While no fan of Shakespeare, Trump’s reign may yet end in an epic tragedy

While no fan of Shakespeare, Trump’s reign may yet end in an epic tragedy
Paul Manafort (centre), then a campaign adviser for US presidential candidate Donald Trump, talks to supporters and staff after a speech by Trump on the eve of his Indiana primary victory, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on 3 May 2016. (Photo: EPA / Justin Lan)

Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is now co-operating with federal prosecutors. Right up until Manafort agreed to sing for his sins, he had been lauded by the US president as a shining example of loyalty, unlike that lying ingrate, Michael Cohen. This latest in the line of bad developments for the embattled US president may turn to be most damaging of them all.

And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

From Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II

If Donald Trump were much of a reader, he might just possibly have stumbled across those lines from Shakespeare’s play – especially the last phrase. Of course, he might also have drawn the wrong lessons from his reading of the entire work, as the king in question, after surviving various ructions and rebellions, dies peacefully, with his son, Henry V, on his road to destiny – and the audience content with their knowledge of the foibles of the hefty Falstaff in this and other dramas in their minds and of the heroics of the new king, soon to come.

Still, unlike Henry IV, Donald Trump has just seen yet another, hitherto loyal retainer defect for good. This time it is Paul Manafort who, after being found guilty in one trial and having been measured for an orange jumpsuit, and now facing a second trial for the rest of his misdeeds, defected from the circle of Trumpian do-or-die supporters. Instead, he is now co-operating with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 US election and the Republican Party’s or Trump presidential campaign’s co-operation, collusion or connivance with the boys and girls from Moscow.

Manafort, of course, had been Trump’s campaign manager in the crucial four-month-period leading up to the formal nominating convention. Before that, however, he had made a career – and a whole big pile of cash – working as an unregistered agent of a foreign power, the then-pro-Russian government in Ukraine. He worked hard at trying to keep that mob in power – and in trying to gain a measure of sympathy for them in the US generally, and with the Congress more especially. Why? Because that is what formally registered agents for a foreign government do for their money (except he failed to do the paperwork). Increasingly, Manafort had come into some warm and fuzzy relationships with some of the Kremlin’s hard men who similarly had a very strong interest in the same outcome in Ukraine.

One has to wonder why, though, out of all the oleaginous Republican campaign veterans around the nation who are constantly seeking remunerative and politically potent temp jobs, Trump managed to settle on a guy with seriously dicey friends, a penchant for wearing snakeskin or ostrich skin sport coats, and a main source of income that had been coming from Kiev – or Moscow – as his choice to become his whip hand in the final run-up to the nomination. Oh right, the author smacks forehead, we’re speaking of Donald Trump, here, and not Abraham Lincoln or Ike Eisenhower. This was of a piece with the history of the man’s business career, right up until his improbable run for the presidency.

Anyway, just as with the now-former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen and sometime-foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos before him, Paul Manafort is now in that uncomfortable, tight corner where prosecutors get to ask him as much as they care to ask about all those Russia-related questions – and where he will sing as loudly as he can in order to keep jail time down to a minimum, and confiscation of illegally obtained wealth and property to as small a fraction as is humanly possible. The wife, the kids, the heirs…. are now uppermost in Manafort’s mind, right behind staying in the pokey for as little time as possible.

Or, as The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

First came George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign adviser who was arrested by the FBI when he stepped off a plane at Dulles International Airport and soon agreed to help the special counsel’s office as part of a plea agreement.

Then there was Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser who admitted he lied to the bureau and would now be co-operating with Robert S. Mueller III’s team to make things right.

Next to fall was Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman who conceded he conspired to defraud the United States and tried to deceive investigators looking into his overseas work.

One by one, the special counsel’s office methodically turned allies of President Trump into witnesses for its investigation — irking the commander-in-chief so much that he has suggested the commonplace law-enforcement tactic ‘almost ought to be illegal’. But former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had long eluded Mueller’s team, with his resistance to a plea deal so intense that some in law enforcement figured he must know he would soon receive a pardon.

On Friday, though, the special counsel finally nabbed his white whale. Manafort, whose role in the Trump campaign and ties to a Russian-aligned strongman and a suspected Russian intelligence agent make him an enticing co-operator, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. As part of his agreement with prosecutors, he said he would tell the special counsel’s office all that he knows.”

Like Watergate’s famed Deep Throat, the FBI deputy director and secret source for reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, was reported to have said, the key to everything connected to Manafort was to “follow the money” – his money. Federal prosecutors have done that and, as a result, Manafort folded his losing hand.

As former prosecutor Deanna Paul wrote in The Washington Post:

Unlike the other criminally charged former Trump aides, Manafort’s problem was that he was facing a functional life sentence, even before the trial in Washington.

After battling the federal government for a year, Manafort was convicted in the Eastern District of Virginia last month on eight of 18 federal crimes, including filing false tax returns, bank fraud and failing to disclose an interest in a foreign bank account. The jurors hung on the other 10 counts, though the government still had the option to retry them. Under federal sentencing guidelines, a prison term is determined by a defendant’s criminal history and his conduct during the charged crime.

That calculation did not work out well for Manafort, handing him a particularly onerous sentence. In addition to a court-imposed fine, according to court documents, the range for Manafort was 210 to 262 months imprisonment, or 17 to 20 years. That was just for the Virginia conviction. For the 69-year-old Manafort, a prison sentence of 10 years or more could very well mean spending the rest of his life in prison.”

This is, of course, a classic prosecutor technique, as anyone who has ever watched a legal drama at the cinema or on television knows well, but Mueller is especially well-known for being a master at the finer points of carrying out such dealings. Right up until Manafort agreed to sing for his sins, he had been lauded by Trump as a shining example of loyalty to the president, unlike that lying ingrate, Michael Cohen. But it seems Trump loyalists have been taking note of just how often loyalists get thrown under a moving train, the moment they start to worry about their own skin and the fortunes of their families before they worry about Donald Trump’s. Now that Manafort is singing a new tune, that tantalising possibility of a presidential pardon is rather distinctly less likely, of course.

The questions Manafort will be asked to address will include some obvious ones: What did the candidate, his sons, and his aides know about all these breaches of law and custom; when did they know these things; how did they act upon that knowledge; what did they expect to gain (from the Russians) as a result of those actions, what did they know about all those other Russian efforts – the bots, the hackers, the fake social media – and how did those things reinforce their own actions?

The hunt is on for the so-called smoking gun – or guns – of criminal investigation (and Watergate) lore. The thing is, with Manafort’s grudging co-operation, all those so-far dotted lines and blank spaces increasingly will get filled in with information on direct connections, names, dates, and meeting agenda details. Manafort was, after all, along with Trump junior, in that infamous meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower that had been convened to discuss gaining access to dirt on Hillary Clinton, just before that equally infamous WikiLeaks email dump as well as candidate Trump’s public shoutout to the Russians to ferret out still more dirt themselves on Clinton.

And all of this seems to have come, primarily, from Manafort having been confronted by the investigation into his illicit money trail. That path explored his record of evading payment of a whole lot of income taxes on his ill-gotten gains, as well as a passel of miscellaneous banking and wire fraud charges, along with that tiny, troubling detail of his failure to register as an agent of a foreign government, just like the law says he should have done.

Meanwhile, within the Trumpian universe, the president keeps trying to find attorneys who can defend him, beyond Rudy Giuliani’s frequently bizarre explanations of why “collusion” is not a crime even if the president did so, which he didn’t, or Kellyanne Conway’s machine gun rebuttals about everything and anything. Right about now, the president’s attorneys are trying to negotiate a way for him to speak with or write to the special prosecutor, but without falling into the perjury trap of saying something that contradicts his own public record or that disagrees with what he had just said five minutes before.

And so, where does that leave Donald Trump, as this noose tightens? There is the legal side of things and that ever-present possibility of a court fight over whether a sitting president can be indicted for a charge of criminal conspiracy; but there is also the political dynamic. The midterm election is in less than two months away, and the entire House of Representatives membership of 435 members and a third of the hundred-member Senate are up for grabs. And this is along with thousands of state and local positions – where there are some particularly interesting and noteworthy Democratic Party candidates for offices like the Florida and Georgia governor races.

But the real key is whether or not the election as a whole will be seen as a referendum on the Trump presidency. The analysis and history says midterm elections have generally been just such a question in modern times. With national polling now saying that in a generic face-off, Republican candidates are somewhere around eight percentage points behind Democrats, That can be read as a five-alarm fire for the Republicans. Moreover, many analysts point to a dozen or so heretofore toss-up races as now leaning Democratic – districts where the incumbent president beat his opponent in 2016 by five percentage points or less. If the Democrats gain enough of those seats and hold on to most of their current ones, they can erase the 23-seat gap between the two parties and thereby gain control of the House. Control the body and you set the calendar, schedule hearings, and all the rest.

More speculatively, if they can gain a couple of Senate seats and hold on to all of the Democratic seats they must now defend (although this is a bad year for Democrats as the majority of Senate seats up for grabs in 2018 are in their corner), they might even gain the upper house as well by a slim margin. Even if the Democrats only get control of the House, still watch out for a constant drone of subpoenas for everything under the sun relating to presidential decisions since 20 January 2017, addressed to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (the White House’s street address), as well as committee hearing after committee hearing on these issues.

It will no longer be fun to be a Republican president when – or if – that happens, given the levels of animosity generated by the Republican majority’s current style of governance and, pre-eminently, by the way Trump has chosen to exercise presidential authority and power at home and abroad. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.