Paul Manafort’s final date with his legal destiny on Wednesday – barring a presidential pardon – is sure to show why impeachment talk will not be quelled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s fresh attempts to tamp it down.
The former Trump campaign chairman is set to appear in court in Washington in a sentencing hearing that will mark a rare moment of closure for Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which still has multiple open loops.
The appearance is certain to spark a new round of intrigue and speculation about the ultimate destination and implications of the Russia inquiry, which has embroiled President Donald Trump since his first days in office and poses a serious threat to his presidency.
The fallout from the hearing may show just how difficult it will be for Pelosi to keep liberal demands for impeachment in check.
That’s because the President will likely find it almost impossible not to weigh in on what happens in the courtroom. His comments and criticism will revive the question of whether he is planning a pardon for Manafort and potentially other indicted associates, the prospect of which plays into allegations of obstruction of justice and abuse of power.
Pelosi tried to temper surging talk that her party could try to oust Trump – stimulated by its liberal grass roots and Republicans seeking a political opening – with a pointed comment this week.
She told The Washington Post that Trump is “not worth” impeaching. She also warned that such a step is not currently contemplated, despite the multiple investigations targeting the President led by Democratic House committees.
The speaker is just being prudent, first of all, given her crucial institutional role in the US system of government.
But she also is politically wise to defuse an issue that could harm her party if not handled with great sensitivity. Additionally, she made a veiled point about what may be a better strategy for Democrats: to build a case against Trump and get rid of him in 2020, rather than in the deeply divisive process of impeachment.
“If Robert Mueller’s report shows a clear violation of the Constitution and clearly shows that President Trump has gotten in the way of democracy in a way that’s impeachable, that’s a whole other story,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, said on CNN’s “New Day.”
“But what she’s saying is let’s stay focused on what we need to get done for the American people,” Bustos said, by way of explanation for Pelosi’s tactics.
Trump feels ‘very badly’ for Manafort
The Manafort hearing follows political uproar sparked last week when a judge in a parallel case in Virginia handed him only 47 months in jail for multimillion-dollar tax and bank fraud convictions.
The punishment was far below federal sentencing guidelines – and public expectations – but it is generally on par with other fraud cases.
Trump reacted to the judgment by expressing sympathy for all Manafort had gone through – implicitly opening up the question of a potential pardon – while saying he felt “very badly” for the former international lobbyist.
And he twisted the judge’s comments out of context in his latest attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation.
“The judge said there was no collusion with Russia,” Trump told reporters last week.
In reality, Judge T.S. Ellis said only that Manafort hasn’t been accused of collusion.
Trump has the constitutional right to pardon offenders convicted of federal crimes. But his open empathy for Manafort and broad hints that a pardon could be possible sent alarm bells ringing throughout Washington.
The President said last year that a pardon for Manafort was not off the table.
Many Trump critics argue that by hinting at the possibility of a federal pardon for Manafort the President is leaving open the possibility of deliverance for other associates who may have been swept up in Mueller’s investigation.
Some of those people – such as longtime Trump political adviser Roger Stone – are in the early stages of their legal proceedings and critics say Trump could be sending a message for them not to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation by dangling the possibility of pardons.
The President’s refusal to stay quiet about current legal cases plays into the growing perception among many Trump critics that the President has often been guilty of obstructing justice in plain sight, whatever evidence Mueller eventually puts in his final report.
In the DC federal court, Manafort will face a judge – Amy Berman Jackson – who is seen as far less sympathetic to Manafort than Ellis and has expressed frustration with Stone, who will appear before her again on Thursday hoping to convince her he has not infringed her gag order.
Manafort could face up to an additional 10 years in prison, but nothing more, according to federal law. He pleaded guilty to an extensive financial fraud conspiracy and to trying to influence witnesses ahead of his trials.
Jackson, an Obama appointee, has also found that Manafort infringed the terms of a plea deal with Mueller by lying to the special counsel’s prosecutors, the FBI and the grand jury, thereby freeing them from any obligation to recommend a reduced sentence.
How Trump will react to the sentence
Another big question ahead of the hearing is not the length of the sentence Jackson imposes – but whether it will run concurrently with the 47 months he was handed in Virginia or will begin once he has served that time.
Manafort will turn 70 in three weeks and is in deteriorating health – a long sentence from Jackson could still keep him behind bars for most of the rest of his life.
The President is likely to handle the latest twist in Manafort’s drama in one of two ways.
Should the judge spring an even bigger surprise than Ellis and show mercy on Manafort, Trump will have more ammunition for his case that Mueller and his team have overreached and are abusing prosecutorial power.
If Manafort goes to jail for many years, Trump may argue that his former campaign chairman is being made an example of as part of a “deep state” conspiracy to invalidate his election.
Either way, he will heat up the impeachment talk on Capitol Hill.
Many Democrats have already indicated that they don’t see Pelosi’s line in the sand as absolute – highlighting how the speaker gave herself just enough wiggle room should Mueller or congressional chairmen discover evidence about Trump that makes impeachment a more politically palatable possibility.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler told CNN’s Manu Raju on Tuesday that he was not “shutting the door” on impeachment.
“We’re a long way from facing that. We have, we have to know all the facts,” the New York Democrat said. “Once we know all the facts, then we’ll have to make judgments.”
Other Democrats, reflecting the fierce pressure from the party’s liberal base, do not see Pelosi’s comments as a cue to zip the impeachment talk.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who last week pledged to press ahead with her impeachment resolution, vowed to “move forward.”
“It’s important that there is a transparent process. No one, not even the President, should be above the law,” the Michigan Democrat told reporters.
And in an eye-opening interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Rep. Brad Sherman insisted there were already grounds to impeach the President.
“The fact is, you don’t have to wait until you can identify all the felonies a president has committed in order to impeach for all the felonies that are on the record,” the California Democrat said on “The Lead,” claiming that Trump’s threats to Mueller and treatment of fired FBI Director James Comey met the standards.
“The felonies are there. Whether we have public opinion on our side, I don’t think we are there yet, but we reached the legal standard long ago,” Sherman said.
So far, however, neither Mueller in his report nor House investigative committees – at the early stage of the new Democratic majority’s probes – have shown clear evidence of legal abuses by the President.