Perhaps the biggest and longest simmering development in the Robert Mueller investigation was Paul Manafort’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors, after seemingly fighting the charges tooth and nail for months. President Trump points out that Manafort only worked for his presidential campaign for a few months, but those few months were a key stretch of the campaign during which Trump secured the Republican nomination and fought off a potential contested convention in Cleveland.
Keeping in mind that Mueller’s investigation is a leak-proof black box to everyone on the outside, it can be This development can go in all sorts of different directions, some of which don’t involve Donald Trump or his campaign.
I. The Trump Tower Meeting
Paul Manafort was one of three Trump campaign officials (along with Don Jr. and Jared Kushner) who met with Natalia Veselnitskaya and her entourage of Russians at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016.
Manafort’s deal means that Mueller now has a cooperating witness who was in the room. It was already known that Manafort took notes on his iPhone during the meeting, but now he can elaborate as to their meaning and how the conversation went. One of the central outstanding questions in this episode that Manafort would presumably be able to answer is what advance knowledge – if any – did then-candidate Donald Trump have about this meeting, and who told him about it? Did anyone else in the campaign have knowledge about this?
Jared Kushner was already interviewed by Mueller’s team and congressional investigators. Don Jr. was interviewed by congressional investigators, but not by Mueller’s team.
If anyone misled or lied to the FBI or congressional investigators about the Trump Tower meeting, Manafort’s testimony would probably be key evidence in potential perjury or obstruction of justice charges. (Keep in mind that the Senate Judiciary Committee has already released its transcript and written statements of Trump and Kushner’s testimony, so there is already a public record of what they’ve written or said under oath) If Mueller indicts Kushner or Don Jr, that would significantly raise the stakes legally and politically.
II. Manafort’s Work for Pro-Putin Political Parties and Politicians
Beyond anyone in the upper echelons of the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort as a witness is probably most valuable to Robert Mueller for potentially implicating Russian oligarchs or politicians. Given his longstanding ties and contacts throughout the region, if any of them were involved in the Russian attacks on the American election, and if any of them were coordinating or in communication with the Trump campaign, the odds are it would have been done with Manafort as the point of contact.
III. Changes to the RNC Platform
Beyond the Trump Tower meeting, perhaps no event during the campaign itself has generated more questions than the change to the Republican Party platform to soften its language on assistance to Ukraine. Manafort was still campaign chairman at the time, so if there was anything devious behind this, he theoretically would have been in a position to know.
IV. Obstruction of Justice by President Trump
The New York Times reported last March that President Trump’s then-attorney John Dowd floated the idea of presidential pardons with attorneys representing Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. If Manafort can testify or prove that these pardons were being dangled in implicit or explicit exchange for his silence during Mueller’s investigation, this would probably be a significant piece of evidence for obstruction of justice by the president and his attorney. It’s also worth noting that Mueller and his team have apparently taken steps to pardon-proof their deal with Manafort.
V. Details of His Lobbying Schemes
Mueller has already outsourced this part of his investigation to the Southern District of New York, and all evidence would indicate they are taking it very seriously. Among the major names to get sucked into this angle of the story: Democratic superlobbyist Tony Podesta, former Republican Rep. Vin Weber, and former Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig. Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates hired all of them between 2012 and 2014 in some capacity or another in an effort to bolster the image of the then-pro-Russian government of Ukraine. If SDNY needs Manafort or Gates’s testimony to build their criminal cases against Podesta, Weber or Craig, they will have to give it. (Remember, Gates had already cut his own deal with Mueller months ago and was the prosecution’s star witness in Paul Manafort’s criminal trial in Virginia)
VI. Manafort’s Business Partnership with Roger Stone
Once upon a time, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone were business partners at Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly Public Affairs Co., a political consulting firm that worked on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and went on to lobby on behalf of countries and organizations with sketchy human rights records – Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines, and the Angolan rebel group UNITA, according to a 1992 report by the Center for Public Integrity, for which they received $3.3 million. The firm ranked fourth on the Center’s list of lobbying firms that received the most money from what it calls “The Torturers’ Lobby” for the 1991-1992 period. Manafort was responsible for overseeing the firm’s foreign clients. Stone would go on to become a political adviser in Donald Trump’s orbit, and Manafort would eventually be hired as Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman to hold off a potential contested nominating convention. Mueller is widely believed to be circling Roger Stone, who has openly said he expects to be indicted. If Mueller needs potential evidence or back story on Stone going as far back as the 1980s, Manafort would have to provide it.
Keep an eye on Mueller’s court filings as his team continues to build its respective case(s), especially after the midterm elections.