When the president dangles a pardon under the nose of a cooperating witness in a federal probe, incentives change: Lying yields potential rewards rather than draconian penalties. Truth becomes elusive. Justice is obstructed and the rule of law loses.
That principle could have framed last week’s lead Trump-Russia story. Instead, another Trump era made-for-TV spectacle flooded the airwaves. But buried in acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s contentious hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was an item about pardons. A related development in the case against Paul Manafort illustrates the problem.
The Whitaker Nugget
During Whitaker’s four hours of actual questioning, he avoided substantive answers on most topics. His demeanor became the story. But at the two-hour and forty-eight-minute mark, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) asked him about discussions of pardons for Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and Michael Cohen. Whitaker responded broadly:
“Congressman, as I have been acting attorney general, I have not been involved in any discussions of any pardons even and including the ones you’re discussing.”
Ninety minutes later, the day’s final questioner, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) asked:
Q: Did you ever create, direct the creation, see, or become aware of the existence of any documents relating to pardons of any individual?
Whitaker paused before answering: “I’m aware of documents relating to pardoning of individuals, yes.”
An inadvertent cliffhanger that few in the media noticed: Whitaker said he’d had no discussions with anyone about pardons, but he’s aware of documents relating to them. Alas, time expired. No follow-up questions. Hearing over.
The Manafort Connection
As the Whitaker show played out, another pardon story emerged in the case against Paul Manafort, who stands accused of lying to special counsel Robert Mueller after signing his plea agreement. On Aug. 22, 2018, Trump told a Fox News reporter that he would consider pardoning Manafort. As recently as Nov. 28, he said that a pardon for Manafort was not “off the table.”
During a Feb. 4 hearing, Andrew Weissmann, an attorney on Mueller’s team, outlined Manafort’s two motives for lying. The transcript redacts the first one entirely. As for the second, Weissmann said that Manafort could have been trying “to at least augment his chances for a pardon.”
One of Manafort’s alleged lies relates to his Aug. 2, 2016 meeting with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian dual citizen whom the FBI assesses as having ties to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik was Manafort’s liaison to sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a Putin confidant. (On Jan. 16, 2019, Senate Republicans failed to stop Trump from lifting sanctions on Deripaska’s companies.)
Weissmann emphasized that the Aug. 2 meeting “goes very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s office is investigating.” The Trump-Russia Timeline offers hints as to why. Here’s a sample of relevant entries:
July 11, 2015: A month after Trump announces his candidacy, he appears at a Las Vegas town hall and answers question from the audience. Russian national Maria Butina gets to a microphone and asks about his policy toward Russia.
“I don’t think you’d need the sanctions,” Trump answers, referring to crippling economic sanctions that the US, the European Union, and a host of other countries and international organizations imposed against Russia after its 2014 intervention in Ukraine.
It turns out that Butina is a Russian agent. In 2018, she pleads guilty to conspiring with a Russian government official to establish “unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics… for the benefit of the Russian Federation.” Among other vehicles, she uses the NRA to reach Republican Party leaders.
Mar. 29, 2016: Although Manafort is broke and deeply in debt, he goes to work on the Trump campaign for no pay.
Apr. 11, 2016: Manafort asks Kilimnik how they can use Manafort’s new position on the campaign “to get whole.” During his tenure, Manafort discusses with Kilimnik a “peace plan” for Ukraine, and he transfers US polling data to Kilimnik.
June 9, 2016: Manafort attends the Trump Tower meeting with Russians connected to Putin’s government. They claim to have “dirt” on Clinton.
July 7, 2016: In an email to Kilimnik, Manafort offers to give Deripaska “private briefings” on the Trump campaign.
July 14, 2016: The Trump campaign successfully resists a proposed GOP platform plank that would strengthen US support of Ukraine against Russia.
July 22, 2016: On the eve of the Democratic convention, WikiLeaks releases nearly 20,000 emails that the Russians had stolen from the Democratic National Committee months earlier.
July 24, 2016: On national television, Manafort denies any link between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Which takes us to Aug. 2, 2016: Manafort meets with Kilimnik at the Grand Havana Club in Manhattan. What happened there? According to Mueller, Manafort is lying about it, perhaps to augment his chances for a pardon. That’s not how America’s justice system is supposed to work.
Here’s a complete list of the latest updates to the Trump-Russia Timeline:
1995: Trump in Moscow Seeking Development Opportunities
FEBRUARY 2006: Trump’s Children Visit Moscow; Discuss Possible Trump Tower Deal (revision of previous entry)
SEPT. 25, 2015: Cohen Sends Trump Tower-Moscow Drawings to Sater
SEPT. 29, 2015: Trump Tower-Moscow Talks Proceed
OCT. 5, 2015: Cohen Sends Draft Letter of Intent Re: Trump Tower-Moscow
OCT. 9, 2015: Sater Sends Cohen Potential Trump Tower-Moscow Site Info
NOV. 3, 2015: Sater and Cohen Pursue Trump Tower-Moscow and Getting Trump Elected President (revision of previous entry)
DEC. 1, 2015: Sater Asks Cohen for Copy of Passport for Russian Visa
DEC. 17, 2015: Putin Praises Trump; Cohen to Sater: ‘Now is the Time’
DEC. 19, 2015: Sater and Cohen Discuss Trip to Russia for Trump Tower-Moscow Financing Discussion
DEC. 21, 2015: Cohen Wants Copy of Trump Passport
DEC. 29-31, 2015: Cohen and Sater Argue Over Delay in Solidifying Trump Tower-Moscow Deal
JAN. 25, 2016: Russian Bank Invites Cohen to Moscow
JUNE 13, 2016: Sater Sends Cohen Visa Application to Attend Russian Economic Forum
JAN. 28, 2019: Cohen to Testify Privately Before House (revision of previous entry)
FEB. 4, 2019: Manafort’s Alleged Lies Go ‘To The Heart’ of Mueller’s Investigation; Judge Postpones Sentencing Date
FEB. 4, 2019: Prosecutors Subpoena Trump Inauguration Committee
FEB. 5, 2019: DHS and DOJ: Foreign Governments and Agents Had ‘No Material Impact’ on Midterm Election
FEB. 5, 2019: Erickson Indicted for Fraud
FEB. 6, 2019: House Releases Witness Transcripts to DOJ, Including Mueller
FEB. 7, 2019: Trump Tweets About Schiff, ‘Witch Hunt’, ‘PRESIDENTIAL HARRASSMENT’
FEB. 7, 2019: Corsi Sues Stone for Defamation
FEB. 8, 2019: Trump Tweets ‘No Collusion’, Attacks Schiff, ‘GIANT AND ILLEGAL HOAX’
FEB. 8, 2019: Whitaker Testifies Before Congress
FEB. 9, 2019: Trump Tweets About House Judiciary Committee; Retweets Hannity and Others on Schiff, Simpson, Senate Investigation, Clinton, Russia Investigation
FEB. 10, 2019: Trump Tweets That Burr Concluded ‘NO COLLUSION BETWEEN TRUMP AND RUSSIA’
Steven J. Harper is the creator and curator of the Trump-Russia Timeline appearing at Dan Rather’s News & Guts and at Just Security. He is an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of four books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”) and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He blogs at The Belly of the Beast. Follow him on Twitter (@StevenJHarper1).