have obtained from Manafort. In those emails, Manafort talks about setting up a briefing with a Russian oligarch who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also discusses his newfound high profile as a Trump strategist and asks an employee, “How do we use [this] to get whole?” — apparently referring to debts he believed he was owed but had been unable to collect.
The White House is now seizing on that latter email. In comments to Bloomberg's Margaret Talev late Wednesday, White House lawyer Ty Cobb said that “it would be truly shocking” if Manafort “tried to monetize his relationship with the president.”
Those are pretty harsh words, and they seem to echo other sentiments that have leaked out of the White House about Manafort. Here's how The Post's team described views of Manafort on Wednesday:
Former campaign officials said that Manafort frequently told his campaign colleagues that assertions made about him by the press were specious. They also privately shared concerns about whether Manafort was always putting the candidate’s interests first.
It all sounds a lot like a White House that is preparing to disown Manafort and to say that he was out for himself from Day One. That could, of course, help it argue that he's not credible; it could say that he's basically about to do whatever it takes to save his own hide and will say anything — the usual strategy for witnesses who cut deals with prosecutors.
But if there is still a chance that Manafort wouldn't flip, alienating him at this point would seem to be counterproductive. Why ruffle the feathers of a guy who could wind up doing you real damage? Why not keep your powder dry until you know where Manafort stands and whether Mueller actually has the goods to indict him, as investigators have reportedly told Manafort they intend to do.
The comments seem to be more a threat than anything else. The White House hasn't attacked Manafort directly — Cobb uses the important if-it's-true modifier — but it seems to be signaling that it is ready and willing to go to war if that becomes necessary. Turning against Trump won't be without consequences, the White House seems to be saying.
But if the White House officials keeps up this combative tone on Manafort, it could signal that they are resigned to the idea that he is no longer their friend. They've sought to downplay his work for the campaign before, and now they seem to be coming right out and questioning his character. That seems a pretty significant moment in this whole matter — and perhaps a sign of a historic clash to come.