BY JOE CONASON
No longer can there be any doubt that Paul Manafort expects Donald Trump to pardon him – and that Trump has encouraged that expectation in a broad strategy to obstruct the Russia investigation over the past two years.
The signals emanating from Manafort’s legal team over the past few days could scarcely have been clearer. Moments after Judge Amy Berman Jackson extended Manafort’s federal prison time to seven and a half years, his lawyer, Kevin Downing, assured the assembled press outside the Washington courthouse that the judge’s sentence indicated there had been “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia. Downing uttered that false statement just minutes after Judge Jackson had scolded him in court for making exactly the same irrelevant remark following Manafort’s sentencing last week in Virginia.
As the judge said, those statements were intended not for the court but for the White House, echoing the president’s own favorite alibi. Coming from Manafort, through his legal mouthpiece, “no collusion” means “I didn’t tell Robert Mueller about any collusion.”
Meanwhile, the ongoing collusion between Trump and Manafort has been obvious for months. Not only has the president said that he feels sorry for his deeply corrupt campaign manager, but he has plainly suggested that a pardon is under consideration. Even when Manafort pled guilty and signed a cooperation agreement with the special counsel last fall, Trump never criticized him – as he began to do almost immediately when Michael Cohen flipped.
“Paul Manafort was with me for a short period of time. He did a good job,” Trump said. “I was very happy with the job he did. And I will tell you this: I believe that he will tell the truth. And if he tells the truth, no problem.”
Manafort never told the truth, as Mueller’s prosecutors subsequently proved in court. And Trump had reason to feel confident about his former campaign manager’s loyalty; during the entire time that he was supposedly “cooperating,” his legal counsel maintained a joint defense agreement with Trump’s lawyers.
Beyond the smoke signals going back and forth with Manafort about a potential pardon, it is now clear that Trump’s representatives “dangled” the same reward in front of Cohen not long after he was arrested last year.
At first, Trump protested bitterly against the arrest and the FBI raid on Cohen’s home and office. Around the same time, as CNN recently revealed, Giuliani associate Robert Costello acted as a back channel to the White House for Cohen. In an email obtained by the cable network, Costello assured the former Trump fixer, “Sleep well tonight, you have friends in high places.” Not anymore.
Now Cohen is heading to prison without any prospect of assistance from the White House. What can Manafort expect?
Leaving aside the state charges filed against him by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance – which conceivably may be voided as an instance of double jeopardy – there are obstacles to a Manafort pardon.
Several Republican senators have reportedly warned Trump that pardoning anyone who could testify against him is a “red line” that he should not cross. It would lend too much additional weight to the already voluminous evidence of an obstruction conspiracy – and might lead rapidly toward impeachment.
And even if there were not enough Republican votes to find him guilty in a Senate impeachment trial, a corrupt pardon could result in a post-presidential prosecution of Trump. The pardon power permits almost anything, but there is broad agreement that it cannot be sold or bargained to benefit the president or his family.
When Justice Department attorneys suspected Bill Clinton of corruption in pardoning Marc Rich, they spent years pursuing that case – and only quit when they could find no evidence of wrongdoing. The same theory would surely apply to Trump.
No, given Trump’s propensity for double-dealing, he might very well let Manafort believe a pardon is forthcoming – and then forget to sign the papers before he leaves office. He can be reckless, but this pardon is very high-risk.
The only reason Trump will ever deliver such a perilous favor is because Manafort knows something deeply incriminating about the president and his 2016 campaign. Should it ever come, a Manafort pardon will be the ultimate proof of Trump’s guilt.
– Joe Conason’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer