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Paul Manafort goes to jail: Three questions

Trump’s former campaign manager saw his house arrest revoked Friday after being accused of witness tampering. How much trouble is he in, and what could his jailing mean for the president?

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Paul Manafort goes through security as he arrives at federal court, Friday, June 15, 2018, in Washington. Mr. Manafort was indicted last week for obstruction of justice.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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A federal judge on Friday jailed former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, revoking his house arrest due to new charges that Mr. Manafort had tried to tamper with witnesses while awaiting trial on an array of fraud and corruption charges. 

US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said she had “struggled” with the decision to imprison Manafort. The move will take away the relative freedom the wealthy, longtime GOP political consultant has enjoyed as he prepares for trials dealing with allegations of money laundering, tax evasion, and acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

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But she could not ignore his recent behavior, Judge Jackson said.

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“You have abused the trust placed in you six months ago,” she said.

The imprisonment wasn’t entirely a surprise. Close observers of Manafort’s legal struggle have seen signs that his pre-trial status might include a cell. He had a difficult time producing enough cash to post his $10 million bond, as prosecutors alleged that many of his ill-gotten gains had purchased real estate. That put those houses and other buildings off-limits for the purposes of making bail.

Manafort also seemed aggressive in pushing the edges of his freedoms. In December, he was caught helping draft an opinion piece that portrayed his work in Ukraine in a positive light.

Now he will be denied the phones and other communications tools he used for that and other alleged actions contrary to terms of his bail. Three questions about this sudden development:

What did Manafort do?

Last week a federal grand jury indicted Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime associate in Ukraine suspected by the US of links with the Kremlin, for conspiring to obstruct justice. The pair is accused of urging witnesses to say that lobbying by a group of former European officials, secretly paid and directed by Manafort, occurred only in Europe, not the US.

That distinction is important. Foreign lobbying in the US is a crime. Lobbying in Europe is outside the jurisdiction of federal courts. 

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Manafort’s attorneys contend that the evidence of alleged witness tampering is thin, and that he is being targeted for harsh treatment due to the high profile of his case. But other legal experts note that committing a crime while out on bail routinely results in bail revocation for all sorts of defendants. 

How much trouble is Manafort in? 

Quite a bit. Of all those charged to this point in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in US elections, Manafort faces the widest array of charges, and the longest possible sentences. If convicted, he would likely face an effective result of life in prison. Much of his alleged criminality occurred prior to his association with the Trump campaign. But some continued during the 144 days he served as a Trump official.

Things might yet break in his favor. President Trump has complained that his former campaign chief is being treated unfairly, leading to speculation that a pardon is possible. But it is also possible Manafort has already had his last night of freedom. If he had not offered to work for Mr. Trump, perhaps he could have avoided the intense scrutiny from the legal system that has put him in this position. In that sense, an opportunity that seemed an open door could prove to be a closed room, with bars.

What does this mean for the president? 

While Trump has complained about Manafort’s treatment, he has also tried to distance himself from the man who ran his campaign for a period, and presided over Trump’s nomination at the Republican National Convention. Trump on Friday minimized Manafort’s employment, saying it was some 49 days, as opposed to 144.

Mr. Mueller is clearly trying to put as much pressure on Manafort as possible to flip and cooperate with the Russia investigation. As a top official at a crucial time, Manafort likely knows quite a bit about what the Trump campaign knew about Russian outreach, and when and who was involved, if anyone. Manafort attended the June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower at which Donald Trump Jr. and others met with a Russian lawyer and other Russian representatives. He likely knows why the Trump team pushed to change the GOP platform to water down a pro-Ukraine position opposed by Russia.

In short, Manafort may be a crucial witness, if there is anything of importance to know. But he has made a lot of money in risky business in foreign lands. He could be willing to defy Mueller and take another risk.