On Tuesday the investigation into supposed collusion between President Trump and Russia will come closer than it has before to vindication when Paul Manafort, the onetime chairman of the president's election campaign, goes to trial to defend himself against charges that he was a low-rent crook and fixer many years before he met the former star of Celebrity Apprentice.
If Manafort were convicted on all charges he would face more than three centuries in prison. And that is before his next trial in Washington, D.C., where he is scheduled to face entirely separate charges. The man himself naturally denies all of it.
The case against Manafort — who is accused of tax evasion related to his work lobbying on behalf of the Ukrainian government — looks solid. But one wonders what exactly it has to do with Russia or collusion. The fact that Manafort may be found guilty of withholding more than $30 million of income made for advancing the interests of a pro-Russian president of Ukraine without registering properly tells us a great many things. Manafort is not an honest man. Having selected him to serve as the chairman of his 2016 campaign does not reflect well on President Trump or any of his other associates.
But the alleged crimes in themselves also have absolutely nothing to do with Trump or the 2016 election. This is something Special Counsel Robert Mueller himself has admitted. "The government does not intend to present at trial evidence or argument concerning collusion with the Russian government," Mueller's team said in a recent filing. The judge in the case, T.S. Ellis III, has even more forthright: "You don't really care about Mr. Manafort's bank fraud. You really care about what information Mr. Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment or whatever."
The problem is, of course, that unlike Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Michael Cohen, and the other Trump flunkies Mueller has zeroed in on, all of whom have agreed to plea deals in exchange for telling their stories to the Russia probe, Manafort is willing to go down with the ship.
This is the most interesting thing about the case, regardless of its outcome. Why does Manafort think refusing to cooperate is in his best interest? It cannot be because he is a man of honor who is willing to sacrifice a great deal in order to stand on a point of principle. Nor can it be because he expects to receive any tangible future benefit from the president, who fired him from the campaign for reasons that appear to have nothing to do with Mueller or Russia, in the dog days of summer before the election. On its face it seems absurd that an amoral charlatan would not be willing to sing to a special counsel.
Part of it is surely that Manafort feels as if he has nothing to lose. Rick Gates, a deputy of Manafort on the Trump campaign, decided to play ball with Manafort and is facing a prison sentence of at least half a decade, a roughly 50 percent reduction of the time he would have served if convicted. If Manafort's sentence were cut in half, he would still face about 150 years in prison. There is no good reason for him to settle here for anything less than the dropping of virtually all charges in exchange for his testimony.
But there is another reason I can envision. It seems to me likely that Manafort is going to drag this case on as long as possible out of pure spite. This is not because he has some misguided abstract sense of loyalty to his former boss or because he hopes that he will be able to rejoin Trump's campaign staff in 2020 in exchange for his good behavior. Still less could it be simply because he thinks he has a good chance of beating all the charges in this trial and the one to follow regardless of what future inducements there might be. If the question is whether Manafort paid taxes or not or whether he did or did not register as a foreign agent, the answer seems fairly clear.
But this is not the question. The question, as Judge Ellis observed, is whether Mueller and his team have overstepped their mandate by charging Manafort with crimes he is alleged to have committed long before he was a member of Trump's campaign staff.
Here I think the answer is a resounding "yes." This is also the position of Manafort and his lawyers. Which means that it is ultimately out of spite that he has decided to go to trial. In the event that he is convicted, he will go to prison knowing that he did so for political reasons that have nothing to do with the supposed gravity of his crimes.
We are long past the point when it was possible to take a neutral, disinterested view of the Russia investigation. Either Donald J. Trump knowingly collaborated with the Kremlin and its agents in order to swing the election away from Hillary Clinton or he did not. I and millions of Americans say that there is no more reason now than there was nearly two years ago to believe that he did. Evidently Manafort agrees with us.
The fact that even a sleazy businessman who believes in nothing is willing to serve a prison term in order to show his contempt for what is now a partisan cause is the most eloquent refutation of the Russia conspiracy theories I can imagine.