Manafort and Trump Have No Good Options

The case will go to the jury today in Paul Manafort’s first trial. There was some buzz yesterday when the defense team declined to make a defense and opted to go straight to closing arguments. I understand that lawyers do this when neither the client nor the client’s witnesses are likely to stand up to cross examination.

Here are two articles to read together: Paul Waldman, “Why Trump will pardon Paul Manafort” and Martin Longman, “Pardoning Manafort Wouldn’t Work.”

Question One: Why didn’t Manafort flip? From what I’ve read about this trial, on the current charges the paper evidence has him dead to rights. It’s most likely Manafort will never be free again. But keep in mind there are scarier people in the world than Donald Trump. Like, Russians.

Waldman says, “Manafort may have decided that it’s better to take his chances with a jury than to find a strange substance smeared on his door handle one day.” One assumes Manafort does care about his wife and children, also.

Longman: “He still owes Oleg Derispaska somewhere around twenty million dollars–and he has no prospect of repaying that debt in cash. All he can do is keep his mouth shut and hope that’s enough to get some forgiveness on the debt.” So there’s that.

Back to Waldman: “It’s also possible Manafort really has nothing to offer special counsel Robert S. Mueller III about Trump, that his activities, criminal though they might have been, never actually involved the president. That would mean he has no one to flip on.” That’s possible, but seems to me to be unlikely. We know Manafort was involved in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, for example. And wasn’t Manafort most likely behind the change in the 2016 Republican platform that backed off arming Ukraine? Trump may not have known about that, but it certainly points to corruption in the campaign organization while Manafort was in charge of it.

Next, is Manafort counting on a Trump pardon? Waldman again:

Trump has spent the past 15 months since Mueller was appointed trying to discredit the investigation, in a campaign designed less to persuade the broader public than to convince his base that it is a witch hunt from start to finish and therefore everything it produces, no matter how factual and supported by evidence, should be ignored and discounted. He has obviously calculated, and rightly so, that if he can keep that base firmly behind him, Republicans in the House will never vote to impeach him, and even if Democrats took control of the chamber and did so, Republicans in the Senate would never vote to convict.

You can already see the argument he’ll make: The whole thing is a witch hunt, the charges are bogus, the jury was a bunch of Angry Democrats, and I’m intervening in the interests of justice. Trump also seems to genuinely believe that the investigation is unfair, and pardoning Manafort would be a great way for him to both assert control and stick it to Mueller.

It’s important to remember that no matter what the jury in this case decides, it’s only the first of two trials Manafort faces. The next one, in a federal court in Washington, will deal more directly with Manafort’s relationships in the former Soviet Union. That’s when Trump may start feeling the heat and feeling oppressed, and look for a way to let everyone know who’s really in charge. And that’s the day Manafort, sitting in his jail cell, is fervently hoping for.

Since there’s nothing Trump can do to stop the second trial, Waldman appears to be proposing that Trump will wait until after the second trial to pardon Manafort. But remember, once he’s pardoned, he can’t incriminate himself.


Waldman thinks Trump will ultimately pardon Manafort, but only after the second trial, which will cover his dealings with Ukrainians and Russians. The problem with this prediction is that Manafort needs charges hanging over him to invoke his right against self-incrimination. If he’s pardoned for most of what he could conceivably be charged with, he could be compelled to tell the special counsel what he knows or face fresh charges of contempt and obstruction of justice. Is he really going to count on either Mueller to give up or Trump to counter every new charge with a fresh pardon?

Maybe things really will get this weird and broken, but I think the reason Manafort hasn’t already been preemptively pardoned is that it would not solve Trump’s problems. In fact, it probably would exacerbate them. Even for congressional Republicans, there’s a limit to how nakedly Trump can obstruct the investigation and get away with it. He has not fired Jeff Sessions or Rod Rosenstein, for example, and he’d run into similar problems if he started pardoning Manafort for refusing to cooperate with investigators when he faces no prospect of self-incrimination.

Probably most people expect Trump to pardon Manafort, but people advising Trump may be telling him not to.

And here’s another kicker Longman brings up: “Manafort can still face state charges, particularly in New York, and I don’t see the pardon card as much of an option for Trump.”

The second trial, which promises to be juicy, begins in mid-September.