Manafort could unlock Russia puzzle, bring probe to Trump's family

Paul Manafort, US President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, departs an arraignment hearing on March 8, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON - It is premature to conclude that President Donald Trump has been fatally compromised by the cooperation deal between his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Speculation that Manafort's deal will be the death knell for the President is largely based on the assumption that there is substance to the allegation that Mr Trump, or figures in his campaign, colluded with Russia to swing the 2016 election in his favour.

But while there is wide consensus in the US intelligence community that Russia interfered in the election, partly by manipulating the American public through propaganda and misinformation on social media, no hard evidence has yet emerged, or been announced, of specific instances of collusion with Russia.

The President himself continues to discredit the entire investigation as a "witch hunt" or a plot by the so-called "deep state" - the political-security establishment - in cahoots with the Democratic Party to tarnish his election win and ultimately impeach him.

On Sunday, Mr Trump's lawyer Mr Rudy Giuliani tweeted: "Mueller can investigate endlessly and he will find no evidence. The only conspiracy, using criminal means, is the campaign to stop and then remove President Trump."

But the cooperation deal does bring danger closer to the President's innermost circle - his family.

Fuelling speculation over Russia's role in the last presidential election is a June 9, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower in New York. Manafort was at that meeting with a Russian national who had promised information that would damage Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate and Mr Trump's opponent in the election. The others at the meeting included Mr Trump's son, Don Jr, and the President's son in law, Jared Kushner.

The President has maintained that he was unaware of the meeting, and that nothing came of it anyway.

But his defence, while vocal, has swerved between denying prior knowledge of the meeting, to tweeting as recently as July 31, 2018: "Collusion is not a crime, but that doesn't matter because there was No Collusion (except by Crooked Hillary and the Democrats)!" He alleged that it was Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party who colluded with Russia.

Manafort could be the key to unravelling the puzzle. Convicted last month on five counts for tax fraud, two for bank fraud, and one for failure to disclose a foreign bank account, Manafort on Friday pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy against the United States and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice by witness tampering.

But he agreed to forfeit several properties, including an apartment at Trump Tower in New York, and bank accounts as part of a deal in which he will cooperate with the Special Counsel.

There has been speculation that President Trump could pardon Manafort but that is now moot. A pardon cannot undo what the former campaign manager may be revealing to the Special Counsel.

Mr Ken Starr, a former special prosecutor who 20 years ago carried out an investigation into then-President Bill Clinton's relationship with White House intern Ms Monica Lewinsky, told CNN on Sunday: "The real significance of what's happened is we're much closer to getting the truth than we were before this plea."

Mr Starr laid the ground for impeachment against Mr Clinton in the House of Representatives but the motion failed in the Senate because it required a two-thirds majority.

On the likelihood of Mr Trump being impeached, Mr Starr, said: "Unless there is a growing national consensus that impeachment is proper, it's doomed to fail and it's just the wrong way to go."

"Impeachment is hell," he said. "The country should not be taken through that."

Impeachment is a political act. It would require large numbers of Republicans to split from Mr Trump - a possibility that seems remote as the President takes credit for a robust economy and continues to mobilise huge crowds at his campaign rallies with an eye on retaining the Republican Party's majorities in the House and Senate in the Nov 6 mid-term elections.

"Manafort flipping is really, really important," the political forecaster Nate Silver tweeted on Sunday. "But the mid-terms, probably, are considerably more important to the long-term future of the Russia investigation."

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