The Florence damage may take years to repair, and the Kavanaugh nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, which once seemed assured, at this writing is in a sort of limbo, pending an Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas-like confrontation before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week. But when Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's one-time campaign chair, entered a guilty plea in federal court last week, it created the potential for a political earthquake.
Manafort was indicted by two federal grand juries — one in Arlington, Virginia, and the other in Washington, D.C. — for financial crimes committed before and during his time running the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. Both prosecutions have been led by Robert Mueller, the Department of Justice-appointed special counsel charged with investigating whether there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and people working for the Russian government.
Last week, on the eve of Manafort's second trial, that prosecutorial strategy paid off when he entered a guilty plea before a federal judge in Washington, D.C. Manafort's guilty plea is unique and extraordinary. In the plea, Manafort, who only pleaded guilty to two federal crimes — witness tampering and conspiracy to defraud the government — also admitted that he committed dozens of other federal and state crimes.
The pattern of crimes to which Manafort admitted but for which he did not plead guilty is breathtaking. It involves tens of millions of dollars, the highest-ranking former government officials in the Ukraine, an unnamed Obama Cabinet member and a few Russian oligarchs. The only good news for Trump in all this is that he and his Republican congressional colleagues will be spared the daily barrage of negative headlines from a second Manafort trial, which was scheduled to start this week and which would have led up to the midterm elections, had it not been aborted by the guilty plea. But the president surely fears a beast in the night in the form of whatever Manafort privately tells Mueller.
We know that Manafort's personal offer of assistance to Mueller took place over the course of two days of negotiations on Monday and Tuesday of last week. That type of meeting, during which Manafort tipped his hand as to what evidence he could give Mueller about Trump, has been called a "Queen for a Day" by federal prosecutors and FBI agents because the defendant gets to say whatever he wants and if the negotiations fail to produce a deal the feds cannot use what the defendant has told them. The meeting obviously intrigued and excited Mueller's team, and hence a deal was struck.
Manafort was present at the July 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russian intelligence agents, and he made notes. He was present at the preparatory meeting for that Trump Tower meeting. He can probably explain the circuitous and mysterious route of Russian money transfers that followed the Trump Tower meeting. He can explain the 80 times the campaign was in contact with the Russians while he was the campaign chair, and he probably knows if Trump personally knew of the Trump Tower meeting in advance and of any agreements made there.
The president's lawyers have shrugged off the Manafort guilty plea as unrelated to the president. This is false bravado for public consumption only, and I don't blame them for it when their client is the president. But if their client has been candid with them, then they can prepare for the Manafort bombshells that are coming.