In case there was any doubt Paul Manafort is angling for a pardon from President Donald Trump, his lawyer all but erased it Wednesday.
To set the stage: Manafort’s judge had just rebuked his legal team at sentencing for using Trump’s favored “no collusion” refrain in a case that had nothing to do with collusion. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Manafort’s team used it inaccurately and even appeared to suggest it was a message intended for Trump, not the court. So after all that, Manafort lawyer Kevin Downing emerged from the courtroom and … immediately did exactly what Jackson rebuked him for: make a highly misleading claim about “no collusion.”
The juxtaposition of those two scenes, when combined with Trump’s thirst for this talking point, lay bare the game that is being played. Regardless of whether Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, has been promised or explicitly asked for a pardon, it is clear his legal team would like him to be seen as a good soldier.
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote about how all of this may have been rendered moot. Immediately after his sentencing in the District, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced Manafort had been charged with 16 counts in New York State Court. Were Manafort to be convicted in New York, a pardon would do him no good, because a president can only pardon federal crimes.
But all that aside: It is striking how familiar this scene was. Indeed, it looked a lot like a more explicit version of what we saw a couple months ago with another Trump ally, Michael Flynn.
Just as Manafort’s lawyers alienated a judge by feeding Trump’s talking points in their filings, so too did Flynn’s. Before his sentencing, they suggested Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, had been tricked into lying and that prosecutors had treated him unfairly. That language seemed tailor-made to feed Trump’s claims that overzealous investigators were targeting him and his associates in their “witch hunt.”
The judge in that case, Emmet Sullivan, hit back even stronger than Jackson. He forced Flynn’s lawyers to back off their claims in the sentencing memo and made Flynn say repeatedly he deliberately lied and he knew lying was wrong.
Then there is another Trump ally who had alienated Jackson with his antics, Roger Stone. Stone first got in trouble with her for posting a photo of her face next to what she determined were crosshairs. To this day, he continues to play chicken with Jackson’s gag order on him, by attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe and publishing a book.
All three men have conspicuously put themselves in the bad graces of their judges by doing things that play into Trump’s talking points. Flynn’s judge even suggested he could be given prison time despite Mueller’s team asking for none. (That decision has been postponed.)
It is possible all three are simply making stupid blunders that just so happen to echo their former boss. But it is getting more and more difficult to dismiss this all as a coincidence - especially as past outreach between Michael Cohen and Trump’s legal team about pardons continues to come to light.
As with Cohen, none of these cases may involve an explicit pardon quid pro quo. But if they do not, then these actions are even more curious. Flynn could actually have landed himself in prison with what his legal team pulled. Manafort might have added significant time to his sentence by lying to void his cooperation agreement and then pulling the “no collusion” stunt in his sentencing memo. And Stone is about one misstep shy of being put in jail during his trial, just like Manafort was.
Even if these men do believe they will be pardoned, for whatever reason, can they really be so sure? Trump has shown he is a man of fleeting loyalties, and he could very well pay a political price for pardons. Who is to say he would actually follow through? If Flynn does get prison time in the coming months, will Trump pardon him before he serves it, in the midst of a 2020 reelection race? Is he ever going to feel truly comfortable pardoning Manafort or Stone and welcoming the blowback that would come with those, even if he is reelected? And is Trump really going to pardon all three of them, or even two of three?
One thing’s for sure: If those pardons never come, these men have erred badly by betting on Trump with their legal antics.
Aaron Blake is a columnist with The Washington Post.