Two trials have come to a conclusion in Alexandria.
One found former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty of eight charges of tax and bank fraud, which could put him in prison for up to 80 years. The other was a verdict on the credibility and professionalism of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Manafort lost; Mueller won. This was a victory Mueller needed, and one that likely will strengthen his hand going forward in his investigation of how Russia tried to influence this country’s 2016 presidential election and whether President Trump’s campaign colluded with a foreign adversary.
In the court of public opinion, Mueller’s straight-arrow reputation has slipped over the past year, thanks largely to the beating it has gotten from Trump.
When a Quinnipiac University poll last week asked whether Mueller “is conducting a fair investigation,” barely half — 51 percent — of those who responded said yes. That marked a decline of nine percentage points since November.
The president is already spinning this verdict as meaningless, noting that the charges against Manafort had nothing to do with any work he did for Trump. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III had cautioned both sides not to even mention the Russia probe during the trial. Nor was Mueller’s victory a clean one: Ellis declared a mistrial on 10 additional charges over which the jury had deadlocked.
Yet the implications of the outcome were clear. Had Manafort been acquitted, it would have been a big boost to Trump’s efforts to discredit Mueller’s work and brought more calls by Republicans for the special counsel to wrap up the inquiry soon. It might even have created a pretext for the president to fire Mueller.
As the jury deliberated, Trump was showing signs of a full-on panic. On Monday, he shot off a new barrage of tweets attacking the special counsel and his team directly, calling them “Disgraced and discredited Bob Mueller and his whole group of Angry Democrat Thugs.”
That came the day after Trump tweeted: “Study the late Joseph McCarthy, because we are now in period with Mueller and his gang that make Joseph McCarthy look like a baby! Rigged Witch Hunt!”
Manafort’s conviction shows that Mueller’s probe is neither rigged nor a witch hunt.
But Trump is half-right. It is indeed worthwhile to study the infamous Wisconsin senator and his anti-communist crusade during the 1950s — because the enemies-within hysteria it fueled tells us a lot about the tactics of Trump himself.
McCarthy’s chief aide in that shameful endeavor was attorney Roy Cohn, who would later become a mentor to Trump and who remains the president’s ideal of what a lawyer should be. When Trump is exasperated at what he sees as insufficient ruthlessness on the part of his current lawyers, he has been known to demand: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
Mueller’s approach has been pretty much the opposite: methodical, focused, thorough and by the book. In Manafort’s case, the weight of the evidence he put together was enough to overcome the evident hostility of Ellis, who repeatedly berated the prosecution from the bench.
This is the point at which the walls have begun closing in.
Trump’s personal lawyers do not have a clear picture of what information White House counsel Donald McGahn has offered in 30 hours of interviews with Mueller’s investigators. Michael Cohen, the former personal lawyer who once said he would “take a bullet” for Trump, has instead taken a plea deal with prosecutors investigating payments he made to women on his then-client’s behalf — hush money, Cohen acknowledged Tuesday in court, that was paid “at the direction” of Trump himself.
And Mueller is not done with Manafort, who will face a second trial in September on charges of money laundering and failing to register as an agent for a foreign government.
Those charges may come closer to touching on his actions during the five months he was involved with Trump’s presidential campaign. The prosecution has compiled more than twice as much evidence as it presented to the jury in his first trial.
Manafort’s conviction will also increase the pressure on others in Trump’s orbit to cooperate with Mueller. And it may encourage Mueller to move sooner rather than later to bring in the president himself to testify, possibly by issuing a subpoena.
Legal experts say the special counsel’s chances of success in that are high, despite the vow of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s lead lawyer, to fight a subpoena all the way to the Supreme Court.
“I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” But for all their foment, Trump’s team knows they have no more than the illusion of control. With one big victory under his belt, the next move is Mueller’s.