A wise man once said, “You play with a bull, you get the horns.” Well, former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort may have learned this the hard way. On Monday night, federal prosecutors confirmed that special counsel Robert Mueller is not only investigating Manafort for colluding with Russia, but is doing so with the full blessing of the Justice Department.
For the last few months, Manafort been bleating and screeting that Mueller was overstepping his mandate when he indicted Manafort for financial crimes that are seemingly unrelated to Russia’s attempt to hack the election. His latest effort to derail the case against him came on Monday, when he sought to have the tax fraud and bank fraud charges related to his lobbying work for Ukrainian politicians thrown out.
Prosecutors had a surprise for Manafort in their reply–a heavily redacted version of a memo Mueller received on August 2 from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is Mueller’s nominal superior in this investigation with Attorney General Jeff Sessions having recused himself. The memo not only clarified “the scope” of Mueller’s investigation, but also fleshed out the “definition of authority” Mueller had to conduct his investigation. CNN’s Katelyn Polantz, who broke this story on Tuesday morning, tweeted out the money paragraph.
In which Mueller lays out EXACTLY how they would go about investigating Russian collusion, esp involving Paul Manafort.
— Katelyn Polantz (@kpolantz) April 3, 2018
Cliff Notes version: a review of Manafort’s lobbying work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine is a natural outgrowth of any investigation into potential collusion with Russia.
Notice the date on which this memo was sent–two months before Manafort was swept up in the first wave of indictments. The message is obvious–Rosenstein had reason to believe that Manafort was colluding with Russia, and wanted to cast as broad a net as possible in order to prove it. And based on how quickly Manafort was indicted, Mueller had already found proof that there was something shady about his dealings with Ukrainian politicians.
One other thing is noteworthy. It should have been obvious to anyone who knows anything about how investigations are supposed to work that when Mueller got a grand jury to indict Manafort for tax fraud, bank fraud, money laundering and other financial crimes, he was telling Manafort, “You’d better take a plea bargain and cooperate–soon.”
We already know that Mueller has at least two potential windows directly related to Russia on which he could hammer Manafort. There are intelligence intercepts showing Manafort asking Russian operatives for dirt on Hillary Clinton. Additionally, he attended the now-infamous meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr. and several Russians, even though he was the person in that room who should have known that meeting was improper at best.
Manafort just turned 69 on Sunday. At his age, any significant sentence for the financial crimes would assure that he would be a very old man by the time he got out of prison–if he got out at all. Tack on any charges related to Russian collusion, and the only way he gets out of prison is in a pine box.
But this memo proves that there’s a lot more to it than that. Rosenstein and Mueller apparently believed that any investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin would almost certainly have to include a review of ties between Manafort and any politicians who were in bed with Russia. That would include one of Manafort’s most infamous clients, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. Seen in this light, the financial charges aren’t just a means to an end.
When HuffPost contributor and former public defender Seth Abramson saw this memo, he concluded that Mueller had just cut off a number of Manafort’s arguments in one stroke.
This breaking news from CNN means two things: first, Paul Manafort's argument that Mueller has no authority to investigate him is dispelled; second, the argument that Mueller has exceeded his authority is now made impossible by a redacted addendum to Mueller's authorizing letter.
— Seth Abramson (@SethAbramson) April 3, 2018
2/ Since no one knows which investigative avenues Rosenstein authorized in his long, all-redacted addendum to Mueller's authorizing letter, it becomes impossible for Trump allies to claim with any certainty that Mueller has exceeded his authority. It's something they can't know.
— Seth Abramson (@SethAbramson) April 3, 2018Loading...
3/ Frankly, even that portion of Rod Rosenstein's authorizing letter the public was already able to see was so broadly written that there was never much question that Bob Mueller could go wherever the facts led him, even to charges seemingly ancillary to the Russia question.
— Seth Abramson (@SethAbramson) April 3, 2018
National security lawyer Bradley Moss went further. He believes Manafort is now in a legal checkmate, and may have no option but to start singing.
This filing obliterates Manafort’s defense. Mueller was given clear authority by Rosenstein to do exactly what we all suspected: he is following the money. If there was criminal coordination, Manafort is the likely catalyst for it.
I give Manafort 6 weeks before he cuts a deal. https://t.co/4E9eaYinT6
— Bradley P. Moss (@BradMossEsq) April 3, 2018
One other person has a lot to fear from this memo–Trump. After all, by declassifying this memo, Mueller and Rosenstein have told the American people that they have reason to believe that the operating head of a major-party presidential campaign colluded with a hostile foreign power in order to help his candidate win. If that’s the case, then at the very least Trump fostered an environment in which it was acceptable for senior campaign officials to engage in conduct that was improper at best and treasonous at worst.
The closest thing we got to a response from Trump was a typical 280-character rant.
Check out the fact that you can’t get a job at ratings challenged @CNN unless you state that you are totally anti-Trump? Little Jeff Zuker, whose job is in jeopardy, is not having much fun lately. They should clean up and strengthen CNN and get back to honest reporting!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2018
No, Mr. Trump. What happened this morning could not be a better example of honest reporting. As a result of that reporting, we now know that two very seasoned federal prosecutors are wondering if, at the very least, you were disengaged in a way that a major-party presidential candidate simply cannot be. And if that is the case, your so-called presidency will have run its course.
If there is even one iota of proof that Manafort or any other senior campaign official colluded with Russia, the only acceptable solution would be for both Trump and Mike Pence to resign. Why Pence? Well, collusion of this magnitude would irrevocably taint the Trump-Pence ticket, and a President Pence would not be legitimate.
What we are seeing is a classic example of how a good federal investigation is supposed to work–like a slow-motion strangulation. And in his effort to get out of the noose, Manafort may have actually tightened it around himself–and Trump.
(featured image courtesy ABC News, available under a Creative Commons BY-ND license)