While he was supposed to be cooperating with the special counsel's investigation, Paul Manafort was using that time to feed information to Trump's legal team.
Yesterday, it looked an awful lot like Paul Manafort was a source of consternation for Donald Trump. Manafort seemingly blew his plea deal by repeatedly lying to the special counsel's office, and then news broke that he had visited Julian Assange of Wikileaks during the 2016 election.
But in light of today's news that Manafort's lawyers were feeding information about the investigation to Trump's lawyers all along, things look quite a bit different.
It seemed odd, given Manafort's devotion to Trump (and to Russian oligarchs), when Manafort took a plea deal back in September. But now it looks like that plea deal might not have been the betrayal it first seemed.
In fact, Manafort may have acted as a sort of mole for Trump, pretending to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller just so that he could get inside information on how the probe was working.
For the last two months, Manafort has kept Trump apprised of specific things Mueller has asked about, including whether Trump knew about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian nationals. Trump continues to insist he didn't know about this meeting, even though his son, his campaign manager, and his son-in-law attended in an attempt to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Although Trump and Manafort have a joint defense agreement that allows them to share such information, those agreements are typically pulled when someone pleads guilty. If a defendant wants to show the prosecutor that they have good intentions and are forthcoming, they'll terminate an arrangement that allowed them to share information with someone who is also a subject of the investigation.
But Rudy Giuliani, ever the amoral defender of Trump, said this highly unusual arrangement was just fine because it was a source of "valuable insights" into the investigation.
Getting that sort of inside information explains why Trump claimed to have insights into the questioning of Manafort, tweeting that the inner workings of the investigation were a mess and that investigators were treating people "horribly and viciously."
It's possible that all of this is happening because Trump has promised a pardon to Manafort. Indeed, even before his first trial, Manafort appeared pretty confident that Trump would grant him a pardon. And today, Trump said such a pardon was not off the table.
Legal experts have pointed out that this arrangement — Manafort feeds Trump helpful info because Trump has possibly dangled a pardon in front of him — may be its own form of obstruction. If Trump's goal was to use a promised pardon to influence Manafort's cooperation with the special counsel, that might be witness tampering.
For a few months, it looked like Manafort might have decided to do the right thing and cooperate, regardless of his motivation to do so.
Now, perhaps with the promise of a pardon, it looks like he remained a loyal soldier — and a Trump mole — all along.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.