Now that Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, has entered into a cooperation agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller, the question on nearly every observer’s mind is, “What comes next?”
The answer depends, of course, on whether you’re Manafort, Mueller or Trump. Although there are numerous Rumsfeldian “unknowns” in the mix, this much appears clear for each member of the trio:
If you’re Paul Manafort, your days as a nattily attired Washington lobbyist and power broker are long gone. No more ostrich jackets. No more $21,000 watches. For the foreseeable future, they’ll be replaced, as they have been for months now, by orange jumpsuits and wristband IDs.
By pleading guilty in a D.C. courtroom Friday to charges of federal conspiracy related to your long and corrupt record as a lobbyist for the government of Ukraine, and obstruction of justice for attempted witness-tampering to cover up that record, you face 10 years behind bars, on top of the potential sentence you may receive as a result of your conviction on eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud in a Virginia courtroom last month.
Your co-conspirators were your former business partner, Richard Gates, who has been cooperating with Mueller since February, and Russian-Ukrainian political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik, who was separately indicted by Mueller in June.
And it gets worse. In accepting the cooperation agreement, you also admitted your guilt on the other 10 counts alleged against you in the Virginia case, on which the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. You’ve also waived your appeal rights and any affirmative defenses based on otherwise applicable statutes of limitations that your lawyers might invoke to block future prosecutions.
And it gets worse. Under the terms of your cooperation agreement, you will forfeit an estimated $46 million in cash and real estate, including your home in the Hamptons, your condo in Trump Tower and another property in Brooklyn.
And it gets worse still. The cooperation agreement requires you to submit to debriefings with Mueller’s team, to turn over requested documents and other materials, and to testify “at any proceeding in the District of Columbia or elsewhere as requested by the Government.”
At a minimum, Mueller is going to want to know every last detail you can ’fess up to on the nature of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian nationals; the reasons why, after joining the Trump campaign, you promised to provide Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska with private briefings; and whether Trump has ever offered to pardon you for your many federal crimes.
Speaking of pardons, whatever Trump has told you or signaled, “forgettaboutit.” Now that you’ve flipped on him, you’re going to experience the full force of his malignant narcissism. I’m not talking about Trump’s boorish personality or his childlike use of superlatives to describe himself and his accomplishments. I’m talking about a genuine mental disorder defined as an amalgam of narcissism, anti-social personality disorder, paranoia and sadism—which many leading experts insist the president exhibits.
Trump is going to turn his back on you. And even if he relents, a pardon for federal crimes won’t save you from state prosecutions for tax fraud in New York or bank fraud in California, among other serious charges.
If—but only if—you fulfill the conditions of your agreement, Mueller will move to dismiss the outstanding criminal charges against you in both Virginia and D.C. Otherwise, they will all get reinstated, and you’ll likely remain in prison for the rest of your life.
You must be kicking yourself for not reaching out to Mueller sooner.
If you’re the special prosecutor, you’ve flexed your muscles again. You’ve proven yourself to be a masterful legal architect who runs a multilayered operation without press leaks or appearances on cable news. And, unlike the president, your public approval rating is rising. Nothing succeeds in America like success.
To date, you and your team have convicted seven individuals, including Manafort and Michael Flynn, Trump’s first director of national security. You’ve also filed two lengthy and detailed indictments against 25 Russians and three Russian companies, charging them with conspiracies to defraud the United States during the 2016 election.
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In addition, you’re investigating Trump for obstruction of justice. That aspect of the inquiry includes the May 2017 firing of former FBI Director James Comey; Trump’s attempt in July 2017 to rewrite Donald Jr.’s false account of the Trump Tower confab; and the president’s ongoing threats to fire both you and your immediate supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Long before bagging Manafort, you referred an investigation of Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime consigliere and personal fixer, to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. On Aug. 21, Cohen admitted to committing two campaign finance felonies stemming from hush-money payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film star Stormy Daniels in the fall of 2016. As Cohen stated in open court, the money was doled out “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump, in an attempt to influence the election. In effect, Cohen’s plea rendered the president an unindicted co-conspirator, à la Richard Nixon circa 1974.
Going forward, there is no reason for you to let up. You still need to close the deal around the core allegations of the Russia probe and let the rest of us know whether there is hard evidence that proves Trump or any of his aides and associates conspired with Russian interests to sway the election. The Trump Tower assignation comes close, but there’s likely much more.
You have two basic vehicles for delivering the knockout punch: new indictments, and your final report to Rosenstein, due at the conclusion of your work. Although your next move is impossible to predict (a “known unknown”), I’m betting on a fresh round of charges, before or after the midterms. If I were Jared Kushner, Donnie Jr. or Roger Stone, I’d have trouble sleeping.
Whomever you target next, I don’t think your investigation is anywhere near over, Rudy Giuliani’s Fox News apoplexy notwithstanding. Compared with other special counsel investigations, you’re actually moving at a brisk clip. The average length of special counsel probes dating back to Watergate is 2.5 years. Yours, which is more complex than most, has another year to go before reaching that vintage.
And then there is the madman in the high castle, aka the 45th president of the United States. Perhaps you’ve already decided whether you’ll subpoena him to testify before the grand jury you’ve convened in D.C. You know he’ll never volunteer to speak to you or members of your team face to face under oath. He hasn’t got the spine, or the guile. Beneath the bombast, he’s actually the biggest snowflake ever to occupy the Oval Office. Maybe, in the end, you’ll conclude a subpoena won’t be needed to prove obstruction, or that the protracted court battle a subpoena could trigger would be an unnecessary distraction.
In any event, we’ll be watching.
If you are the president, and it’s true that you’re a malignant narcissist, then you are your own worst enemy and a danger to others. One thing is for sure: As I predicted (no great feat) in a Truthdig column way back in May 2017—in the pre-Guiliani days, when it seemed you would assemble a crack legal defense team—you would turn out to be a nightmare of a client.
If anything, you’ve exceeded expectations.
If only you had held your paranoia in check, not fired Comey and stayed away from Twitter, “the Russia thing” might have blown over by now. But you can’t control yourself, and you can’t stop lying about the neo-McCarthy “witch hunt” that’s out to get you.
Now that Mueller has hunted down seven witches and counting, you find yourself increasingly isolated. In addition to those already convicted, David Pecker—publisher of the National Enquirer, who helped bury your tryst with McDougal—has been granted immunity in Cohen’s case and is cooperating with prosecutors. Same goes for Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of your very own Trump Organization. You also have a whistleblower to contend with in the high-ranking official who penned the anonymous New York Times op-ed published Sept. 5, titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.”
What, then, are your options?
Do you make good on your threats and fire Rosenstein and Mueller? Do you issue pre-emptive pardons for yourself and your family members? Wouldn’t that risk impeachment? Even worse, wouldn’t doing so make you look weak to the dwindling numbers of true believers who still buy the snake-oil white nativism you peddle?
Your best option may be to sit back and let others, like Manafort and, in the coming months, maybe Stone and Kushner, “twist slowly in the wind” while you take shelter in the long-standing Justice Department policy that precludes the indictment of a sitting president. Just remember: That policy has never been tested in court.
This isn’t reality TV, Mr. President. It’s reality, and it’s coming for you.