I’ve written quite a lot about Paul Manafort since 2016, and there has been a consistent if often implicit theme to my analysis. The single most damning thing about Paul Manafort for the president is that the president hasn’t disowned him.
Remember, Paul Manafort was fired as campaign chairman in August 2016. From that point on, Trump has always had the option to argue that perhaps Manafort was doing things that were ethically questionable or even outright illegal, but that he didn’t know or approve of them and terminated him specifically because he was too close to the Russians.
It’s well known that bad blood exists between Manafort and the man he replaced as head of Trump’s campaign, Corey Lewandowski. So, naturally, we have to take anything Lewandowski says about Manafort with a healthy heaping of salt. It’s still significant that Lewandowski wrote in his 2017 book, Let Trump Be Trump, that the soon-to-be president called Manafort a crook when he read the August 15, 2016 article in the New York Times about the off-the-books payments he received from Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions and their leader Viktor Yanukovych.
“How much of this is true?” [Steve] Bannon asked.
“It’s all lies,” Manafort said. “My lawyers are fighting it.”
“When are they going to run it?” Bannon asked.
“They’re threatening to publish tomorrow.”
“Does Trump know about this?”
“What’s to know? It’s all lies.”
“But if it’s in the paper someone has to give Trump a heads-up, because if it’s in the paper, it’s reality.”
“It was a long time ago,” he added. “I had expenses.”
Bannon knew what he had in his hand.
It was an explosive, Page One story. And even if the story wasn’t true, it was in the fucking New York Times. At the very least it would leave a mark.
Just as Steve had thought, the story ran the next day, August 15, on Page One, above the fold.
“I’ve got a crook running my campaign,” Trump said when he read it.
I can imagine an alternative reality where Trump built his defense much the way that Richard Nixon attempted to do, by at first denying any connection to the crime and then by laying any connections at the feet of his underlings. People would believe that Trump wasn’t orchestrating or apprised of some massive conspiracy to work with the Russians and WikiLeaks because he comes off as pretty much clueless about everything. If Manafort was changing the Republican platform and offering private briefings to the Russians to pay off some debt, that’s a pretty deep betrayal and Trump should be livid about it.
But he did not lean on the Lewandowski angle. Instead, the president clearly pursued a strategy predicated on keeping Manafort from becoming a cooperating witness. When Manafort finally began to cooperate, Trump decided to tamper with him and use him as a mole to ferret out information on the investigation, all while dangling a pardon.
The president doesn’t treat Manafort as a convicted and confessed felon who betrayed his trust and caused him endless headaches, but that’s how any normal president would feel. Manafort actively lobbied for a job managing Trump’s delegate battle and made it a selling point that he would work for no pay. But he immediately used his new position to try to repay a nearly $20 million debt to Putin-allied Russian oligarch Oleg Derispaska. As far as I know, Trump has never complained about this. He’s never even complained that the exposure of Manafort’s corrupt business practices in Ukraine did damage to his campaign or that having to fire him had made him look bad for hiring him in the first place.
Now he’s saying that he might pardon Manafort and that he’s being treated unfairly.
If nothing else is clear, we can safely say that Trump never saw it as a viable option to place any blame for Russian collusion on Manafort. For whatever reason, he could not make him the fall guy the way that Nixon tried to make John Mitchell his fall guy.
There can only be one reason for that, and it’s that Trump is guilty and he knows that a cooperating Manafort can prove it.