Wednesday was a barn burner of a day in the various probes circling the president, beginning with the announcement by Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Paul Manafort’s sentencing in Washington and ending with the report that Michael Cohen may have received an email from the Trump camp raising the possibility of a pardon.
But the most consequential development was the revelation of state charges against Manafort by the New York district attorney’s office.
Less than an hour after Jackson sentenced Manafort, who served as President Trump’s campaign chairman for part of 2016, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. revealed that a grand jury had returned a 16-count indictment against him on charges of residential mortgage fraud.
New York law enforcement officials suggested that the charges could result in additional state prison time of eight to 25 years, potentially more than doubling the sentence Manafort received for his convictions in two cases in the federal system.
For the 69-year-old Manafort, the revelation quickly diminished the prospect of having a meaningful life on the other side of prison.
But the significance of Vance’s arrival on the scene is much broader.
For most of the past two years, the investigation of the president has played out under galling terms for his opponents. Trump’s hammerlock control over the Republican Senate, combined with his ruthless deployment of executive power, has permitted him to ride out a stunning series of ethical and legal challenges.
Consider the way his possession of the pardon power has fueled speculation that he could wield it to reward friends and loyalists, while — and this is the important point — potentially suppressing testimony against him.
Did hope for a Trump pardon emboldened Manafort to undertake a brazen manipulation of the system? Even on Wednesday, Jackson admonished Manafort and his lawyer about their public insistence that his prosecution had shown that there was no collusion — which Jackson pointedly suggested was a “non sequitur.” Yet immediately after sentencing, Manafort’s lawyer was back on the courthouse steps offering the same spin.
And here Vance swooped in. The charges he brought — and the announcement less than an hour after the federal sentence was handed down — serve as preemptive pushback on any designs Manafort may have on a Trump pardon. But the true counterpunch is directed not at Manafort, but the president.
Yes, Trump has his pardon power, combined with the Justice Department’s policy against charging a sitting president and the obeisance of the Republicans in the Senate, and he may believe this all combines to give him something of a clear path out of his predicament. With the state law charges, however, the broader political system — comprising state and federal governmental institutions — has a strategic rejoinder to which Trump has no obvious countermove.
One caveat: A number of Vance’s charges appear to be vulnerable to dismissal under New York’s double jeopardy law, which generally precludes prosecution for two offenses based upon the same act or criminal transaction. Vance has no doubt done his best to insulate the indictment, but on the surface it looks as if the most serious charges in Wednesday’s indictment are based on the same acts as gave rise to the criminal charges in the Eastern District of Virginia. But that’s probably not true for all 16 counts, especially the charges alleging that Manafort filed false business reports.
And, remember, New York is not the only state that can come after Manafort; Rhode Island, Illinois, California and Virginia potentially also could follow suit.
State charges change everyone’s calculation. Would-be loyalists can no longer assume that Trump has a reliable get-out-of-jail-free card for them, and this goes a long way toward foreclosing any pardon play. It also provides a heartening response on behalf of everyone who has taken deep offense at the prospect that the president could manipulate the system with impunity.