At the rate Robert S. Mueller is going, he will soon have enough material to write an eight-volume biography of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort with enough material left over to construct a Manafort Broadway musical, a Manafort video game and a Manafort theme park. According to news reports this week, the special counsel has hoovered up practically every document, receipt, international bank transaction, tax record and perhaps grocery list connected to Manafort that pertains to the Russia investigation. The Mueller stash includes the tax and financial documents seized in a July 26 FBI raid of Manafort’s Alexandria, Virginia, condominium, news of which surfaced in the Washington Post this week.
Given this prosecutorial quickening, the scandal that still has no name should have commanded greater attention this week. Instead, interest in the Manafort story fell by the wayside as the vacationing president commenced jabbering the United States into 1) a possible nuclear war with North Korea and 2) a possible conventional one with Venezuela. How can one concentrate on a political scandal when a misplaced word at a New Jersey golf club might culminate in many of us choking to death on radwaste?
If you did steady your mind against visions of the apocalypse, the week’s development gave you a new understanding of where the Mueller investigation might be going. Prosecutors love to start low and work up the investigative ladder, flipping smaller suspects like Manafort to provide evidence and testimony that will convict the biggest perpetrators. Squeezing Manafort by scrutinizing his paper trail to nail President Donald Trump fits that model perfectly.
Mueller got a head start in his probe by inheriting a Manafort money-laundering investigation launched by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. We’ve known for some time that Manafort was working with the Senate Intelligence Committee, providing documents and the like, so Mueller’s decision to stage a raid rather than ask Manafort’s lawyers for the documents has puzzled observers. Wrote the New York Times, “Legal experts said that Mr. Mueller might be trying to send a message to Mr. Manafort about the severity of the investigation, and to pressure him into cooperating.” To obtain the search warrant that powered the FBI raid, Mueller had to convince a federal judge that a crime had been committed and evidence of the crime resided at Manafort’s home, as former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti wrote in the Hill. It’s also likely that Mueller had to show that the search warrant rather that a subpoena was necessary because the evidence might be altered or destroyed, which indicates that the special prosecutor has good reason to distrust Manafort.
Trump attorney John Dowd protested the raid, calling it a “gross abuse of the judicial process.” In a week of overstatements and international blustering, Dowd’s comments may rank somewhere near the top. If Manafort or Trump’s lawyers have a problem with the search, their beef is with the court, not Mueller. But if you’re sympathetically inclined toward Manafort, now is the time to cue your tears. The investigation has already tainted his reputation, making it harder to swing real-estate deals and do political consulting, and legal costs threaten to empty his piggy bank. Crimping a suspect’s livelihood while running up his legal bill is all part of the prosecutorial squeeze.
Trump spoke a few measured words about the raid in one of his golf club chats with reporters. “I thought it was a very, very strong signal, or whatever,” he said in classic Trumpese. “I’ve always found Paul Manafort to be a very decent man,” Trump said, perhaps signaling him to hold tight. He’s like a lot of other people, probably makes consultant fees from all over the place, who knows, I don’t know, but I thought it was pretty tough stuff to wake him up, perhaps his family was there. I think that’s pretty tough stuff.”
Manafort isn’t the only one getting the Mueller once-over. Bloomberg News reports that others in his orbit, including business partner Rick Gates, were blessed with a Mueller subpoena, as was a connected Ukrainian oligarch. Elsewhere in the Manafort axis, we learned federal investigators paid an in-the-flesh visit earlier this summer to his son-in-law and sometimes business partner, Jeffrey Yohai, seeking his cooperation in the probe. Yohai provided federal investigators with information and documents, according to press reports.
Reflecting the financial direction of the Mueller probe, Manafort changed legal horses this week, hiring a firm that specializes in money laundering and tax cases. Manafort’s legal exposure doesn’t end with Mueller. According to Bloomberg News, the New York attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney want to know more about Manafort’s real-estate transactions.
At the current rate, everybody who has worked for Trump will end up facing interrogators. According to ABC News, congressional investigators want to chat with Trump’s powerful gatekeeper Rhona Graff, although no formal invitation has been tendered. Graff figured in the now-famous email correspondence between Donald Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone that set up the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between Junior, Manafort, Jared Kushner and the Russians. Don’t minimize Graff’s centrality to the Trump operation—her phone logs, email correspondence and memory could pave miles and miles of investigative road for both the congressional investigators and Mueller.
Cruising down that highway, Mueller has crossed and recrossed the red line that Trump drew in July, when he warned against any investigation that strayed from Russian interference in the election to his business matters. An impulsive, furious, but attentive man, Trump can’t help but notice that FBI investigators have squeezed him from the top looking for irregularities, swarming Russian purchases of Trump condos, his SoHo development with Russians, his Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and the purchase by a Russian oligarch of one of his Florida mansions. As Trump is squeezed from below by the Manafort probe don’t be startled if he draws inspiration from the North Korea crisis to go absolutely nuclear on Mueller, dosing the nation with a different sort of radiation.
The contest to name the scandal with no name is over. Readers—and their parents—failed me miserably on this score. Please keep all future nominations to name the scandal to yourself. Send other ideas to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts are petty, my Twitter feed is vindictive, and my RSS feed is sociopathic.