WASHINGTON: The judicial bombshells on Tuesday (Aug 21) will scramble political calculations not just in the United States, but in capitals around the world.
In the span of a few hours, we witnessed first the conviction of Donald Trump’s campaign manager and longtime associate Paul Manafort on eight charges of tax evasion and bank fraud in connection to his work for a pro-Putin Ukrainian strongman.
Then we saw the president’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen plead guilty to campaign finance violations and say that Trump had directed him to pay hush money to two women during the 2016 campaign to stop them from speaking out about affairs they said they’d had with him.
The American political deck has been reshuffled – and with it the geopolitical one as well.
The ripples will be felt anywhere Trump engages in high-stakes negotiations, but especially in five capitals: Washington, Moscow, Kiev, Beijing and Pyongyang.
Let’s consider this tale of five cities.
IN WASHINGTON, QUIET VICTORIES FOR MUELLER
First, Washington. In record time, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has won convictions or guilty pleas from the president’s campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, a former national security adviser, and two campaign aides.
It’s the latest evidence of a methodical, surgical approach by the special counsel that’s already yielded a conviction, five guilty pleas, and 35 indictments that include 12 Russian intelligence officials and three Russian companies.
Manafort’s trial told the story of him as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ukraine’s Putin-backed thuggish former president, Viktor Yanukovych; a US political operative trying to “get whole” on his massive debts to Russian oligarchs, working for free for Trump’s campaign while offering to do the bidding of Russian interests.
Manafort’s next trial, which begins in Washington in September, will be even more explosive. Mueller’s team will present more than 1,000 pieces of evidence – nearly three times what it submitted in the trial that just ended.
They will tell the sordid story of Manafort’s work in the United States as an agent of a foreign interest – Ukraine’s ousted Yanukovych. They will reveal Manafort’s connections to the man charged with him, Konstantin Kilimnik – a Russian national tied to the GRU, Russia’s main intelligence directive, who also served as liaison between Manafort and Russian oligarchs.
That Manafort was simultaneously the campaign manager of the highly improbable Putin-admiring nominee of the Republican Party might – or might not – consign presidential tweets about “witch hunts” to the digital dustbin once and for all.
But it might change Washington by at last nudging Congress to pass legislation cracking down on Russian election interference. It may shame those in the Republican ranks who planned to spend this fall holding in contempt Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for doing his job in issuing indictments over Russian involvement in the US election.
It may insulate the Mueller investigation from a Saturday Night Massacre-style shutdown. It may expose Trump’s tweets and lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s rhetoric as the weapons of mass distraction that they are: The desperate posturing of those who want to change the subject.
Whether it gets Congress off the sidelines or separates Trump from a complicit party is another question. But outside Washington, Americans invariably believe no one is above the law, not even the president.
IN MOSCOW AND KIEV, MIXED RESULTS
In Moscow, Putin will surely know his long-sought opportunity for post-Helsinki summitry has evaporated. Although Trump insists that Manafort’s “very sad” conviction “has nothing to with Russian collusion,” his advisers must realise that Trump can’t afford to be seen within a country mile of this former KGB agent.
Putin should know that pressure will only intensify for a confrontation as long as he attacks Western democracies with abandon.
In Kiev, the fallout is more complicated: Manafort’s downfall builds pressure to punish Yanukovych hold-overs – those that haven’t fled to Moscow – for their role in the same rot that consumed the once-fabled Republican operative.
But Kiev may, paradoxically, feel the need to stay in Trump’s good graces, which may curb Ukraine’s willingness to risk alienating the US president.
BEIJING AND PYONGYANG NOW IN STRONGER POSITIONS
In Beijing and Pyongyang, the consequences may be subtler to divine, but perhaps even more consequential. Why would Beijing, with its patient, command and control system, its “resistance economy,” ever rush to resolve a trade war begun by a US president it may now see as permanently weakened?
Pyongyang’s calculation may be the opposite. Surely Kim Jong Un perceives that Trump, always too eager to declare a “deal” without pausing over the fine print, may now be even more desperate for a “win” on the world stage.
The bottom line? Expect the United States and the world to be roiled by the fallout of the Manafort conviction and whatever comes out of his trial.
Trump will tweet, Mueller will continue to seek the facts, and America for now will suffer a reality television drama playing out on an all too real global stage.
David Eckels Wade is a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.