If this is June, it must be time to indict Paul Manafort again. The clock is ticking, and the tic-tocs are getting louder.
Robert Mueller is clearly feeling the hot breath of public impatience on the back of his neck. He was the great black-and-white hope for bringing down Donald Trump, and a year later the president is still not in prison stripes. Mr. Mueller has indicted Paul Manafort twice, and threatens now to jail him for tampering with a witness.
If he tampered with a witness while out on bail, and Mr. Mueller can prove it, jail is where he belongs. But bringing down a witness-tamperer is not what the special counsel/prosecutor was commissioned to do. Mr. Mueller was commissioned to bring in the head of Donald Trump.
Not by any means necessary, as Mr. Mueller and his team of thousand dollar-an-hour Blackstones seem to think, but by legitimate means, with evidence that would stand up in a court. They might not have the evidence they need to nail the president’s scalp on the court house wall, so the Manafort scalp might have to do, hence the multiple indictments and now the threat of prosecution for witness-tampering.
That might not work, either. Some lawyers who have followed Mr. Mueller’s meandering pursuit of the president understand what he’s trying to do but are puzzled about how he’s going about it. Paul Rosenzweig who teaches law at George Mason and Northwestern universities, and takes pains to say that he “yields to no one in my disdain for President Trump,” nevertheless reckons Mr. Mueller’s allegations of witness-tampering are “rather thin.” He says, in an article on the website “Lawfare,” that the FBI declaration in support of a witness-tampering charge is long on detail and short on information. “Drill down into the exhibits and you will see that only one, Exhibit N, is evidence of communications between Manafort and the witnesses he is alleged to have contacted in a tampering effort.”
Drill deeper and it gets even thinner. Study that exhibit and you will see that Mr. Manafort was successful in speaking to one witness, identified as Person D1, for only a minute and 24 seconds. He attempted to connect on three other calls, but did not succeed. Another witness said Mr. Manafort wanted to give Person D1 a link to a newspaper account about his indictment, and another tweet saying “we should talk.”
Direct evidence of witness-tampering against Mr. Manafort, in Prof. Rosenzweig’s telling, is mostly vapor. “Saying ‘we should talk’ is hardly the stuff that true witness-tampering charges are made of. More to the point, if the entire conversation in which Manafort participated lasted for less than a minute and a half, he would have to be a very, very fast talker to have accomplished anything.”
If Mr. Mueller is the lawyer that his friends and sometime colleagues say he is, why would he be showing such a weak hand, dealing with evidence thin enough to read a newspaper through, at such a critical juncture in the attempt to get a scalp? Prof. Rosenzweig thinks he has an answer for that.
“This is a sign that they are feeling pressure. Possibly from Trump. Possibly from Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein. Possibly just from their reading of the public tea leaves. Whatever the source of the pressure, they have an increased sense of urgency, they have an increased sense of urgency to move quickly.”
Mr. Mueller has been very skilled at keeping his investigation free of leaks. So far none of his lawyers have written op-eds for The New York Times or The Washington Post, telling of the fiesta to come. The New York Times, having given up all pretense of objectivity, as if to reassure the mob that the day of reckoning is coming, wants to buck up Mr. Mueller’s spirits. This is no time to panic.
Panic is never a picnic, and it’s true, Mr. Mueller may have the evidence already to send Mr. Trump up the river for good and all. He may even now be holding the smoking gun retrieved from his raids deep into Trump country. He may even be hiding the evidence in a pumpkin on a farm on the Eastern Shore, where pumpkins grow big enough to accommodate everything Congress, or a jury of plain folks, wants or needs.
But Mr. Mueller can’t blame the rest of us for wanting to know what he’s got. Indicting Paul Manafort again, or even sending him to jail to sweat out the needed evidence, won’t satisfy. The reason he’s having so much trouble finding evidence of collusion between Donald Trump and the Russians to cook the 2016 election may be because there isn’t any.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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