Surely you aren’t surprised that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort now stands accused of attempted witness tampering and may forfeit his freedom pending his federal money laundering and tax fraud trial. Hustlers gotta hustle, right? There is little Manafort has done alongside our hustler president that suggests he’s a man willing to observe basic legal rules and norms. Nor is there anything Robert Mueller has done in his capacity as special counsel to think he’d not be on the lookout for such tampering.
Even the notion that Manafort evidently thought he could get away with secretly trying to coax witnesses against him to provide false testimony isn’t a surprise given what we know about Manafort’s history. His audacity is matched only by his recklessness. And what he’s accused of doing here – using an encrypted messaging program to try to turn federal witnesses – is really only a sneaky way of doing what the president himself is doing with all of his recent pardon chatter. The idea behind both tactics is to affect either the substance or the timing of testimony.
When I heard the news of Manafort’s new trouble, I thought first of Reality Winner, who has been sitting in pretrial detention for months despite facing less serious charges than Manafort. She leaked documents to The Intercept to expose Russian deception; Manafort allegedly worked on behalf of the Russians. If she can’t make bail he shouldn’t have made it, either, and now U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson has ample justification to conclude that Manafort cannot be trusted to continue to live under house arrest. Sure, sending him to prison will make him a martyr on Fox News. But anyone who wants to die on the Manafort hill is welcome to do so.
The witness-tampering bombshell is going to suck up much of the oxygen over the next couple days, but it was far from the most significant long-term news Monday on the Russia investigation front. That distinction belongs to unidentified sources in the White House who tell The Washington Post that, despite all the Twitter bluster coming from Trump, the White House, rightfully, is fretting about the coming legal showdown with Mueller. “Both sides are taking a big risk with a subpoena fight,” Rudy Giuliani wants you to believe. But like everything else that comes out of Rudy’s mouth these days, that’s nonsense.
It’s nonsense because the federal courts are not going to declare this president – or any president – beyond the reach of a subpoena in a pending criminal case. The issue is not nearly as unsettled as Team Trump says, and so the issuance of a subpoena is not nearly as much of a risk for Mueller as it is for Trump. White House lawyers surely understand this, regardless of what they or their tribunes say publicly. And so we have new details about the delicate dance underway among the president’s lawyers to prepare their ignorant, willful, deceptive, inattentive client for an interview with Mueller.
When we last got a glimpse of this secret interview preparation, from earlier this spring, it was not a pretty picture. The Wall Street Journal reported in May: “In an informal, four-hour practice session, Mr. Trump’s lawyers were only able to walk him through two questions, given the frequent interruptions on national-security matters along with Mr. Trump’s loquaciousness, one person familiar with the matter said.” Loquaciousness is one word for it. Bullshit is another. The Journal‘s report continued: “‘Anyone can see he has great difficulty staying on a subject,'” one person familiar with the legal team’s deliberations said.”
Things evidently haven’t gotten better since. From Monday’s Washington Post report: “And inside the White House, officials have tried to begin delving into key subjects with the president that might come up in a session with Mueller. However, the fledgling briefings have not gone very deep, because of the president’s anger about the probe, according to a person familiar with the situation.” Anger is one word for it. Fear is another. Perhaps the most vivid example of the ways in which Trump is an autocrat, and thinks the law does not apply to him, is his anger over being called to explain the extent of his team’s Russia ties.
To remedy the irremediable – to turn Donald Trump into a cautious, measured, honest deponent – the Trump team now reportedly wants to summon former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, himself a former federal prosecutor, to try to walk the president through his paces. Giuliani says Christie is willing to do it. Christie late Monday said he hadn’t been asked. When we last heard from Christie, he was describing as “outrageous” the Trump legal team’s view that, by definition, the president cannot obstruct justice.
At the heart of Trump’s tweets, and that silly memo to Mueller pitching legal principles that simply don’t exist, is the existential and entirely rational fear in Trumpland that any interview Mueller conducts with the president will be a disaster for the White House, the administration and Republicans more broadly. Chris Christie won’t be able to rescue Trump from the coming disaster. Jesus Christ wouldn’t be able to rescue Trump from the coming disaster. Trump is what he is and what he is incompatible with the truth. He knows it. His lawyers know it. Mueller knows it. At some point the hustle ends, even for men like Manafort and Trump, and what’s left are only tough questions and a prosecutor who seems to have all the answers.