When Donald Trump’s longtime fixer/lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felony counts in a Manhattan court in August, it wasn’t clear exactly how, or even if, he would ultimately be useful to the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in 2016. Cohen’s admission of criminal wrongdoing related to two hush-money payments he said he made at Trump’s direction were a violation of campaign finance law, but not necessarily directly related to anything pertaining to the Russia probe.
Cohen’s guilty plea in the Southern District of New York also included no formal cooperation agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller, and he had never played a formal role in the Trump campaign, which left people wondering how valuable his cooperation would be to Mueller.
But on the same day as Cohen’s plea, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was indicted on eight felony counts of financial fraud after a captivating trial. Several weeks later, he had reportedly flipped and inked a cooperation agreement with Mueller rather than undergo yet another costly trial he was likely to lose.
Manafort—who has spent much of his career swimming in a sea of Russia connections and played an integral role in Trump’s campaign at a critical time—appeared to be just what Mueller needed and had indeed been gunning for during the better part of a year. He was the big get.
And that’s likely how Trump’s lawyers saw it too. Their joint defense agreement to share information with Cohen’s lawyers had ended somewhat unceremoniously in July as the relationship between Trump and Cohen grew more acrimonious. But we now know that Trump’s legal team continued to be in contact with Manafort’s lawyers even after he had supposedly flipped, allowing Manafort to feed Team Trump crucial information related to Mueller’s investigation. Who even needs that Cohen guy? they likely thought. We got Manafort and, at least as far as the Russia probe is concerned, he’s our ace in the hole.
Of course, that notion hit a pretty deadly wall this week as Mueller pulled Manafort’s plea deal out from underneath him and followed up with the announcement of Cohen’s cooperation. Oops.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani had been practically bragging about Team Trump’s coordination with Manafort. But whatever Manafort knew and whatever he shared clearly weren’t enough to keep Trump’s lawyers from being blindsided by Mueller’s one-eighty on Manafort earlier this week. Here’s a nugget from a Wall Street Journal article that dropped Wednesday night.
Mr. Manafort’s team maintained an unusual open channel with Mr. Trump’s attorneys even after his plea agreement, briefing the president’s lawyers about its contacts with Mr. Mueller’s office.
Still, attorneys for the president weren’t aware that Mr. Mueller would accuse Mr. Manafort of lying until Monday’s filing, they said. [Emphasis added]
Ya know what else Team Trump probably didn’t see coming: Cohen’s cooperation agreement with Mueller. Cohen always posed problems for Trump in regard to any investigations into his businesses emanating from the Southern District, but he didn’t seem to be the linchpin to the Mueller probe.