Following the lengthy (and, at times, self-indulgent) article I wrote last week about the collapse of Lehman Brothers and its implications, my aim for the next couple of weeks at least is to produce a number of vignettes focusing on one key current issue at a time and its implications.
The principle underpinning this is that, if one were to take much of the media at face value, every headline-grabbing story matters enormously. That is, until the next one comes along. A much more fast moving version of an adage from my childhood, ie: “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers”. So, the aim of these pieces is simply to try to keep us all focused on what really matters.
Part 1 — Manafort Matters
“In a year filled with blockbuster Friday news stories, the announcement that Paul Manafort is co-operating with Robert Mueller's investigation is one of the biggest.”
Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, 14 September 2018
As has been well documented in the press, last Friday Donald Trump’s former election campaign head Paul Manafort 'flipped' . Hopefully, at least some of my regular clients will recall that, right from when the Mueller investigation was first set up, I have been arguing that Mr Manafort would likely be indicted for money laundering and/or tax evasion, that he would do a deal with prosecutors and that that could well prove to be the key to bringing down others closer to Mr Trump, if not the President himself.
However, it is still far from certain that my second point, ie that Mr Manafort will lead Robert Mueller to others in 'Team Trump', will be proved correct (even though, that is, he is the fifth sometime member of the team to be indicted).
What we may be sure of is that, in order to agree to the dropping of a significant number of charges relative to last week’s court hearing, as well a possible retrial of the mis-trial-ed charges from last month’s trial in Virginia, Mr Mueller’s team must have a very clear idea that Mr Manafort is willing and able to impart solid evidence which will add real value to the investigation. However:
- As Franklin Foer at least implies in the 14 September edition of The Atlantic, Mr Manafort, who was present and took notes by all accounts, may simply confirm that all the fuss over the infamous 14 June 2016 Trump Tower meeting is indeed ‘much ado about nothing’, as Team Trump continues to claim;
- Acknowledging that Mr Trump’s aides seem to be correct in their claim that the charges brought against Mr Manafort to date have nothing to do with the President, it is also possible that his former campaign manager is offering no more or less than valuable information on illicit lobbying practices in Washington on behalf of foreign governments and agencies.
However, even though Mr Trump himself has (so far) been conspicuous in his silence on Mr Manafort’s ‘flip’, there is, in my view, a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the President is genuinely concerned about where Mr Mueller’s investigation is going to end up, most notably the increasingly regular and vitriolic attacks by POTUS himself and his close aides and supporters on the investigation (including Mr Trump’s attacks on his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions).
A second thing we can be sure about is that, contrary to what one might think from reading some of the press, we shall be none the wiser until such time as Mr Mueller makes a move. As Michael M Grynbaum wrote in the 13 September edition of The New York Times, Mr Mueller’s “PR strategy” is (a potentially risky) one of silence; and his investigation as a whole simply doesn’t leak.
This is despite the PR bombardment against him from ‘Team Trump’, strongly suggesting that the President believes that there is a non-negligible risk that — assuming he is allowed to conclude his investigations, which is by no means certain — either one or more of his family (Jared Kushner? Donald Trump Jr?) will be indicted, or Mr Mueller will come up with sufficient grounds for a well-founded impeachment motion, or both.
In other words, if we assume for the moment that the Democrats win control of the House in November and do then bring an impeachment motion against Mr Trump, he will need to keep sufficient Republican Senators onside to avoid a two-thirds majority in favour in the upper house. As things stand today with a big majority of GOP legislators seemingly in the President’s pocket, this looks to be fairly straightforward. But a big ‘blue wave’ in November could just change this calculation.
And the probability of this is something I shall be reassessing on The Global Lead in the next few days.