Short Take: The Manafort Alternative

In what may be a red-letter day at the New York Times, two knowledgeable voices are speaking to the peculiar actions of Paul Manafort, both of whom (I humbly note) were writers at Fault Lines. First, there’s Cristian Farias’ editorial, “What is Paul Manafort Thinking?” Then there’s Ken White’s “Why Did Manafort Cooperate With Trump Over Mueller?

Both of these posts try to make sense of the nonsensical, that Manafort, at least theoretically, chose to cast his lot with Mueller by becoming a cooperator, whereupon he chose to lie rather than cooperate. To what end? And then there are the consequences of this misbegotten choice, that he will get whacked by the judge at sentence for his actions, will be amenable to state prosecution so that no presidential pardon will protect him from consequences, and most bizarrely, expose his attorney-client communications to disclosure by his attorney continuing to reveal to Trump’s lawyers what was happening behind the scenes of his cooperation.

Who does this? Why would anyone do this?

Nobody ever really knows what another person is thinking. Even when the person tells his own story about why, it’s usually colored by self-serving reasons to make choices appear more rational and less, well, evil or crazy. People sometimes do things for bad reasons, irrational reasons, no reason at all, and when put to the test of explaining themselves, come up with the best story they can muster.

But one would expect that Manafort’s actions have undergone some small amount of thought, whether introspection or scrutiny by counsel. Yet, they seem so absurd and contrary to Manfort’s self-interest as to defy rational explanation. And that’s where Occam’s Razor comes into play. The only way to make sense of the known facts is to see Manafort as willing to sacrifice his own life, his own welfare, his future, for the sake of protecting Trump.

Does this seem possible? Nothing in Manafort’s life suggests an iota of altruism toward anyone else. He’s been all about him, and he’s allowed to be, but Manafort didn’t purchase expensive jackets so he could clothe the poor. While he’s now linked with Trump, he had no connection to him before the campaign. These weren’t beloved childhood friends, where one might expect a buddy to sacrifice his own welfare for his pal.

It would thus seem entirely sensible for Manafort to cooperate with Mueller, save his own butt to the extent he could at this point, and sell out Trump for however many pieces of silver Mueller was willing to spare. But he played double agent instead, feeding Mueller malarkey while reporting back to Trump.

Some have suggested that it wasn’t Manafort burning Mueller, but the other way around, with Manafort cooperating as he agreed and the special prosecutor claiming he lied and, while taking what Manafort offered, ruining their own rat because they hate him that much. While this can, and does, happen, it defies reason for Mueller to burn Manafort should he be needed to testify against others. Manafort, the human being, just isn’t that important and hated that they would be willing to lose Trump just to destroy Manafort.

One of the most troubling efforts in the course of this presidency is to make sense of the never-ending stream of odd and peculiar legal issues that defy historical norms. Smart and rational people, like Cristian and Ken, do their very best to make sense of the nonsensical. It’s not an easy task. It may turn out that the problem isn’t that these efforts aren’t sound, but that there’s nothing sensible and rational about any of this, but that it’s a product of ignorance, avarice and arrogance.

Maybe the answer is nothing about Manafort makes sense, and yet it’s happening anyway. Just because no administration, and its hangers-on, have ever engaged in such bizarre conduct doesn’t mean that this time we’re dealing with people who just don’t get it, and yet are making decisions anyway.

24 thoughts on “Short Take: The Manafort Alternative

  1. Mike

    The Daily Kos put forth an interesting theory:

    Manafort agrees to a plea deal, promising to tell all. However, what Manafort tells doesn’t just stop short of “all,” it includes deliberate lies and omissions.

    In addition to giving Mueller a sanitized version of events, Manafort reports back to Trump on what the investigation is asking him, providing invaluable prep as Trump determines his own actions.

    At the same time, Donald Trump is preparing to answer a set of written questions from Robert Mueller’s team. He delays and delays on providing these answers because … because he’s waiting for his inside man to reassure him that the special counsel has swallowed the “official” version of what happened hook, line, and sinker.

    Reassured by Manafort that he has sold Mueller’s team on a carefully edited version of the “truth,” Trump turns in his homework.

    And it’s only after Mueller has Trump’s answers in hand that he marches Manafort back into court and reveals that he knew the campaign manager was lying all along. Now Mueller doesn’t just have Manafort on record lying, he has written proof that Manafort and Trump were conspiring again to deceive and misdirect the investigation.

  2. joseph bernstein

    This can be explained by game theory, specifically the payoff matrix
    Here is how I calculate the potential payoffs and their likelihood:
    Cooperate with Mueller: 100% chance of (say) 10 year sentence
    Don’t cooperate with Mueller or anybody else: 100% chance of something well north of a 10 year sentence
    “Cooperate” with Trump: 10% chance (say) of pardon; 90% chance of the “Don’t cooperate with Mueller or anybody else” sentence
    “Cooperate” with Trump and prove it by faking cooperation with Mueller and feeding information: >10% chance (say) of pardon; <90% chance of the "Don't cooperate with Mueller or anybody else" sentence

    And if I were Manafort, I'd view 10 years as asymptotically "forever", making the 2 latter strategies somewhat appealing

      1. joe

        he’s gambling on a favorable decision from SCOTUS in Gamble too

        that is, it’s not clear that Manafort really will face state charges, given the double jeopardy issues that the Gamble case may resolve (in his favor)

        (If Trump springs him, it’ll be 5 years before he sees the inside of a State penitentiary at the earliest…and just as advancing age makes a finite sentence a life sentence in all practical ways, an extended period of litigation and appeal for an older person decreases the effective length of any prison term, to say nothing of the net present value discount of trading freedom now for jail later)

  3. Skink

    “Manafort, the human being, just isn’t that important and hated that they would be willing to lose Trump just to destroy Manafort.”

    Every day brings something more bizarre than the previous, so why can’t it be that losing Trump is the plan? Or really crazy: harsh sentence and agreed walk on state charges encourages a pardon. The political fallout would be unthinkable, but all of this already is unthinkable.

  4. szr

    Manafort reminds me of a former close friend who has a horrible gambling addiction.

    My friend was a successful attorney working for a well-respected firm and making a very comfortable living. He was always fairly arrogant but a fundamentally good person.

    About five years ago, my friend started taking regular gambling trips to Vegas. In a shockingly (to me) short period of time he became obsessed with gambling. His obsession led his wife to leave him. He began having trouble meeting his hours at work and fell off the partnership track. Eventually he was let go.

    His downward spiral felt surreal to me. I still can’t comprehend how the person he is today is the same one I knew before. Ultimately, I think my friend is no longer sane and rational.

    You wrote: “It may turn out that the problem isn’t that these efforts aren’t sound, but that there’s nothing sensible and rational about any of this, but that it’s a product of ignorance, avarice and arrogance.” Maybe insanity belongs alongside “ignorance, avarice and arrogance.”

    1. SHG Post author

      For future reference, personal stories about commenter’s fascinating lives are frowned upon here. We all have banal stories. Yours aren’t special. Any comments with similar stories will be trashed.

  5. Squints

    Suppose the Mueller team “hates” Manafort that much AND even with his full cooperation Trump’s head couldn’t be delivered? Or perhaps because it couldn’t be delivered? I don’t know. Thinking aloud.

  6. John

    Regarding waiver of privilege, how could both Manafort and Trump lawyers overlook the obvious breach of attorney-client privilege?

    I suppose it doesn’t matter unless the 2 teams discussed things other than, “what did the Mueller team say next?”

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not sure it does, and I’m not sure under the circumstances that Manafort’s putative cooperation, if it was a ruse, created an adverse relationship that obviated the JDA. We’re in uncharted waters here.

  7. losingtrader

    Just asking:You’re not sure because you don’t have all the fact as to what happened, or you’re not sure because the facts don’t yield a clear answer?
    I can’t see any criminal lawyer taking the risk of the latter.

    And please don’t just give the typical SHG one-word answer of “yes”

  8. Joel Emmett

    First, a brief analogy: When I would sneak off to fairly dangerous punk-rock concerts as a teen, my mother would ask where I’d been the next day. So I’d say I went to some R-rated movie. Both were forbidden (appropriately so). But one was far less a problem than the other. So I’d “confess” to seeing the R-rated movie (e.g., “Mad Max 2”) rather than get into more serious trouble for going to those hellish punk rock shows/riots.

    I suspect the reason Manafort’s actions seem nonsensical is that we don’t know just how bad things really are (yet). And life-in-prison-for-whatever may be less than the punishment deserved for what really happened. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but we clearly have a conspiracy here, and thinking through the “Mad Max 2” Principle of Punishment Avoidance may be our best bet to figuring out what’s really happened here.

    So: What would be worse than Manafort facing life in prison?

  9. Pedantic Grammar Police

    The only thing we know for sure is that all of these people are liars and thieves. Trump and his gang of stooges are corrupt oligarchs and would all be in jail without the privilege of power and wealth. The corrupt entitled time-servers that Trump stole the Republican party away from are no different, nor are the war-mongering, profiteering Democrats nor the unelected deep state/corporate shills (Brennan, Comey, etc.) who are lined up with the Democrats against Trump. It’s a battle of thieves for the levers of power, and for our minds. They say that they want to put each other in jail, but miraculously only a pawn here or there ever winds up behind bars, even when crimes have clearly been committed. Sit back and enjoy the show.

  10. Jake

    “Yet, they seem so absurd and contrary to Manfort’s self-interest as to defy rational explanation.”

    In the end, this may be the orange fatso’s one great skill: To convince other dullards and useful idiots to act against their own self-interest.

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