Manafort's Guilty Plea
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to take a closer look now at a story that broke in Washington yesterday. President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller as part of a plea bargain. Manafort was facing trial on seven charges. Instead, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States and to obstruction of justice. That covers charges that he cheated the IRS and violated foreign lobbying laws as well as tried to tamper with a witness. Now, you'll remember he had already been convicted on other charges in Virginia. We wanted to know more about what this means, so we've called former federal prosecutor Seth Waxman to talk about what this means for Mueller and potentially the president.
Mr. Waxman, thanks so much for joining us once again.
SETH WAXMAN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Is this a big deal? And, if so, why?
WAXMAN: This is a matter of historic proportion. In fact, in my opinion, this is the biggest moment in the Mueller investigation thus far. In Paul Manafort, you have the most senior campaign official working for Trump, and, by many accounts, he may hold the keys to the castle, in my opinion.
And what I mean by that is he can walk prosecutors through these critical Trump Tower meetings and other events leading up to the 2016 election and describe for prosecutors the conversations he had with the president, Donald Trump, Jr., Kushner before, during and after, for example, that Trump Tower meeting. And if there was an illegal quid pro quo where dirt was offered on Mrs. Clinton in exchange for a promise to reduce or eliminate sanctions on Russian oligarchs and Russian senior statesmen, that could be the basis for incredibly serious charges like bribery and even RICO, which are 15-, 20- and potentially 30-year offenses.
So, in my opinion, you know, Mr. Mueller's been climbing this ladder, and he is reaching the top rungs of that ladder at this point. And my big takeaway from yesterday is that the next step, in my opinion, for the Mueller investigation is to squarely focus on Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner. And if he is able to bring indictments against those individuals, then he is on the doorstep to the presidency.
MARTIN: I do want to note that, as part of this plea agreement, Mr. Manafort has agreed to answer all questions about anything the government wants to ask. So why should we assume that this means that Manafort will provide important information pertaining to the Trump campaign and possible collusion? I mean, why do we assume that?
WAXMAN: Well, for two reasons. One, I think the government has put an incredible amount of time and resources into investigating Mr. Manafort's background, bringing charges against him that are unrelated on their face to the Russia investigation, going through one trial to conviction. That is an incredible amount of effort, and they were doing that for a reason - because I believe they saw him as a key member of this potential conspiracy and wanted to bring him on board as a cooperator. And now they've successfully done that.
And then, secondly, even after having been convicted, they are now still bringing him back into the fold. Obviously, there's word that he has been debriefing already with federal law enforcement. That means that they have deemed his information credible to one degree or another. It seems pretty clear from what's happening and just based on my experience that Mr. Manafort seems to be a very, very key acquisition for the Mueller team.
MARTIN: Before we finish up here today, President Trump's outside lawyer, the former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, said yesterday that Mr. Manafort's plea has nothing to do with the president or the Trump campaign, and he maintains, as he has done throughout, that the president did nothing wrong. I wanted to ask you about that - Mr. Giuliani's role in all of this. How should we understand his remarks?
WAXMAN: Yeah, so there's two questions there. One is his role. He's trying to be an advocate. And he's in a bit of a pickle because the evidence is mounting greatly against the Trump team and Mr. Trump himself. So the second part of it is, is he being effective? And we can all debate that. You know, Mr. Giuliani makes statements that are proven not to be true later. You lose credibility when you do that.
If I'm Mr. Giuliani, and I'm Trump's team, I think they're playing the long game. They are looking at impeachment. I don't think the sitting president will ever be indicted, so I think this is, in large part, their strategy to play to the American people, that 30 percent of the American public that still backs Trump. And if that can turn into or translate to the Republican senators who will continue to stand by Mr. Trump through an impeachment proceeding, he could be successful.
MARTIN: That was former federal prosecutor Seth B. Waxman. He's currently a partner at Dickinson Wright.
Mr. Waxman, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.
WAXMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
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