Pardoning Manafort Wouldn’t Work

Paul Waldman asks a straightforward question:

From the beginning, there has been a question hanging over Manafort’s case: Why won’t he flip? After all, other Trump aides have when faced with possible jail time, and Manafort is facing more than anyone. There’s a real possibility he’ll never see another day as a free man. One popular explanation is that he’s afraid that if he tells everything he knows, some people in Russia would become displeased enough to kill him.

So 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.

If I were in Paul Manafort’s shoes, I’d have a reasonable amount of confidence that the government could successfully place me (and my wife) in a witness protection program, but I’d have no confidence that this would protect my extended family. Are his adult daughters and their families going to also disappear off the grid? How about other family members, mistresses, or other people I care about? The truth is, as long as a nation-state that is indistinguishable from a violent organized crime family is bent on punishing me, I’m not going to feel like the people I care about are safe.

This may be the real reason Manafort won’t talk. 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.

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.

And 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. If he’s desperate enough, maybe he uses it and maybe Manafort can avoid spending his life in prison. But it would not solve Trump’s problems or make all of Manafort’s go away.

Martin Longman

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