Paul Manafort and the Russia Investigation

Lawfare is very thorough but also very cautious, which is what I think we want from them. You won’t find them saying things like “Paul Manafort is going to jail,” but you will get some very solid analysis of the latest news reporting (e.g., CNN and New York Times) and the legal meaning of those stories.

Two meaningful developments have now materialized. First, the government convinced a FISA court judge that there was reason to believe that Manafort was engaging “in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of a foreign power” or was “pursuant to the direction of an intelligence service or network of a foreign power, knowingly engaging in some other clandestine intelligence activities for or on behalf of such foreign power.” In fact, the government convinced the FISA court of this twice, once in 2014 before Manafort was hired by Donald Trump, and once again in 2016 after he was fired by Donald Trump.  Additionally, the Special Counsel has convinced a federal judge that there was likely evidence of a crime both at Manafort’s Virginia residence and at a storage facility owned by Manafort, which is why they were able to obtain warrants to search both.

The second significant development is that Manafort is going to be indicted for some kind of crime or crimes unless he becomes more useful as a witness. Lawfare refuses to speculate about what those crimes might be, but I’m not so reticent. The New York Times‘ article says “Mr. Manafort is under investigation for possible violations of tax laws, money-laundering prohibitions and requirements to disclose foreign lobbying.” He’s also obviously under investigation for possibly working as an agent of a foreign power’s intelligence service and for engaging in clandestine activities on their behalf. In other words, he’s suspected of cooperating with the Russians in their interference in the presidential election. I think it’s fair to say that Manafort can be indicted right now for the crimes listed by the Times but may still be clear on the more serious charges. I doubt, however, that Manafort is overly worried about getting nailed for failing to fill out lobbying disclosure forms or even for failing to pay his taxes. It’s the money laundering charge that’s causing him real grief. And I suspect the Feds were seeking evidence of money laundering when they raided his home and the storage facility he rented.

The biggest revelation in the latest reporting is that Manafort was in communication with the president during a time in which he was under electronic surveillance. That opens up the possibility of a smoking gun intercept that could take Trump down. The president isn’t exactly known for his situational awareness and discretion, so I wouldn’t discount the possibility that he implicated himself in a crime while chatting with Manafort on the phone. Assuming that didn’t happen, though, the game plan now appears to be to charge Manafort with money laundering and a few lesser offenses and see if he wants to try to bargain his way out.

In early August, it was reported that Bob Mueller had approach Manafort’s son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, “in an effort to increase pressure” on Manafort. It’s unclear what, if anything, became of that effort. Yohai has partnered with Manafort is some business deals, but I haven’t seen any explanation of what information he might have that would cause his father-in-law problems. In late August, CNN reported that Mueller asked Manfort’s “public-relations representative Jason Maloni and attorney Melissa Laurenza for all documents related to their work for Trump’s former campaign chairman.” And Maloni was just in front of the grand jury on Friday providing testimony. According to the Washington Post, Mr. Maloni wasn’t even hired as Manafort’s spokesman until after the latter had resigned from the Trump campaign. Any evidence Maloni could provide would therefore be either secondhand or related to charges of an attempted coverup.

Lawfare also addresses the issues of leaks, determining that the leaks related to the FISA warrants are more serious. They suspect congressional sources rather than ones in the Special Counsel’s office, but I am not so sure. There are conceivable reasons why the investigators would want it to be known that they already possess any conversations potential witnesses may have had with Manafort. If they were banking on Manafort keeping his clam shut, they no longer can rest on that hope.

The president’s supporters may think that this whole investigation is a witch hunt. One thing I’d like to emphasize for them in all of this is that we know now that Manafort was suspected of engaging in clandestine intelligence gathering (or other) activities on behalf of the Russians two years before Trump hired him. Relatedly, Carter Page was recruited by Russian spies and subject to a counterintelligence investigation in 2013, before Trump listed him as one of his key foreign policy advisors. Even if Trump hadn’t been saying startlingly friendly things about Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail, our intelligence agencies would have wondered why suspected Russian agents were being hired by the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. When Trump made Michael Flynn his national security adviser, that was obviously a bridge too far.

It should also concern Trump’s supporters that the president brazenly lied about whether he had any business interests in Russia that would explain his unorthodox views on US-Russia relations. We now know that he was negotiating a Trump Tower project in Moscow throughout the fall of 2015 in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. In fact, just today his lawyer Michael Cohen was scheduled to testify about those negotiations in front Senate Intelligence Committee staff before his appearance was abruptly postponed without explanation.

If you don’t know about Trump’s relationship with Felix Sater, now might be the time to bone up on that, but there’s nothing fake about it.

This is from mid-August:

Sources told The Spectator‘s Paul Wood that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s deep dive into Trump’s business practices may be yielding results….

…And according to Wood’s sources, Sater may have already flipped and given prosecutors the evidence they need to make a case against Trump.

For several weeks there have been rumours that Sater is ready to rat again, agreeing to help Mueller. ‘He has told family and friends he knows he and POTUS are going to prison,’ someone talking to Mueller’s investigators informed me.

Sater hinted in an interview earlier this month that he may be cooperating with both Mueller’s investigation and congressional probes of Trump.

“In about the next 30 to 35 days, I will be the most colourful character you have ever talked about,” Sater told New York Magazine. “Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it now, before it happens. And believe me, it ain’t anything as small as whether or not they’re gonna call me to the Senate committee.”

That was before news broke that Michael Cohen and Felix Sater had been working together on a Moscow real estate project during a time in which Trump was denying any Russian business ties. We got that news a few weeks later, but we still haven’t found out why Sater thinks he and Trump are going to jail. Cohen issued a public statement today denying that there was any collusion, but if you know anything about Felix Sater, that is pretty hard to believe.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.