Manafort and Mueller Are Rattling Trump

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The president of the United States is slagging the federal law enforcement official investigating him. Again.

On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump took to Twitter to call Special Counsel Robert Mueller “a conflicted prosecutor gone rogue” who was “doing TREMENDOUS damage to our Criminal Justice System.” By Tuesday night, he was asserting that the “Mueller Witch Hunt is a total disgrace.”

We’ve been here before in this saga, of course. With the prosecutor and his team tight-lipped, these public rants are often useful barometers for gauging when Mueller’s probe of possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia is putting extra pressure on the president.

Did Trump launch a Twitter fusillade in 2017 when reports surfaced that Mueller was expanding his probe to include examining the president for possible obstruction of justice? Check. Did Trump launch against Mueller last summer after the FBI released documents disclosing how it went about wiretapping a Trump campaign adviser? Check. Did Trump launch in September, shortly after his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty to two federal charges and reached a deal to cooperate with Mueller? Check.

And did Tuesday’s salvo land just a day after Mueller’s prosecutors disclosed that they were voiding Manafort’s plea deal because they believed he had been routinely lying to them? Check.

Trump’s hostility toward the Russia probe has been a constant throughout his presidency. But with the midterm elections come and gone, and speculation growing that Mueller may soon file a highly anticipated report about all or some portion of his investigation’s findings, the president’s recent, splenetic tweeting reveals more worry and less bravado than in the past.

Manafort seems to be a pivotal reason that Trump’s anxiety is at fever-pitch. According to an article the New York Times published on Tuesday evening, one reason that Mueller’s team went sour on Manafort was that his lawyer “repeatedly briefed President Trump’s lawyers on his client’s discussions with federal investigators after Mr. Manafort agreed to cooperate with the special counsel.”

In other words, Manafort was essentially a White House mole, using his plea agreement as an opportunity to feed Trump information on the outlines of at least a portion of what Mueller has been probing.

That kind of information can be handy if you also happen to be drafting written responses to a prosecutor’s questions about your own activity — which Trump himself had been doing in recent weeks. He submitted a partial series of answers to Mueller’s interrogatories on Nov. 20. (The president notably declined to entertain any questions, or provide any answers, about obstruction of justice in his written responses.)

Another reason that Manafort may cause Trump anxiety is that he had longstanding business and political ties to Ukraine’s pro-Putin leadership. Exactly what lobbying took place over U.S. policy on Ukraine has become another flashpoint in the Mueller probe. Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 for intervening militarily in Ukraine and annexing Crimea; ever since, Vladimir Putin has sought to have the restrictions lifted, and reportedly raised the prospect of resolving the Ukraine conflict in a private meeting with Trump in Helsinki earlier this year.

Some of Manafort’s work in Ukraine involved clients who were Kremlin allies, such as Oleg Deripaska. Manafort’s relationship with the oligarch ruptured over a failed business deal in Ukraine in which Deripaska claimed his $19 million investment went missing.

Mueller’s prosecutors have already said in court that they were exploring whether Manafort acted as a possible bridge between the Trump campaign and Russians planning on trying to subvert the 2016 presidential election.

Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were famously present at a Trump Tower meeting in the summer of 2016, arranged by Donald Trump Jr., in which a group of Russians offered the trio compromising information on Hillary Clinton. The president later dictated a misleading press release about the nature of the meeting in response to a New York Times inquiry about it.

It’s unclear what exactly motivated Manafort to begin lying to Mueller’s team so soon after he struck a plea agreement. Perhaps he is gambling on Trump pardoning him. But surely Manafort recognizes a kindred spirit in Trump and knows that the president is just as likely to throw him under the bus as extend a helping hand? Perhaps he is looking over his shoulder at some of the enemies he made in Ukraine and within the rough-and-tumble world of the Russian oligarchy — and is watching his family’s back? Perhaps fear of those sorts of reprisals — and a failure to realize that Mueller’s team would be probing that part of his business life as well as his intersections with Trump — led him to dissemble? Or perhaps, like the president, he’s a serial fabulist and can’t help himself. 

Regardless, things came to a head in recent weeks with Manafort and Mueller’s team, and the president seems to have been well aware of that — as he is also aware of the vise Mueller is tightening around old allies and advisers like Roger Stone. All of that may well explain Trump’s recent, rabid round of tweeting and why he moved so quickly after the midterms to try to assert control at the Justice Department.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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