Manafort Flipping is a Triumph for the Rule of Law

His cooperation with the Special Counsel means the truth about the 2016 election has a fighting chance of coming out

September 17, 2018

This column originally appeared in the Washington Post

Friday was a good day for the rule of law. Paul Manafort admitted to a bevy of crimes he committed over nearly a decade, and he agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Perhaps most significant, Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, chose to put his faith in the criminal justice system over the prospect of a shady presidential pardon.

And that’s something all Americans can celebrate — whether or not Manafort’s cooperation ties Trump to the Russian interference — because the rule of law is not about achieving a particular outcome; it’s about arriving at the truth.

After his conviction by a jury on eight counts of tax and bank fraud last month in Virginia, Manafort, who owns a number of multimillion-dollar houses, returned to his newest home in jail facing the likelihood of living in similar surroundings for a substantial length of time while also preparing to endure another trial that could add even more prison time.

There were only two options for a chance at a significantly reduced sentence — cooperation or a presidential pardon — and it appeared to many as though Manafort had already chosen the pardon route. He forced Mueller to charge him in two separate cases, even though that decision benefited the special counsel by giving him two opportunities to obtain a conviction. Manafort refused to plead guilty and cooperate, despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt. In public, the president blatantly signaled that a pardon was in the offing, using the same language about “unfair treatment” that he had used in connection to the pardons of Joe Arpaio (“treated unbelievably unfairly”), Dinesh D’Souza (“treated very unfairly”) and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (“treated unfairly”).

After Manafort’s conviction, Trump lauded him on Twitter as a “brave man” who did not “break” and cooperate with the special counsel. In private, there were reports that Trump had even discussed pardoning Manafort with his lawyers. It appeared as though there was a path to a pardon whereby Trump could assert that the charges against Manafort were unrelated to the campaign and that the special counsel had treated him “unfairly” by overstepping his mandate and charging Manafort in not one but two cases.

Yet even with this possibility of a pardon, Manafort chose the criminal justice system over presidential whim. Last week, he met with prosecutors and investigators in the special counsel’s office to begin the cooperation process by relaying some information he had that could assist the investigation. We don’t know what he told Mueller’s team — and we probably won’t know until another indictment or a report is filed — but we do know that the information Manafort offered was sufficient to convince the special counsel that Manafort could help the investigation, which appears to be focused now, at least in part, on whether any Americans conspired to assist Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. In addition, Manafort agreed to walk into court and admit, under oath, to every crime he had been charged with in both cases (including counts on which the jury hung in Virginia), and to forfeit five homes, three bank accounts and a life insurance policy, reportedly estimated to total approximately $46 million. The special counsel agreed to combine all of his criminal conduct into two conspiracy counts with a maximum sentence of 10 years, but undoubtedly Manafort hopes to — and probably will — receive much less time than that through substantial cooperation.

Now Manafort’s hopes of a presidential pardon are all but gone. A pardon at this point would be a naked effort by Trump to corruptly use the pardon power for personal gain by attempting to silence Manafort and obstruct the investigation. Even in this partisan political climate, one would hope that Congress would swiftly remove the president if he were to pardon Manafort for such obvious personal protection.

We don’t know what information Manafort may have about the Trump campaign, but we do know that Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman until mid-August 2016, was present for the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and several Russians with ties to the Kremlin purportedly offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. We do know that Manafort was principally responsible for overseeing the Republican National Convention, where a last-minute change in the party platform softened the stance on Ukraine to benefit Russia. We also know that Manafort had long cultivated high-level connections with Russia-friendly Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs and other officials connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that Manafort was not afraid to use his role in the Trump campaign for his own benefit. In short, if anyone would know whether one or more people connected to the Trump campaign conspired with Russians to illegally influence the 2016 election, it’s Manafort. And now Mueller will know, too.

Trump may be correct that there was “no collusion.” But he may also be wrong. Now, with Manafort’s full and forthright cooperation, as he is required to provide to the special counsel, Americans can be reasonably sure that the truth will come out, whatever it may be. No matter their political beliefs, all Americans can rejoice in that.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Mark Wilson/Getty)