The choice: A plea deal to cooperate with the Mueller investigation versus a pardon from President Trump. In the end, he went with Mueller. Trump had given hints of a pardon, but could Manafort trust him to follow through? Might it become politically unfeasible -- or even be evidence of obstruction of justice? Might Trump simply decide it wouldn't serve Him well and renege? Besides, he would still be vulnerable to state charges on his financial crimes.
Or -- and I haven't seen anyone else advance this idea -- the possibility that, with the mounting evidence, Trump might resign from office -- or Congress could begin impeachment proceedings. Either would obviate a pardon.
Whatever combination of reasons, Manafort chose to go with a plea deal and full cooperation with the Mueller investigation. His part of the bargain requires that he truthfully and completely answers any and all questions, that he testify under oath whenever needed, and that he forfeit large amounts (multi-millions of dollars) of his real estate holdings.
So what does Mueller get? A trio of criminal law experts -- Noah Bookbinder, Barry Burke, and Norman Eisen -- summarized it in a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday. As they point out, Manafort has already had some sessions with the Mueller team and has already told them enough that they considered it a deal worth doing. Some pundits on TV have called what Manafort has to offer, "the keys to the kingdom."
For starters, he is the first member of the Trump campaign team who was in that infamous Trump Tower meeting with the Russians and who has now broken with Trump -- and who will now tell what that was all about and whether Trump knew about it in advance.
In addition, as head of the Trump campaign during several crucial months, including the Republican convention, he will know who ordered and who knew about changing the GOP platform to favor Ukraine interests.
But all that pales in comparison with Manafort's connections with Russia and Russian oligarchs and their connections with Vladimir Putin. According to these authors, there were more than 80 contacts between members of the campaign and others associated with it and the Russians. Manafort is a key in understanding all that. In addition, he is a former business associate with Roger Stone, who seems to be in Manafort's cross-hairs as a possible link with the Russians, the campaign, and Wikileaks. In short, if there was any collusion/conspiracy with the Russians, Manafort probably knows about it.
Another vulnerability for Trump -- if there was any dangling of a pardon as an inducement to keep quiet by the president or his lawyers, that would be another count of obstruction of justice.
The authors conclude:
"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, Friday'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."
* * *Look at the body count of those who were once in the inner circle who have either been convicted or have pled guilty to felonies: His one-time campaign chairman (Paul Manafort), his deputy campaign chairman/deputy transition team chairman (Rick Gates), his first National Security Adviser (Michael Flynn), his personal lawyer (Michael Cohen), a former campaign foreign policy adviser (George Papadopoulos), plus a few other minor players.
In all, the count of the indicted or guilty-plea includes: four former Trump advisers, his personal lawyer, 26 Russian nationals, three Russian companies, one California man, and one London-based lawyer (who has already served his one-month jail time for lying to the investigators.
A witch-hunt, Mr. President? You'd better get out they broomstick, because they're coming for you.