At the height of his powers as a political consultant, Paul Manafort was known for his cool. In fact, the value of his counsel increased at moments of crisis. While others panicked, Manafort rarely evinced a hint of frazzle. He could still think strategically, detach himself from emotion, and issue clearheaded guidance. But he could afford to keep his head at such moments, because the problems he was called on to solve belonged to others.
Robert Mueller’s allegation that Manafort attempted to tamper with a witness permits us to peer inside Manafort’s mind as it has functioned in a very different set of circumstances. When it comes to Manafort’s own deep problems—his moment of legal peril—he seems unable to muster strategic thinking. He has shown himself capable of profoundly dunderheaded miscalculations.
It’s hard to understand how he could have attempted the scheme described by Mueller in the midst of the highest-profile, most scrutinized criminal inquiry of the century. But that alone fails to capture the depths of his blundering.
What Mueller recounted, in a new court document filed Monday night, is how Manafort attempted to contact members of the so-called Hapsburg Group earlier this year. Manafort had created the Hapsburg Group back in 2011. It comprised European politicians he’d recruited to help beautify the image of his authoritarian client Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine. It was a perilous moment for Yanukovych. He had brought his country to the brink of joining the European Union. But Yanukovych had jeopardized this momentous step by arresting his primary political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, in a fit of antidemocratic spite. The Hapsburg Group was sent to lobby against accusations of malfeasance.
There was no public trace of Manafort’s work with the Hapsburg Group—how he funneled millions of euros to it, how he enlisted it to lobby without filing the required disclosure—at least not until Mueller first described it, in his February 23 indictment of Manafort. In the days following the indictment, Mueller says, Manafort relentlessly reached out to two members of a public-relations firm that helped him coordinate the Hapsburg Group—by phone, by email, by Telegraph, by WhatsApp. These alleged efforts were the basis for Mueller’s accusation that Manafort was tampering with a witness, attempting to coach testimony, which would have violated the terms of his bail.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise to Manafort. Each of Mueller’s new filings has further revealed the extent to which he is surveilling Manafort and his closest associates. A week before Manafort apparently attempted to tamper with the witness, Mueller stated plainly that he was watching their encrypted communication channels. And before that, Mueller showed that he was keeping tabs on Manafort’s email when he exposed an op-ed that Manafort had ghostwritten in his own defense, in violation of a judge’s gag order.
If we look back on Robert Mueller’s strategy over the past few months, the special counsel seems to repeatedly signal to Manafort: Look, I know everything; you have no choice but cooperation. It’s a pattern that continues with this filing, the first instance in which Mueller has deployed material supplied by Manafort’s old alter ego, Rick Gates. When Gates agreed to cooperate with Mueller, he handed over a raft of emails. We can see in the exhibits that Mueller attached to this filing that Gates possesses a comprehensive archive of Manafort’s dealings, a blueprint of his operation. There will be no ellipses in the Manafort trial. Gates can fill all the gaps.
There is another suggestive fact that Mueller posits in passing. Manafort’s witness-tampering scheme featured a co-conspirator. Mueller doesn’t name the accomplice, but his identity is not hard to discern from Mueller’s description. Manafort tried to contact his Hapsburg Group collaborators through his old Russo-Ukrainian aide, Konstantin Kilimnik.
By any rational standard, Manafort should have long ago jettisoned his relationship with Kilimnik. On two separate occasions, Mueller has described Kilimnik as having “ties to Russian intelligence.” Put differently, in the middle of a scandal featuring collusion with the Russian state, Manafort seems to have relied on an asset of Russian intelligence to abet a plot to tamper with a witness. That’s hardly the work of a strategic genius.