Donald Trump; Paul Manafort (AP/Salon)

Behind Paul Manafort's sordid career: Hints of a much larger Trump conspiracy

It wasn't the "big reveal" Mueller junkies hoped for — but 800 pages on Manafort's crimes was just the appetizer


Heather Digby Parton
February 25, 2019 2:30PM (UTC)

Most of you probably didn't stay up late on Friday night on pins and needles waiting for the sentencing memorandum in Paul Manafort's case to drop. That would be because you are sane people who have lives. Quite a few journalists and news junkies obviously can't say that, because we sat there in front of our phones and keyboards, checking Twitter every few moments in the vain hope that the "Big Reveal" was finally coming and Robert Mueller was going to lay out whatever he's got.

As it turned out, the memorandum wasn't filed until Saturday afternoon and it turned out to be a richly detailed 800-page document about Paul Manafort's sordid history of criminality. There is little doubt that this man has spent a lifetime consorting with terrible people doing terrible things and making a lot of money at it. You'd think Donald Trump would have done a little bit of research before he tapped such a person to run his campaign, particularly since one of his major campaign promises was that he would only hire the very best people. Considering how many other corrupt, criminal, incompetent hires there have been to his campaign and administration, that clearly cannot be among those "promises kept" he likes to brag about. There has never been a more motley group of misfits populating one presidency in American history.

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Unfortunately, as far as the sentencing memo revealing anything more about Russian collusion with the Trump campaign goes, it was a dud. In fact, the most intriguing fact was that some hints we had already seen in previous filings and court transcripts that point to the possibility of a broader conspiracy were left out of this mammoth filing. That's actually quite unusual. Mueller's previous sentencing memos have gone farther than strictly necessary in laying out details, creating a larger narrative that has unfolded in chapters as each case is presented to the courts.

The Washington Post's Philip Bump wrote a fascinating article arguing that Trump has benefited greatly from the "frog slowly boiling in hot water" aspect of the case. He asks us to imagine how differently this story would look today if Mueller had kept everything under wraps for the last two years:

And then, after all of that, they suddenly produced a dozen indictments and plea deals running into hundreds of pages, detailing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s illegal and questionable financial dealings, those of his deputy Rick Gates, full details of Russia’s alleged efforts to influence social media and to steal electronic information from Democratic targets and detailed a half-dozen people who admitted to lying to federal investigators. Imagine if that had landed with a thud on the attorney general’s desk.

The slow-motion revelations, one after the other, have allowed the president and his henchmen, as Bump says, to "lump every new revelation into a big snowball labeled 'no collusion,' parroting the same refrain as the snowball grows." You lose track of it, never really grasping the bigger picture because we lurch from one scandal and one revelation to the next in a sort of fog. But if you step back just a little, it's clear this is a tremendous story of corruption and malfeasance.

Bump credits journalist Marcy Wheeler with making this point for many months, showing dozens of charges and dozens of people, Russians and Americans alike, prison sentences and guilty pleas, all of which overlap "at only one point: Involvement in the 2016 election." In any ordinary administration it's hard to imagine we'd be seeing the president who ran such a corrupt enterprise gearing up for a re-election campaign.

Nonetheless, all that leaves many important aspects of this case still outstanding, even some pertaining to Paul Manafort. This memorandum didn't mention anything about what prosecutor Andrew Weissmann so intriguingly hinted at in the previous week's court transcripts as "the heart of the case" -- the alleged exchange of polling data with a man the FBI believes is associated with Russian intelligence. Rather than laying out all the facts as he has done in previous sentencing memos, Mueller simply wrote:

Manafort’s conduct after he pleaded guilty is pertinent to sentencing. It reflects a hardened adherence to committing  crimes and lack of remorse. As the Court is fully familiar with this proof, we do not repeat the evidence herein.

And there were many, many redactions. Some of them had to do with grand jury material, classified information and unindicted people.  But close observers like Wheeler suggest that much of it remains hidden because of the ongoing investigation -- and the sense that Mueller perhaps has more faith in the new attorney general, William Barr, than the previous one. In other words, Mueller didn't feel he had to use a sentencing memo to lay out the facts because he's more comfortable laying them out in a future set of indictments or a report. It's all speculation at this point, but that makes as much sense as anything.

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Last week at this time journalists were excitedly reporting that because file boxes were being moved out of Mueller's office and sources in the Justice Department were telling reporters that they were "expecting" to receive the Mueller report this week, this saga was wrapping up. The DOJ later released a statement saying that's not happening.  It's not clear exactly why. It could be that the State Department asked that it not be done while the president is overseas, although it's hard to see why the delivery of the report would make a difference. And anyway, Barr will presumably take his sweet time before he releases whatever he plans to release. So unless Mueller abruptly closes up shop on the same day, it's not reasonable to believe that any of this is ending soon.

But the fact that Mueller didn't include any details about a larger conspiracy argues for the idea that there's more to come, either in new indictments or that big report. For this week, we'll have to content ourselves with the first major public hearing since James Comey testified in June of 2017. Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen makes his appearance on Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee -- on a split screen, while Trump meets with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. The Trump presidency gets more surreal by the day.

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Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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