At the height of his powers as a political consultant, Paul Manafort was known for his cool. In fact, the value of his counsel increased at moments of crisis. While others panicked, Manafort rarely evinced a hint of frazzle. He could still think strategically, detach himself from emotion, and issue clearheaded guidance. But he could afford to keep his head at such moments, because the problems he was called on to solve belonged to others.
Robert Mueller’s allegation that Manafort attempted to tamper with a witness permits us to peer inside Manafort’s mind as it has functioned in a very different set of circumstances. When it comes to Manafort’s own deep problems—his moment of legal peril—he seems unable to muster strategic thinking. He has shown himself capable of profoundly dunderheaded miscalculations.
It’s hard to understand how he could have attempted the scheme described by Mueller in the midst of the highest-profile, most scrutinized criminal inquiry of the century. But that alone fails to capture the depths of his blundering.
What Mueller recounted, in a new court document filed Monday night, is how Manafort attempted to contact members of the so-called Hapsburg Group earlier this year. Manafort had created the Hapsburg Group back in 2011. It comprised European politicians he’d recruited to help beautify the image of his authoritarian client Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine. It was a perilous moment for Yanukovych. He had brought his country to the brink of joining the European Union. But Yanukovych had jeopardized this momentous step by arresting his primary political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, in a fit of antidemocratic spite. The Hapsburg Group was sent to lobby against accusations of malfeasance.