The first thing to acknowledge is that the indictment of Paul Manafort doesn’t prove collusion by President Trump with Russia to undermine American democracy. But the second thing to say is: It may get us closer.
Manafort may now be facing the prospect of years in prison, and the indictment seems meticulously rooted in facts and evidence that Robert Mueller accumulated; if I were Manafort, I’d be very worried. Presumably that was the intention, and one purpose of the indictment is to gain leverage to persuade Manafort to testify against others in exchange for leniency.
If Manafort pursues his self-interest, my bet is that he’ll sing. That then can become a cascade: He testifies against others, who in turn are pressured to testify against still others. And all this makes it more difficult to protect the man at the center if indeed he has violated the law.
Much the same goes for Manafort’s aide, Rick Gates, who was also indicted, and for George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, who pled guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about a Russian contact. The Papadopoulos revelation is particularly interesting because it goes precisely to the issue of collusion, and it’s not just an allegation—it’s a guilty plea.
There has been lots of speculation that Trump may pardon Manafort, and of course that would end the federal case. But remember that Trump can pardon someone only for federal crimes—and what’s noteworthy about the underlying crimes in this indictment is that many would also be state crimes in New York, which has been conducting its own investigation into Manafort, in conjunction with Mueller.
So if Trump pardoned Manafort, my bet is that he would be prosecuted for state crimes; from Manafort’s point of view, the essential difference is that he would end up in a state prison rather than a federal prison. And the same is true of others in Trump’s circle.
Another point worth pondering is how it is that President Trump chose as his campaign chair someone like Manafort whose reputation in the political world was less about his political brilliance than about his ties to Russia and Ukraine (including some of the most corrupt people there) and his general shadiness. It’s said that Jared Kushner was among those advocating to hire Manafort, so the obvious question is: Why?
Maybe there simply wasn’t adequate vetting, even though news organizations quickly found problems that led to Manafort’s firing. But the inclination to hire someone so close to Moscow does raise questions about the Trump inner circle’s predilection to hire someone linked to Russia and Ukraine.
We’re still not sure whether there was collusion between President Trump and Russia, but we certainly do know that Russia interfered with the U.S. election and may even have affected the outcome, although that is impossible to know for sure. Nothing could be more serious, or more deserving of careful investigation.
President Trump tweeted this morning that there was “no collusion” and again urged greater focus on the supposed crimes of Hillary Clinton. By that he presumably means the uranium deal, which has conservatives in a frenzy—but it is simply absurd to think that there is some parallel.
Look, it was The Times that in 2015 helped uncover and publicize the uranium arrangement, but it has been flagrantly taken out of context by Fox News and its ilk. For starters, there seems to be a suspicion on the right that American uranium is going to Russia, while in fact there’s no export license—so the uranium stays in America. More important, this was a non-controversial deal that an interagency committee approved, apparently unanimously, at a level far below Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Every bit of evidence says that Clinton never even weighed in on it. So the notion that this is somehow a serious scandal parallel to Moscow’s work to overturn an American presidential election is just comical.
One peril ahead is that President Trump may engage in riskier or more aggressive behavior vis-à-vis North Korea so that people will rally around the flag. Another is that Trump will fire Mueller. This would be difficult for him to do, because (opinions vary) he might have to do this through the Justice Department framework, leading to another Archibald Cox-style massacre of reluctant intermediaries. But it would also be a body blow to the rule of law in America, and it would trigger a Constitutional crisis.
Any firing of Mueller would lead many fair-minded people to assume that Trump is hiding criminal behavior, perhaps treason. There would be a push for impeachment, a boost to Congressional investigations, and the presidency would be hobbled—along with the United States itself—for years to come. Trump set in motion today’s actions when he fired James Comey, and I hope he understands that firing Mueller would probably also set in motion the complete unraveling of his presidency.
<NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF