But with his latest batch of pardons, particularly those of former campaign chair Paul Manafort and longtime confidante Roger Stone, something different is at play: The pardons are all about him.
The long and winding coverup of the Russia scandal is now complete.
Trump and his advocates have long cited special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s failure to bring criminal charges for coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. They have insisted there was “no collusion.”
But all those meetings between Russian officials and Trump campaign officials, the way Stone kept Trump apprised of the progress of WikiLeaks’ plans to release Democratic emails that the Russians stole, Manafort’s coordination with a Russian intelligence operative — it all added up to a shocking betrayal of the United States. Which is why Trump has worked so hard to convince Americans it was no big deal, and to ensure that neither he nor his associates paid the appropriate price.
The events leading up to the Manafort pardon underscore this story. His case went through many twists and turns, including a period in which he made a deal to cooperate with prosecutors, then lied to them about various matters. But the record showed a stunning level of not only avaricious fraud, but an eagerness to do the bidding of foreign actors who did not appear to have U.S. interests in mind.
The Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee, which issued a scathing report on the scandal, documents how Manafort, as campaign chair, secretly passed confidential internal campaign polling data to his associate Konstantin Kilimnik. The report describes Kilimnik as “a Russian intelligence officer.”
Yet now Manafort, who even before this scandal was known as a particularly immoral reprobate, is a free man. He has been pardoned even for crimes that had nothing to do with the Trump campaign.
Throughout his time in office, Trump has sent subtle and not-so-subtle signals that those who refuse to testify against him will be rewarded. About testifying against your superiors — what prosecutors were trying to get Manafort to do — Trump said, “It’s called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal.”
And asked this year whether he’d pardon Manafort and Stone, Trump replied, “You’ll find out what I’m going to do. I’m not going to say what I’m going to do. But the whole [Russia investigation] turned out to be a scam.”
As the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded, Manafort’s refusal to be honest about Kilimnik “effectively foreclosed direct insight into a series of interactions and communications which represent the single most direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.”
And Stone? He had been convicted of obstructing Congress’ investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election, and was said to be a conduit of information about WikiLeaks, which publicly released the emails Russia stole in order to embarrass Hillary Clinton, not just to the Trump campaign but to Trump himself.
Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates — who won’t get any pardon — testified that he was with Trump in summer 2016 when Trump spoke over the phone with Stone, who gave him an update on the upcoming leaks. Trump claimed in written answers to Mueller that he couldn’t remember such conversations.
But Stone kept his mouth shut, and like Manafort he was rewarded. They both knew what every low-level mobster knows: Show your loyalty by not squealing on the boss, and the boss will take care of you.
A few Republicans will now pretend to be appalled by this latest round of pardons. But it’s a show. They knew this was coming, and many helped Trump downplay the Russia scandal all along. They may have expressed a wee bit of discomfort from time to time, such as when Trump practically got down on his knees to shine Vladimir Putin’s shoes in Helsinki. But they were always there for Trump when he needed them.
It’s worth reminding ourselves what Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told us during Trump’s impeachment trial. “You can’t trust this president to do the right thing,” Schiff said. “He will not change and you know it.”
They did know it, even if they tried to pretend otherwise. “I would think he would think twice before he did it again,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a supposed sensible moderate, at the time. With the exception of Mitt Romney (R-Utah), every Republican senator voted to acquit him on all charges.
It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when each day brings an appalling new Trump misdeed, but getting that right will be our task. We’ll have to find a way to explain to our children and grandchildren how a man so reckless, so lawless, so utterly immoral could have not only been elected president but then propped up daily by a party full of people who claim to have principles.
We’ll have to come to grips with the institutional and societal weaknesses that allowed Trump to do everything he did. And we’ll have to make sure that those who helped him also bear history’s judgment. Trump had the power to keep the most obvious criminals among them from the prisons where they belong. But he can only destroy the truth if we allow it.