When Paul Manafort first joined the Trump campaign, many of his close friends could envision this day as it would unfold, more than two years later.
They told me months ago that they could long foresee the chain of events: how taking a job with the Trump campaign would bring media attention to Manafort’s sordid past as a consultant in Ukraine, how scrutiny of his career would inevitably pique the interest of the feds, how an investigation into his financial dealings would end badly for him. And end badly for him it did—a guilty verdict on eight counts of tax and bank fraud, and years in prison awaiting him.
It all raises a question, and it is the question that gets asked about Manafort more than any other: Why didn’t he cut a deal with the government? Why did Manafort place himself in a position almost guaranteed to maximize his pain and suffering?
As a political consultant, Paul Manafort crafted narratives for his clients. He would take, say, a Ukrainian gangster and manage to depict him as a pillar of stability; he would portray an African dictator as an avatar of liberty. In his own life, Manafort showed a similar ability for bending reality to suit his own preferences and interests, for inhabiting a narrative of his own creation. He accumulated expensively tailored suits and properties, even as his finances deteriorated. According to text messages sent by his daughter, he apparently persisted in an extramarital affair, even after his family caught him in the act and he agreed to sever ties with his mistress. His political career and personal life were of a piece. In both realms, he consistently operated with impunity. As his former colleague Riva Levinson wrote in a column for The Hill this week, “Manafort ‘was the master of his own universe,’ meaning he did what he wanted, when he wanted. I don't think he ever believed the rules applied to him.”
His capacity for self-deception has been blatantly on display throughout the past two years. He resigned from the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, knowing that the FBI was investigating him, yet he continued to behave as a power broker—leveraging his connections to pitch clients, seeking to score a job on behalf of a banker who supplied him with a string of dodgy loans. And even after the special prosecutor indicted him—and was clearly monitoring his every step—Manafort allegedly attempted to tamper with potential witnesses who might turn against him. This wasn’t just a man whose ego made him smile for the cameras outside the courthouse; these were the moves of a man who never accepted his life’s fact pattern.
I have spent years reporting on Manafort, and probing what makes him tick. I’m convinced that Manafort never cut a deal with the feds—never went the efficient route that Trump’s longtime confidant Michael Cohen took today, for example—because he was sure that he could prevail in his trial. Manafort’s faith in his own strategic genius, the way in which he believed his best press clippings, must have fueled the idea that he would succeed by taking his audacious courtroom stand against Robert Mueller.
But just because Manafort hasn’t cut a deal yet doesn’t mean that he won’t.
Living in denial is far harder to sustain when staring in the face of sentencing guidelines—not to mention the fact that his end of days will now likely see him wearing a cheap jumpsuit, absent some sort of negotiated relief from the government. And he knows that his judicial hell is just beginning. He still faces a trial this fall in Washington, D.C. And he has some reason to fear that Robert Mueller might have other superseding indictments to bring against him, as Mueller cobbles together whatever larger narrative of the Trump campaign will eventually emerge.
Despite his exhausted finances, Manafort has sat surrounded by expensive lawyers at his defendant’s table. In some moments, he seemed to relish the attention, despite the circumstances. Yet this level of courtroom drama isn’t the sort of hit to the dwindling family fortune that one can repeatedly absorb. After his long career of glossy magazine covers and great riches, the worm has turned—but will Paul Manafort?
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