President Trump has nice things to say about Paul Manafort. “I’ve always found Paul Manafort to be a very decent man.” Manafort, says Trump, makes money all over the place. “He’s like a lot of other people, probably makes consultant fees from all over the place, who knows, I don’t know.” And the pre-dawn FBI raid that busted into Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, on July 26? “I thought it was pretty tough stuff to wake him up. Perhaps his family was there. I think that’s pretty tough stuff.” And he concluded: “I thought it was a very, very strong signal, or whatever.”
The FBI raid on Manafort, which scooped up documents, records, electronic devices, and more, was indeed a signal. It signified a radical escalation of Robert Mueller’s special-counsel investigation of Russiagate in all of its dimensions, starting with the meeting on June 16, 2016, in Trump Tower and spreading unchecked into the entire universe of Donald Trump’s financial and real-estate empire, his family’s investments, and the shenanigans of his motley crew of advisers, relatives, and hangers-on—including Gen. Mike Flynn, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Ivanka and Jared, his sons, and the rest of Trump World.
But it’s looking increasingly like Paul Manafort is low-hanging fruit.
And that raid? The same sort of raid that’s carried out countless times a year by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies against drug dealers, mafiosi, and other no-goodniks? Why, it’s like—Russia! So says John Dowd, Trump’s personal lawyer. “The search warrant here was obtained by a gross abuse of the judicial process by the special counsel’s office. In addition, given the obvious unlawful deficiencies, this extraordinary invasive tool was employed for its shock value to try to intimidate Mr. Manafort,” squawked Dowd, in an e-mail to The Wall Street Journal. “These methods are normally found and employed in Russia not America.” The irony of comparing Russia’s heavy-handed, Fourth Amendment–lacking police thuggery to a constitutionally approved, legal, and aboveboard judge-sanctioned search warrant—and one carried out in an investigation of the target’s potentially illegal connections to Russia—stretches the bounds of irony nearly to the breaking point.
The reason Manafort is the first and most overt target of Mueller’s high-powered inquiry is that he sits atop a massive tangle of ties to Russia, pro-Russian Ukrainians, and shady New York real-estate deals. Any one of those could pop up like a jack-in-the-box in Mueller’s offices, leading to criminal charges against Manafort—who, you’ll recall, was campaign manager for Donald Trump last year. And, were that to happen, it’s possible that Manafort—who isn’t really part of Trump’s inner circle, which consists of his sons, his daughter, and his son-in-law—would “flip,” telling what he knows about Trump’s Russia connections in exchange for immunity. So far, at least, Manafort’s spokesman says that Manafort is not a “cooperating witness”—that is, that he is not providing testimony to Mueller and the FBI against others, only that he is cooperating with the special counsel. So far.