President Donald Trump is sending an unmistakable and daringly public message to his jailed ex-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, that his defiance of special counsel Robert Mueller could eventually see him walk free from jail.
And Trump’s move – delivered in an interview with the New York Post on Wednesday – is more than just an effort to show mercy to a former associate. It is the latest sign of an increasingly aggressive effort to define the end game of the investigation with what looks more and more like an effort to use his presidential power to protect himself.
Trump’s latest maneuvering came amid indications that Mueller’s team, after a hiatus in midterm election season, is accelerating toward a pivotal moment in an investigation that has cast a cloud over Trump’s presidency.
As always with the President, it is difficult to decipher whether his comments represent a clear intent to act or are a case of a volatile personality blowing off steam in a way that does not meet accepted standards for someone who could be in legal jeopardy.
But Trump appears to be making a significant gamble. His pardon comments could be interpreted as another bid to thwart Mueller’s investigation into election interference in plain sight – even as he is himself a subject of the special counsel’s obstruction of justice inquiries.
Trump significantly dialed up hostilities with Mueller after several days of significant developments in the investigation and amid signs his nerves are increasingly frayed over what might happen next.
Among those developments is the revelation that Trump told Mueller, in his written answers to questions from the special counsel, that former political aide Roger Stone did not talk to him about WikiLeaks. Trump also wrote that he was not told about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting of his son and campaign officials with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
Asked in the Post interview about the possibility of a pardon for Manafort, who led his campaign at a key stage in 2016, Trump said that “it was never discussed, but I wouldn’t take it off the table. Why would I take it off the table?”
Trump also issued a chilling warning to Democrats who will take control of the House in January that he could use his unique powers as President to target them by declassifying intelligence that would be damaging to them.
“If they want to play tough, I will do it,” Trump told the Post, referring to documents related to the early stages of the Russia probe.
“They will see how devastating those pages are.”
In a sign of what’s on the President’s mind throughout the day, he started and ended Wednesday with tweets about Mueller’s investigation.
“So much happening with the now discredited Witch Hunt. This total Hoax will be studied for years!” Trump tweeted at 11:39 p.m. Wednesday – exactly 15 hours after he first tweeted about the special counsel probe.
What is behind Trump’s timing?
The timing of Trump’s escalation is intriguing.
It came a day after Manafort’s cooperation agreement with Mueller collapsed as he was accused of lying on multiple occasions by the special counsel. That news also brought the revelation that Manafort’s defense team had been sharing details about the investigation with Trump’s lawyers.
In a volley of provocative tweets and attacks, Trump is also accusing Mueller of trying to force three key players – who appear to be Manafort, Stone and his associate Jerome Corsi – to lie or go to jail.
Corsi this week claimed to have turned down a plea bargain deal with Mueller. He and Stone are being investigated for alleged ties to WikiLeaks, which published hacked Clinton campaign emails stolen by Russian spies and is seen by US intelligence as a front for a hostile foreign state.
Trump’s comments about all three men came across as a resounding message to hang tough and to defy Mueller’s investigators and any pressure to cooperate.
They are certain to raise the stakes in his confrontation with the special counsel and are likely to unleash a significant political reaction from Democrats about to take over the House, lighting a fire under congressional oversight of Trump.
On Tuesday, exemplifying the potential political consequences of Trump’s subsequent comments, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee delivered a warning to the President.
“I suspect they’re dangling a pardon in front of Manafort,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
“But the President should understand that even dangling a pardon in front of a witness like Manafort is dangerously close to obstruction of justice and would just fortify a claim or a charge of obstruction of justice against the President.”
It could be argued that Trump’s comments amount only to notice that he reserves the right to wield the pardon power granted to every President under the Constitution.
To make a case that Trump had obstructed justice, Mueller would have to show that the President had acted with corrupt intent.
If he does go in that direction, it’s possible that Wednesday’s remarks by Trump could take their place in a body of similar evidence, including his apparent request for then-FBI Director James Comey to offer a break to his former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his on-camera explanation that he later fired Comey over the Russia probe, which Comey was then overseeing.
“The complication of the past 24 hours with the Manafort plea agreement having imploded almost sets the table with a circumstantial case of obstruction,” Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general, told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.
“Any pardon now would look like a reward to Manafort for an extraordinary kind of double-cross of the prosecutor here both promising to be truthful and not being so, then funneling information to Trump – which I cannot tell you how extraordinary it is.”
Reading Manafort’s mind
Manafort’s motivations in allegedly lying to Mueller are also crucial.
Susan Hennessey, a CNN analyst who’s a former senior attorney at the National Security Agency, said there were only two possibilities.
“Either he is incredibly stupid and pathological in lying to investigators after striking a plea deal or this is some kind of bid for pardon,” Hennessey said on “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”
Whatever the motivations of Manafort and the President, one thing is clear: Trump is becoming consumed by the prospect of Mueller’s conclusions, tweeting out wild attacks in the morning and returning to to his preoccupation as the day wears on in a flurry of interviews.
In one sign of the President’s agitation, he took a page out of a propagandist’s playbook, retweeting a montage showing former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and other top former officials behind bars.
“When do the trials for treason begin?” read a slogan on the graphic.
He told the Post that he knew Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was in the image, commenting: “He should have never picked a special counsel.”
In the same interview, Trump railed against plea bargain deals.
“If you told the truth, you go to jail,” he told the Post in what effectively amounted to an attack by the country’s chief law enforcement officer on a legally mandated investigation.
“You know this flipping stuff is terrible,” Trump said. “You flip and you lie and you get – the prosecutors will tell you 99% of the time they can get people to flip. It’s rare that they can’t.”
The President’s latest attempts to discredit Mueller, part of a strategy apparently designed to shape the political battlefield ahead of the special counsel’s eventual conclusions, came only weeks after Trump installed a skeptic of the Mueller investigation, Matt Whitaker, as acting attorney general.
The move potentially opened a clear channel into the inner workings of the inquiry for the President, and that might in itself account for his increased anxiety over the probe.
There are clear signs that Mueller’s team is intensifying its activity.
His prosecutors are poring over the written answers to their questions that Trump submitted through his lawyers. They have also pledged to file a court submission detailing Manafort’s “crimes and lies” that could offer never-before-seen details of the investigation.
In addition to their interest in Corsi and Stone, Mueller’s prosecutors met with Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen this month.
There is mounting speculation that a new round of indictments could be imminent that could cut ever closer to Trump’s inner circle.
CNN’s Dana Bash contributed to this report.