Pardonpalooza continued on Wednesday, with President Trump’s grants of clemency to his former campaign advisor, Roger Stone, his son-in-law’s father, Charles Kushner, and his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, signalling that he is now moving to protect people even closer to his inner circle.
And in the case of Paul Manafort, Trump is also helping himself: Manafort, after all, was the linchpin for Russia’s election interference efforts in 2016, and his refusal to cooperate with the Special Counsel’s investigation into the same—at a high price to himself—is what kept the full details of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia from coming to light.
To understand why Manafort’s silence was so critical for Trump, it is helpful to remember Manafort’s background and activities during his short-lived role in the Trump campaign. When Manafort arrived on the campaign’s doorstep in March 2016, he happened to be $19 million in debt to a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska. The debt arose out of work that Manafort had previously done in Ukraine as a consultant for the pro-Russia Party of Regions. Notably, despite being in dire financial straits, Manafort offered to work for the Trump campaign for free. Early on in his time as Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort wrote to his associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian/Ukrainian political consultant characterized by the Senate Intelligence Committee as a “Russian intelligence officer,” asking how he could use his position to “get whole” with Deripaska and offering to provide the oligarch with private briefings on the campaign.
In addition to these emails—which were obtained by the Special Counsel during its Russia probe—Manafort had additional sketchy contacts related to Russia’s interference efforts. Manafort was part of the June 9 Trump Tower meeting, along with Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., in which they expected Russian government lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, to offer them “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Manafort also met in person with Konstantin Kilimnik at least twice in person, and on one of those occasions, passed campaign polling data to him, asking him to share it with Deripaska and other Russian oligarchs. This was during the same time that Russia was engaging in a disinformation campaign attacking then-candidate Hillary Clinton which targeted towards undecided voters in key areas. Manafort resigned from the campaign that same month, when his work for the Party of Regions was publicly reported.
In short, when Manafort was arrested in October 2017 along with his deputy, Rick Gates, he held the answers to a lot of questions concerning any links between Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign. In particular, Manafort could have shed light on what individuals connected to Putin, like Deripaska and other oligarchs, hoped to achieve in return from boosting Trump’s election efforts, and whether any promises or exchanges had been made along these lines with members of the campaign. He could have answered the purpose of sharing polling data with Russian intelligence agents, and whether these were connected to or helping to inform Russia’s disinformation operation. Most importantly, Manafort could have clarified the extent to which Trump himself was aware of Manafort’s contacts and Russia’s activities, and the role, if any, he played in them.
This is why the slew of criminal charges Manafort faced—which included money laundering, tax evasion, bank fraud, and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Ukraine—are important. Although these charges were not directly related to Russia’s election interference efforts, they carried stiff penalties and increased the pressure for Manafort to cooperate and provide information on the counterintelligence front, i.e., what Russia was up to in 2016 and who else was involved. Initially, Manafort appeared to be cooperating with the Special Counsel in exchange for a plea deal. However, that ended when the Special Counsel discovered that Manafort had lied to them repeatedly about his ongoing contacts with Kilimnik, monetary debt payments he was making to unspecified individuals, and his ongoing communication with Trump and his lawyers, in violation of the cooperation agreement. (This came several months after Manafort had already been sanctioned for violating the terms of his bail by tampering with witnesses in asking them to lie to the Special Counsel and had ghost-written an op-ed in a Ukrainian newspaper.) Manafort’s refusal to cooperate with Mueller’s team came at a price, as he would face the full weight of the sentences for any charges on which he was convicted.
And here’s where Trump’s pardon comes into play. As detailed by the Special Counsel’s final report, following Manafort’s arrest, Trump expressed concern that Manafort could reveal damaging information to the Special Counsel. Precisely because Manafort’s charged offenses were unrelated to Russian election interference and predated his work on the campaign, Trump’s worry about Manafort’s cooperation suggests that Manafort had the potential to implicate him in activities related to Russia (otherwise, why would he care?). During this same time, Trump publicly floated the idea of pardoning Manafort, as did his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuilani. The message to Manafort was that Trump had the power to let Manafort off the hook, if Manafort stayed loyal. Manafort got this message, telling Gates right after their arrest that they should just “sit tight” and that they would be “taken care of.”
The Special Counsel, and now the most recent pardons, reveal that this implicit agreement worked out for both men in the end. The Special Counsel writes in its report that due to Manafort’s repeated lies to both its office and the grand jury, it was unable to get a full picture of what happened to the information passed between Manafort and Kilimnik, or what was provided back to Trump, his campaign, or the administration once he took office. For Trump’s part, Mueller’s inability to uncover this evidence—which would have illuminated the extent of any collusion—helped him promote his narrative that there was “no collusion” and that the entire Russia investigation was a “hoax.” And, it’s worth underscoring that another major beneficiary of Manafort’s actions is Vladimir Putin himself, who the intelligence community concludes directed the 2016 attack on the U.S. presidential election—but who can maintain plausible deniability as long as Manafort doesn’t spill the beans.
Still, Manafort may not be entirely in the clear. For one thing, some of Manafort’s financial shenanigans could also form the basis for state charges, which a federal pardon doesn’t reach. In addition, unless his debts to his Russian benefactors have somehow been forgiven, Manafort will remain caught up in their tentacles, making him an ongoing counterintelligence target for the FBI. That means they can continue to question him about his past or future behavior, and any lies would be new crimes which won’t be covered by his pardon and for which he could be prosecuted.
The story isn’t over for Manafort, but for now, his implicit bargain with Trump appears to have paid off.