Opinion | What Was Paul Manafort Thinking?

How to make sense of the bizarre turn of events involving Paul Manafort?

Two months ago, he struck a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel — he pleaded guilty but agreed to provide full and truthful information in exchange for a more lenient sentence. But according to a filing by Mr. Mueller’s team on Monday, Mr. Manafort lied to them repeatedly, and after multiple warnings. He is now in a far worse position than if he had never elected to cooperate, or if he had followed through on his agreement.

What was he thinking? All of the available explanations for Mr. Manafort’s self-destructive path seem highly implausible, at best. So which hypothesis is the least implausible?

To briefly review the bidding, Mr. Manafort, who served as President Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016, spent months refusing to cooperate with Mr. Mueller in the face of what seemed an overwhelming set of fraud charges and the prospect of a financially ruinous pair of trials. His refusal, in the face of overwhelming evidence, was a reckless, long-shot gamble, and speculation therefore was rife that there was something we didn’t know, such as a secret promise of a pardon from the president if he kept quiet.

But when the time came for Mr. Manafort to turn over his cards at the first trial, he was out of aces and was convicted on multiple charges that most likely equated to a life sentence. Then, just before the second trial was set to start, he suddenly folded and agreed to terms with Mr. Mueller.

Now we learn that his cooperation was squirrelly and incomplete, a series of prevarications that obviously infuriated the prosecutors, who gave him one final 10-day chance to play it straight. But he did not heed the warning and now is unlikely to ever leave prison absent a pardon from President Trump. Which leads us to:

Hypothesis No. 1: The Pardon Promise

Did the president secretly promise to rescue Mr. Manafort, so long as he resisted Mr. Mueller? That would make sense of his otherwise confounding conduct. But the chain of implausibilities is long.

The prospect of a pardon was always in the mix, including when Mr. Manafort made his initial decision to cooperate. For it to suffice to change his mind now, it would have to have become all the more certain. But that would entail some communication, from the president, through two intermediaries (one in the Trump camp and one in the Manafort camp) and on to Mr. Manafort in prison, where all his conversations are monitored.

The perils for all those participants in such a crass scheme would be enormous. If discovered, it would mean assured conviction for witness tampering and, if any of the intermediaries was a lawyer, disbarment. For the president, it most likely would trigger impeachment, and even conviction in the Senate could not be counted out. Finally, for Mr. Manafort, it would require a measure of Mr. Trump’s good faith that nobody acquainted with the president’s track record could comfortably have. And it would still not shield him from near-certain prosecution for related state crimes.

Hypothesis No. 2: The Assassination Fixation

Some commentators have suggested that Mr. Manafort’s lifetime of shady dealings with the Russian government have left him more afraid of life on the outside, where he could be vulnerable to a poison needle anytime, than of the safe confines of a federal prison.

This scenario was always out of the most imaginative Le Carré novel, and it is the sheer unlikelihood of the other alternatives, combined with Mr. Manafort’s intransigence, that makes it a contender at all. The problem with it at this point is that there’s no reason to think that any of the cloak-and-dagger circumstances would have changed. If Mr. Manafort most feared the spy’s comeuppance, he wouldn’t have agreed to cooperate, and earn a much reduced sentence, in the first place. So that hypothesis doesn’t help explain Mr. Manafort’s decision to double-cross Mr. Mueller.

Hypothesis No. 3: The Bad Gambler

Perhaps Mr. Manafort, who has enjoyed a lifelong reputation as a swashbuckling big-time gambler, is simply a lousy poker player. He blinked when the pot got too big and opted to fold, forfeiting what he’d already spent. But then some combination of unsettled resolve and a lifetime of lying as an M.O. made him hope that he could eat his cake and have it too — that he could lie his way out of the situation. This is not exactly irrational, but it is colossally stupid, particularly when playing across the table from Mr. Mueller and not knowing the cards the special counsel was holding.

Those cards will now be revealed as a consequence of Mr. Manafort’s dithering. He will proceed directly to sentencing, in connection with which Mr. Mueller will provide the court with detailed proof of Mr. Manafort’s lies during the aborted cooperation period.

That means evidence of the truthful answers to the questions lied about. Considering that Mr. Manafort’s cooperation almost certainly had to involve the highest targets and most important evidence, that memorandum will be a treasure trove of as-yet-unknown fruits of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, particularly into the possible connection of the campaign with Russian meddling in the election. It could conceivably contain Mr. Mueller’s understanding of Tuesday’s report, in The Guardian, that Mr. Manafort met with Julian Assange multiple times, including in March 2016, just before he took the helm of the Trump campaign, a job he was so desperate to have that he agreed to work free.

For that reason, the memorandum may be filed under seal, but even so, it operates as a hedge against the possibility that Mr. Mueller’s report might eventually be bottled up at the Department of Justice, for example under the order of Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker. It will ultimately be for the court, not Mr. Whitaker, to unseal the document.

As for the formerly high-flying Mr. Manafort, he has nothing left to wager with. He is, permanently, a luckless wretch, out of options and tapped out. He has become a gambler’s worst nightmare.

Harry Litman (@harrylitman) is a former United States attorney and deputy assistant attorney general. He teaches at the University of California, San Diego, department of political science and practices law at Constantine Cannon.

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