When Paul Manafort agreed to cooperate with Robert S. Mueller III on Friday, plenty of people were surprised. Manafort, after all, had already been convicted in a previous trial, through which he had remained resolute. He even earned President Trump’s praise for declining to cut a deal. “Such respect for a brave man!” Trump declared, it turns out rather prematurely.
But why go through all that trouble — and lose your leverage to negotiate — if you were just going to flip?
We still don’t know the answer to that, and we won’t for a while (if ever). Perhaps Manafort lost his will or the financial means to fight. Or perhaps he never really offered much, and Mueller was simply more willing to cut a deal once he was already headed to prison.
But there is one thing that changed between Manafort’s trial and today — or, more aptly, changed the day Manafort was convicted on eight counts. That was also the day, you might recall, that Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of his own. In doing so, Cohen effectively named Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator in a campaign finance violation, ratcheting up Trump’s legal problems significantly.
It could be — although it’s impossible to say with any certainty — that this changed the calculus for Manafort. It’s one thing to be the one who flips and becomes The Guy Who Informed on the President; it’s another to be one of two guys. Cohen was the highest-profile person close to Trump who had flipped, and he implicated Trump in wrongdoing in a way others before him hadn’t. If you’re Manafort, it seems possible that you see that and think, The truth is going to come out anyway. Why don’t I get on the right side of this thing?
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) brought this up Sunday in a way that is worth digesting. Schiff wasn’t theorizing about Manafort’s thought process, mind you, but about how others might view his flip going forward.
“This sends a message to anyone who is in Bob Mueller’s crosshairs right now: You better get to the special counsel and make your deal now, because anyone who gets indicted by Bob Mueller goes down,” Schiff said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And the longer you wait to come clean, the worse deal you’re gonna get — the more time you’re gonna face.”
Schiff has a bias here. He’s a Democrat, and he clearly has been skeptical about the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia. But the point he makes is a valid one. Although it’s possible that people saw Michael T. Flynn’s and George Papadopoulos’s deals as unknown quantities, it’s much more difficult to dismiss Cohen’s and Manafort’s cooperation. These are men who were intimately involved with Trump’s actions, who ostensibly could know plenty about what happened both in 2016 and, in Cohen’s case, before then.
In that way, Manafort’s flip matters both for what he might tell Mueller and the signal it might send to others. If you were under suspicion, you have to be really nervous right now — both because of whether you might be the next Manafort and because the longer you wait, the less leverage you might have to get your own deal.
This is why Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, spent much of the weekend rather dubiously assuring people that Manafort’s cooperation agreement did not involve the 2016 campaign. Trump’s legal team and Manafort’s had a joint defense agreement, which provides a whiff of legitimacy to Giuliani’s assurances. But there is nothing in Manafort’s deal that explicitly exempts him from sharing campaign information, and people who cut such plea deals don’t, as a rule, get to pick and choose what information they share; they have to share it all.
So who could be tempted to cut the next deal? Given that nobody else has been indicted, it’s tough to say. Roger Stone has certainly been a very real focus of Mueller’s recently, and he has said he’s preparing to be charged. K.T. McFarland hasn’t been in the news for a while, but her problematic testimony is no less problematic today than it was eight months ago. We still haven’t heard that Donald Trump Jr. has been interviewed by Mueller, leaving open the possibility that Mueller is saving him as a potential target for the Trump Tower meeting. Or it could be someone completely off the radar.
Anybody who’s in one of their positions, though, has to be asking themselves just how much time they have — and whether someone else might get their deal and share the information they have before they do. In that way, Manafort’s deal isn’t really just about Manafort, and it may not be only about what he knows.