One would have to think that Robert Mueller caught Paul Manafort in a pretty big lie before burning the key witness he’d been pursuing for the entirety of his term as special counsel. If the Guardian’s report this morning is true, this would be … a pretty big lie — also assuming Manafort didn’t disclose it:
Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort held secret talks with Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and visited around the time he joined Trump’s campaign, the Guardian has been told.
Sources have said Manafort went to see Assange in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016 – during the period when he was made a key figure in Trump’s push for the White House.
It is unclear why Manafort wanted to see Assange and what was discussed. But the last meeting is likely to come under scrutiny and could interest Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
If this is true, then the timing of the last visit becomes veeerrrryyy interesting indeed. The Guardian pegs this meeting as taking place in March 2016, which would have been just as Donald Trump hired Manafort to be his campaign manager (reported and confirmed on March 28). Wikileaks didn’t start releasing the hacked DNC and John Podesta e-mails until early June.
If prosecutors can establish that Manafort went to the Ecuadorian embassy in London at that time, they might be able to argue that Manafort coordinated with Assange in some manner. At the very least, they’d be able to show that the Trump campaign had inside knowledge of the hacks without taking any action to alert the FBI or other agencies of the risk of foreign-intel penetration. This might also explain why the US is reportedly holding a secret indictment on Assange, a development that emerged ten days ago. That would fit the broad theory of collusion, which puts the Trump campaign in a partnership with Assange and the Vladimir Putin regime to defeat Hillary Clinton.
But is this true? The Guardian reports this from one “well-placed source,” backed up by a document from Ecuadorian intelligence that identifies a “Paul Manaford” as one of Assange’s “well-known guests.” Manafort has denied meeting Assange in the past, and his defense attorneys deny any lying to Mueller at all. Oddly, the Guardian’s other sources say that their embassy logs do not show Manafort’s name listed at all. That would be a strange omission for embassy personnel to make, especially for a “well-known guest” who wasn’t really all that well known outside of esoteric political circles.
And if it’s true, Mueller would still need Manafort’s credibility to make the broader argument stick. Publicly declaring him as a liar and obstructer seriously damages Mueller’s ability to use anything developed through Manafort in court or even in a special-counsel report. Yesterday’s filing all but precludes Manafort from connecting those dots, and a meeting in London with Assange won’t mean anything legally without one of them cooperating — and Assange isn’t budging from the embassy. One could speculate all day long about what took place in that meeting (and the other two besides), but it might just have been Manafort taking an interest in fronting Assange’s interests in the US, an interest that got put aside when he went to work for Trump. Without specifics, it’s perhaps another FARA case, but not enough for anything more.
That prompts another question: what if it really was just another FARA case, and Mueller thinks it was more? Was that why he threw Manafort under the bus yesterday?
Update: Wikileaks’ official account strongly rebukes the Guardian for this story, calling it potentially “one of the most infamous news disasters since Stern published the “Hitler Diaries”.” They claim to want to put a million dollars on it, if the Guardian wants to wager on its source:
Remember this day when the Guardian permitted a serial fabricator to totally destroy the paper’s reputation. @WikiLeaks is willing to bet the Guardian a million dollars and its editor’s head that Manafort never met Assange. https://t.co/R2Qn6rLQjn
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) November 27, 2018
Here’s another question about the embassy records, which occurred to me after publication. One might see why Ecuador would want to keep any Manafort visit quiet this far after the event. But why would the embassy not record his visit at the time it allegedly occurred? Manafort was a significant public-relations and lobbying figure, not a government official. An omission of his name from the embassy logs in March 2016, before he joined the Trump campaign, doesn’t make a lot of sense.