The first big, fat domino in Donald Trump's Russiagate scandal is about to topple over: Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia's hack-and-leak attack during the 2016 election, has told Trump's 2016 campaign manager that he's going to be indicted, according to The New York Times, in a blockbuster front-page story.
And not only that: CNN, with a blockbuster of its own, reports that the campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has for years been subject to a court-ordered wiretap, allowing federal agents to listen to his conversations, both before and – shockingly – after the 2016 election. It's even possible that the agents recorded conversations this year between Manafort and Donald Trump after he took office, says CNN. What's more: "Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with [Trump's] campaign," reported the outlet.
Since the start of the Russia investigations – which now include not only Mueller's high-powered team of prosecutors and criminal justice officials, but an FBI investigation and inquiries by the House and Senate intelligence committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee – Manafort has been the weakest, most vulnerable part of Team Trump. In late July, a team of FBI agents conducted a stunning pre-dawn raid into Manafort's home in Alexandria, Virginia, scooping up documents, electronic records and other evidence.
Now we know, thanks to the reporting by The Times, that the agents who raided Manafort's home were so concerned that Manafort might try to destroy evidence that they were armed with an unusual no-knock search warrant that allowed them to stealthily enter his home by picking the lock, surprising Manafort while he was in his bedroom, presumably sleeping. The FBI also conducted a secondary raid, breaking into a storage facility that belonged to Manafort, according to CNN.
Let's be clear about what all this means: First, it means Mueller and the FBI convinced a federal judge sufficient evidence existed that Manafort was guilty of a crime, or that he was an agent of a foreign power, or both. Second, it raises the possibility that the feds have tapes that could contain direct evidence of Manafort, and possibly President Trump, talking about collusion with Russia. And third, it means Manafort now has every incentive to cooperate with Mueller rather than face criminal charges.
Manafort, of course, was already a leading subject of the Mueller investigation because, along with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, Manafort famously took part in the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with a group of Russians who'd promised to deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton to the Trump campaign. That meeting is at the very heart of both Mueller's inquiry and the investigations by Congress into whether the campaign colluded or coordinated with Moscow last year.
So who, exactly, is Paul Manafort, and why is he so important? A longtime aide and adviser to Trump, Manafort in enmeshed in a tangle of connections to Russia, various Russian oligarchs, pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians and businessmen, and a host of financial and real-estate deals involving Russian and Ukrainian billionaires, going back more than a dozen years.
Manafort is a veteran of more than four decades' worth of political chicanery, and he founded one of Washington's most notorious influence-peddling firms, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly – in which one of the named partners was Roger Stone, the giddily pro-Trump political bomb-thrower. Back then, Manafort and his partners lobbied for some of the world's worst dictators, including Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.
In the 2000s, through a successor firm, Davis Manafort Partners, Manafort built close ties to Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians. An exposé in The Wall Street Journal last month reported that Manafort's ties to this Russian-Ukrainian network centered on Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch worth more than $5 billion who is intimately tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin. From 2004 until 2015, Manafort did political work for Deripaska and other pro-Russian interests in Ukraine, Georgia and other countries in the Russian orbit.
In looking at Manafort, Mueller can also profit by examining a series of payments allegedly made to Manafort by pro-Russian pols in Ukraine. Last year, The New York Times broke the story that Manafort allegedly received millions of dollars in under-the-table and unreported payments from the Russian-allied Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych between 2007 and 2012, a revelation that led Manafort to resign as chairman of Trump's campaign. (He was replaced by Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.) This year, in the midst of Russiagate, Manafort belatedly amended his disclosure filings, admitting that his firm, Davis Manafort, had pocketed $17 million from Yanukovych and Co.
It isn't known whether or to what extent Manafort's work drew the attention of U.S. intelligence agencies, which were undoubtedly keeping track of the activities of many of Manafort's clients after 2004. What is known, however, is that in 2014 Manafort fell under the FBI's scrutiny, and the bureau started following Manafort. According to CNN's new report, that investigation was launched by an order from a secretive court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 2014, suspended in 2016, and then restarted again that same year, continuing into 2017. In case anyone might miss the point, CNN added: "Sources say the second warrant was part of the FBI's efforts to investigate ties between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives." (And: "It's unclear whether Trump himself was picked up on the surveillance," the outlet noted.)
By executing the search warrant, by issuing subpoenas for several of Manafort's aides and attorneys, and by warning Manafort that he's a target of the special counsel's investigation and likely to be indicted, it's possible Mueller isn't really interested in Manafort at all. Instead, he could be trying to get Manafort to "flip" – that is, to cooperate with investigators, telling them everything he knows in order to avoid a prison sentence. As the always reliable Lawfare Blog reports, if Manafort does flip, it'll open doors for Mueller into other parts of Russiagate – but if he doesn't, Mueller can lower the boom. "Note that if Manafort cooperates, we may not see anything public for a long time to come. Delay, that is, may be a sign of success," according to Lawfare. "But in the absence of cooperation, the fireworks may be about to begin."
One thing is certain: namely, that Mueller is playing hardball. Jimmy Gurgle, a professor of law at Notre Dame and himself a former federal prosecutor, marvelled to The Times about Mueller's tactics. "This is more consistent with how you'd go after an organised crime syndicate," he said. And Simon L. Weisenberg, a prosecutor involved in the Ken Starr investigation that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, added, "They are setting a tone. It's important early on to strike terror in the hearts of people in Washington, or else you will be rolled. You want people saying to themselves, 'Man, I had better tell these guys the truth.'"