Legally speaking, Paul Manafort is screwed. Or so one would think. Special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted him on more than 40 counts altogether in what look to be airtight indictments. His former business partner, Rick Gates, has now flipped and has every incentive to sing to Mueller about all of their mutual exploits. And on Wednesday we found out that Gates was in touch with an unidentified person during the 2016 campaign who was “a former Russian intelligence officer” that continued to have ties to Russian intelligence throughout the election. That positions Gates and Manafort as central players and potential conduits in the conspiracy investigation between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
The reason that’s more worrisome for Manafort than Gates is because Gates is already a cooperating witness in Mueller’s investigation. In fact, of the five Americans who have been indicted by Mueller, every one of them except Manafort has pleaded guilty and three of them struck a plea deal:
- Michael Flynn, former Trump national security adviser
- Rick Gates, former Trump deputy campaign manager
- George Papadopoulos, former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser
- Richard Pinedo, California man swept up for identity theft related to the 13 indictments of Russian nationals who perpetrated U.S. election interference through a Russian troll farm
But of all those players, Manafort remains uniquely defiant in his stand against Mueller. That made the Wednesday revelation that Trump’s former personal counsel on Russia reportedly approached the lawyers of both Manafort and Flynn to preemptively offer them a plea deal before they faced indictment. Flynn obviously decided his best course of action was to join forces with Mueller, perhaps to help insulate his son from legal exposure and perhaps because Flynn had liabilities at the state level, which wouldn’t have been covered by a presidential pardon.
But not Manafort, who now faces “the very real possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison” in the words of one federal judge. Manafort even expressed disappointment that Gates, who has young children, didn’t have “the strength to continue the battle” and flipped to minimize his sentence. Manafort also maintains that he is innocent and therefore has told associates he doesn’t need a presidential pardon.
Trump’s pardon emissary, John Dowd, apparently marveled at Flynn’s decision to cooperate because Trump “had long believed that the case against Mr. Flynn was flimsy and was prepared to pardon him.” So what might Trump have in store for Manafort, who arguably had much deeper Russian ties than Flynn and also attended the critical Trump Tower meeting that boasted both Don Jr. and Jared Kushner?
As former federal prosecutor Seth Waxman told MSNBC’s Ari Melber on Wednesday:
If you’re President Trump and you knew Paul Manafort was in that key Trump Tower meeting with your son and son-in-law and if that was a quid pro quo where the Russians were offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for some kind of benefits, and you’re worried about that, and you want to make sure that Manafort doesn’t get into the Mueller camp—I guess one way of doing that is to offer a pardon.
The pardon prospect, which once seemed like somewhat of an outside chance, now seems to fulfill a lot of otherwise unanswerable questions about Manafort’s continued posture. In fact, what’s strange is that, given what we know now, a presidential pardon seems to make perfect sense, at least for Manafort (the political backlash for Trump and Republicans of pardoning a guy facing 40-some counts could be tremendous). But frankly, if Manafort really was a conduit of some sort for Russian President Vladimir Putin and he was considering flipping, jail time might be the least of his worries.