Those who practice criminal law — including the three of us — have long predicted that Paul Manafort, the disgraced former Trump campaign chairman, would eventually fold to Robert Mueller, the special counsel. On Friday, we were proven right: Mr. Manafort and the special counsel have reached an extensive cooperation agreement, among the most significant developments in Mr. Mueller’s investigation to date.
The capitulation came in spectacular fashion: According to prosecutors, Mr. Manafort has already participated in a so-called proffer session, in which he described information that investigators deemed valuable. Mr. Manafort’s agreement will also require him to give further interviews without the presence of his own counsel, turn over documents and testify in other proceedings. His surrender is complete. We will soon see what it means for the president.
Mr. Manafort’s cooperation obviously represents an enormous pivot from the previous strategies he had seemed to be pursuing — trying to persuade a jury to ignore the strong evidence against him based on personal sympathies or, if that failed, to obtain a pardon from President Trump. In our estimation, this about-face represents a realistic judgment on his part, not to mention vindication of Mr. Mueller’s strategy so far.
A quick pardon was always a long shot. It would be hard for Mr. Trump to justify politically, even given his willingness to use the pardon power with seeming abandon. A pardon would not protect Mr. Manafort from the wide array of state charges that could be brought against him.
Mr. Manafort now has the ability to trade all of the valuable information he has regarding the president and those close to him for a significantly reduced prison sentence. He is the first Trump campaign participant in the now-infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting to break with the president.
Mysteries around that meeting abound. They include whether then-candidate Trump knew about the meeting in advance and why Mr. Trump announced after the meeting had been scheduled that he would soon be giving a major speech on “ the things that have taken place with the Clintons.” Now that Mr. Manafort is cooperating, we may soon have answers.
If all that were not bad enough news for Mr. Trump, Mr. Manafort may also be able to shed light on other episodes during his tenure at the helm of the Trump campaign. Those include the 80-plus contacts between the campaign and other associates and Russia-linked individuals; the campaign’s possible collaboration with WikiLeaks; and the amendment of the Republican National Committee platform on arming Ukraine. Given Mr. Manafort’s history of working with Russian oligarchs and his close ties to Roger Stone, an informal Trump adviser, Mr. Manafort was well-placed to know about any attempts by the campaign or its allies to collude with Russian operatives and others engaged in illegal election interference.
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Mr. Manafort may also be able to shed light on obstruction of justice by the president. If the reports of pardon negotiations between the president’s personal attorneys and Mr. Manafort’s lawyers are true, that raises the question of whether any of these discussions could be construed as offering a pardon in exchange for Mr. Manafort’s silence.
Cooperation can be like dominoes. Mr. Manafort’s cooperation is not limited to actions of the president, and if he can help the special counsel bring charges against others close to Mr. Trump, they too may end up cooperating and further strengthening the case that Mr. Mueller is seeking to build.
For Mr. Mueller, the plea deal and cooperation agreement represent momentum: more evidence of his continued success in bringing wrongdoers around the president to justice. It vindicates his strategy of methodically building cases against those in Mr. Trump’s circle and applying pressure on them to cooperate up the chain.
For the president, it is ominous. Yet another person who was in Mr. Trump’s immediate orbit has fallen to the rule of law. Now that Mr. Manafort is helping the investigation and may testify in future criminal proceedings — not to mention congressional ones — Mr. Trump cannot be resting easy.
But most important, for the American people, today’s outcome is further proof that no one — no matter how important or powerful — is immune from justice. Mr. Trump would do well to study the heights from which his former top aide has fallen, and the depth of his plunge.
Noah Bookbinder is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former federal corruption prosecutor. Barry Berke is a co-chairman of the litigation department at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, where he is a partner specializing in white-collar criminal defense. Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the chairman of CREW and author of the forthcoming “The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House.”