Manafort's deal with Mueller puts Trump's inner circle in danger

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort departs the federal court house after a status hearing in Washington, DC, on Feb 14, 2018.

US President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort making a deal to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller brings danger closer to the President's inner circle.

As recently as Aug 22, President Trump tweeted that Manafort had "refused to 'break' - make up stories in order to get a 'deal'. Such respect for a brave man!"

Mr Mueller is probing Russian involvement in the 2016 election, and potential collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign.

But as the Manafort conviction shows, it is a wide-ranging investigation; he was convicted of five counts of tax fraud, two of bank fraud and one of failure to disclose a foreign bank account. Now, what Manafort pleaded guilty to is less important than what he is telling Mr Mueller behind closed doors.

Manafort was at a key meeting in June 2016, ostensibly to get information damaging to Mr Trump's erstwhile opponent, Mrs Hillary Clinton, which was coming from sources linked to the Russian government.

As such, he can testify not only about the President's knowledge of the meeting before and after it took place, but also to that of Mr Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and eldest son Donald Trump Jr. both of whom attended it.

Manafort can also join other dots, on any other potentially illegal activity that might have occurred - including a hack of the Democratic Party's e-mails.

The White House last Friday distanced itself, with Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in a brief statement saying: "This had absolutely nothing to do with the President or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign. It is totally unrelated."

The President's allies - like his lawyer, Mr Rudy Giuliani - have also dismissed Manafort's deal as irrelevant. But many analysts disagree, maintaining that it brings the investigation uncomfortably close to his immediate family. "We have all grown hesitant to anoint any development as pivotal, but Manafort's agreement to cooperate with Mueller could well be a significant turning point," said Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

"To conclude that the Trump presidency is fatally compromised is premature. But there is a boatload of issues on which Manafort might shed light. There is potential exposure here for Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner and the President."

Nirmal Ghosh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 16, 2018, with the headline 'Manafort's deal with Mueller puts Trump's inner circle in danger'. Print Edition | Subscribe