One thing that can be said about Donald Trump, is that he’s consistent. He is particularly consistent when it comes to abandoning and backstabbing his former friends and allies. All of them follow a discernible arc: initially they are “great guys” making a “tremendous” contribution; then comes the inevitable falling out, and dead silence; then comes the “I barely knew the chap” portion of the ritual. Paul Manafort was hailed as a political genius, initially, and Trump was thrilled to have a strategist of his caliber on board. Simply thrilled. Then, when Manafort became too hot to handle, Sean Spicer went on record saying, “Manafort played a very limited role [in the campaign] for a very limited amount of time.” Right. He was changing coffee filters for George Papadopoulous.
But recently Trump has been changing his tune. So what does this portend? Daily Beast:
Nowadays, however, Trump’s annoyance towards his onetime aide has been largely replaced with pity and attaboys. “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” the president posted to Twitter in August. “‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ – make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!”
The president’s public display of emotional support for Manafort is reflected in private discussions with close associates, who say that Trump has praised “Paul” for not being a “rat” or “coward,” as he views Cohen, and has repeatedly expressed agitation over Manafort’s jailing, sometimes likening him to a political prisoner.
For instance, the Trump attorney [Rudy Giuliani] had alleged in November that Mueller and his team were treating “Manafort like he’s a terrorist, incarcerating him before trial, solitary incarceration, and repeated questioning.”
Now, as you know, a surprisingly light sentence was handed down in Virginia last week, 47 months, due to Manafort’s purportedly “blameless life.” Former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa, says she “won’t be surprised” if Trump pardons Manafort, after Judge Amy Berman Jackson issues her sentence later this week, because in pardoning Manafort, Trump would be pardoning himself by proxy. Alternet:
“Even if the President doesn’t try to pardon himself, the pardons he has granted or may grant to others could be viewed as self-pardons by proxy,” she wrote. “That’s because almost to a person, the crimes that Trump has selected for leniency are ones that he might be on the hook for himself.”
This claim, that Trump might pardon Manafort as a proxy for pardoning himself, gained credibility Friday when the president falsely claimed on Twitter that both the Virginia judge and Manafort’s lawyers said, “there was NO COLLUSION with Russia.” Even if this were true, of course, it would be no defense of Manaforts myriad crimes, but Trump and his supporters have tried to suggest that he and his circle shouldn’t have to answer for non-collusion crimes. (Trump’s team also, conveniently, argues that “collusion” is not a crime, essentially making the claim that there’s no crime they can be held responsible for.)
Rangappa also argued that Trump’s exercise of the pardon could help achieve his aim of thwarting investigators:
By showing his willingness to use his pardon power so early and often in his term, the President may be giving hope to former friends and associates … who may be weighing whether or not to cooperate with the feds. But the signal he is sending goes beyond just reassuring them to stay strong. He’s also giving them permission to undermine the investigation itself.
Now, take a look at Trump’s reasoning in the pardons he has granted so far, all of them controversial. Joe Arpaio, Dinesh D’Souza, and Scooter Libby, were all persecuted by over-zealous FBI agents, and underhanded prosecutors, according to Trump. Rangappa points out the convenience of this narrative, because these are the very people Trump thinks are after him, wielding the torches and pitchforks, i.e., the “rigged witch hunt.”
The question becomes, what would happen if Trump pardons Manafort? Presidential pardon power is absolute, so the pardon would be valid. However, it could be and most probably would be interpreted as obstruction of justice, and that is an interpretation that Robert Mueller could put on it, which would make a substantial difference in that investigation. Mueller is already looking into charges of obstruction of justice by Trump and if this pardon took place, it might be interpreted as part of a pattern.
However valid the pardon is, though, it’s not going to put Manafort in the clear, not by a long shot. The federal pardon will not exculpate Manafort from state charges, and it’s no secret that state district attorneys in New York intend to bring charges against Manafort, in the eventuality of a Trump pardon. State charges cannot be pardoned, so that’s where Manafort would hang. Trump has undoubtedly been advised of this, and rather than risk the blast furnace of bad press that he would incur, on top of all his other problems, if he issued a pardon, Trump would probably elect to let Manafort rot.
My take on it is that Trump is making all the protestations of how “brave” Manafort is, and how evil Manafort’s prosecutors are, simply for the sake of enforcing the narrative of a corrupt and over-zealous FBI, because that narrative suits his own self interest. At the end of the day, Donald Trump is only interested in Donald Trump. I think he’ll let Paul Manafort swing in the breeze.