The Loud Silence of Mueller’s Manafort Memo

A court filing by the special counsel is filled with elegant omissions—but that doesn’t mean nothing is there.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

A nation is waiting, with no clear sense of timing or resolution, to learn whether its leader is a foreign agent of a hostile power. But the director of this epic tale seems determined to jerk everyone around.

Expectations of imminent revelation are routinely deflated. At best, you get a modestly illuminating footnote. The most careful Twitter scholars of the scandal search these filings for redacted names, whose identities they can guess based on the number of characters blacked out. To follow this scandal with full attention is to have moments where one worries about becoming a crank.

Actual revelations come in the strangest form, and many of them from the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson. She has presided over the Paul Manafort case that never went to trial, the one where he pleaded guilty before it ever began. But since Manafort’s cooperation seems to have consisted of rank and unceasing mendacity, the lawyers in the case have kept returning to court. Unsealed transcripts of hearings have permitted eavesdropping on Robert Mueller’s lawyers. Along the way, prosecutors have dropped some fairly unambiguous hints about what’s ahead.

They have revealed just enough in court for us to believe that Manafort—and his dealings with his longtime aide-de-camp, Konstantin Kilimnik, an alleged asset of Russian intelligence—are at the “heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.” For all the wider world’s hypothesizing about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, here was Team Mueller suggesting a concrete and meaningful interaction.

There is nothing to elaborate the details of the meeting that Mueller had described as so important that took place on August 2 at the Havana Room in Manhattan, where Manafort allegedly gave Kilimnik detailed polling data and discussed a peace plan for Ukraine. The big question now is: If Mueller does have a big revelation, why is he sitting on it? We can only speculate from a position of relative ignorance.

The Mueller team’s sentencing recommendation is, however, an important document of Manafortology. It is the legal equivalent of a magazine profile—that is, a psychologically driven character study with historical sweep. The prosecutors have gone back to the 1980s and toured his career.

When I first started reporting on Paul Manafort three years ago, I kept looking for a redeeming flicker of humanity. Editors would push me: “Surely, he started off as an idealist, before taking his moral tumble?” They were aching for what we call in the trade the “to-be-sure graf,” where a journalist displays all the pieces of contrary evidence in plain view. Reader, let me tell you, I searched hard to find that sliver of goodness, and it eluded me.

It seems that the prosecutors ended up with pretty much the same conclusion: There’s simply nothing redeeming in Paul Manafort’s career—or as they put it, “no warranted mitigating factors.” He engaged in his elaborate schemes for “no other reason than greed,” the court filing says. The prosecutors are constantly lifting their jaw from the floor, because they simply can’t believe their subject’s “hardened adherence to committing crimes.” Even when Manafort had been initially indicted, he kept right on tampering with witnesses without apparent conscience or self-consciousness.

Many times it has been remarked: If Manafort hadn’t joined the Trump campaign, he would have gotten away with his long string of misdeeds. But what’s so fascinating about the appendices of today’s recommendation is that they include Justice Department memos from the 1980s, investigating his potential abuse of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, requiring him to inform the government about his lobbying efforts on behalf of foreign governments. (Another memo ponders about how lobbying might have conflicted with his appointment by Ronald Reagan to a directorship at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.)

In other words, these officials apparently had a sense of Manafort’s misdeeds, and they looked into them. But none of these memos ever turned into a prosecution. This is the problem with the enforcement of anti-corruption laws. Officials rarely have the fortitude to go after big, well-connected targets like Manafort. When there are so few prosecutions under these laws, the odds of winning are highly uncertain, so prosecutors grow ever more cautious about taking them to court. The deep improbability of Donald Trump’s presidency makes this all the more stark: Paul Manafort could have—should have—gotten away with everything he’s alleged to have done.

The filing is also a reminder of Manafort’s clientele. He worked for the government of Saudi Arabia, and for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, among others, before devoting himself to a single client, the pro-Russian party in Ukraine. It is plain to see how, in the course of advocating for his clients, he dealt regularly with reporters and editors at places like The Wall Street Journal and Time. Senators and members of Congress welcomed him into their offices. Many people knew who he was, and what he was doing, for a very long time. The document recommends a sentence for Manafort, but it indicts the culture and business of Washington.