Why Paul Manafort is 'the perfect fall guy'

  • The charges against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates are allowing all sides in the Trump wars to declare victory.
  • Anti-Trumpers believe they now have someone on the hook who can reveal details of an alleged Russian collusion, while pro-Trumpers believe the indictment is all about crimes committed well before 2016.
  • But the public is learning about the shady foreign lobbying business, and that's an objectively good development.
Donald Trump, Paul Manafort and Ivanka Trump check the podium at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 21, 2016.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Donald Trump, Paul Manafort and Ivanka Trump check the podium at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 21, 2016.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime business associate Rick Gates have now been formally charged by a federal grand jury on 12 charges, including conspiracy against the United States of America.

Expect everyone to celebrate... for now.

Well, everyone but Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. They really are in a lot of trouble.

But for everyone else, Manafort may be the perfect fall guy for the White House, the anti-Trumpers, and even special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

To understand why, you have to look at the situation from different viewpoints in a "Rashomon effect" kind of way.

First, let's look at this from the standpoint of the Democrats and all the other anti-Trumpers. To them, Manafort sure seems like a very "big fish" to get snared in the prosecutor's net. After all, Manafort was the Trump campaign chairman during some crucial months of the 2016 election process. If he wasn't directly involved in some kind of ongoing collusion with the Russians on behalf of the Trump team, then it seems logical he might know about it if it happened at all, right?

And make no mistake, a good deal of the country is convinced there was some kind of illegal collusion by the Trump campaign with the Russians to skew the presidential election. As many as 54 percent of those surveyed in a major poll conducted just three months ago said they believe either the Trump campaign or Trump administration has acted illegally in its relationship with the Russians.

Then there's that "conspiracy against the United States" charge that sure sounds like something akin to overthrowing the government along the lines of the crimes Aaron Burr or John Wilkes Booth committed in the past.

This sounds very, very bad. You can expect to see extra large sized banners screaming: "Ex-Trump Campaign Chairman Charged with Conspiracy against U.S." all over the TV news channels not named "FOX" possibly for days. I'm actually looking at one right now.

But let's look more closely at that conspiracy charge as we shift from the anti-Trump/Democrats' perspective to the way the Manafort news is likely to be interpreted by President Trump's supporters and most Republican voters.

Here's how the U.S. legal code defines the charge:

If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

The key wording in the above is "defraud the United States." Based on several detailed reports by NBC News and others, that defrauding of the U.S. is likely to be connected to the millions of dollars in foreign payments Manafort and Gates are accused of hiding from the IRS. This is no small matter, as we're reportedly talking about $75 million the two men received from Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian sources. To get an idea of how serious and established this allegedly illegal relationship was, several reports published this past summer say that federal investigators had Manafort under wiretap surveillance beginning in 2014 and he and Gates had questionable financial dealings with a major Russian oligarch as far back as 2007.

But since those payments allegedly began years before Donald Trump became a candidate or Manafort became involved with him, this indictment does not seem like it blows the lid off of some kind of 2016 election tampering plot.

That's exactly the tack President Trump took himself in his initial public reaction to the indictment:

And President Trump and his supporters have another good argument to make in this case as the Trump team did indeed decide to fire Manafort in August 2016 after his long-standing and questionable financial connections to the Russians became public.

So the Manafort indictment has now led to a very credible-sounding defense for the Trump administration and even some very indignant calls that it serves as "proof" that there is no evidence of any real crime of election tampering committed by President Trump or his campaign. They're already painting Manafort as someone who was involved with the Trump campaign for a few months, and was rightfully ditched when his legal issues became known.

For those hoping that the Mueller investigation could lead to some kind of universally irrefutable evidence of either guilt or innocence for the Trump campaign, they're going to have to wait. The partisan lens is already firmly in control of how the base on both sides is perceiving this indictment.

But there are two things everyone can agree on for now. First, Manafort and Gates sure seem to be on the hook for some alleged serious crimes and tax evasion going back more than a decade at least. And if they're guilty, everyone from every political corner who cares about the rule of law should be happy that it looks like they're about to be seriously punished.

That's good news for Mueller, who is bringing two people to justice who allegedly have been committing serious crimes for years. Just from a legal standpoint, it will be hard to say his investigation yielded nothing if these charges lead to convictions and imprisonment.

Second, the public is now really learning about Manafort's and Gates' dealings and the kinds of shadowy lobbying that too many ex-government officials engage in for a living.

And learn about it we must, because the fact is our foreign lobbying rules are too weak and have been hampered by lax enforcement for decades. Many conservatives and liberals agree on this, as Republican Senator Todd Young and Democrat Senator Jeanne Shaheen even teamed up to craft a bill earlier this year to close some of those foreign lobbying loopholes. Some policy experts, like Ben Freeman at Third Way, believe the Manafort news and the allegations against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are the best impetus for that bipartisan effort to succeed with new laws against foreign lobbying and the murky campaign contributions that go with it.

As much as Trump supporters and detractors and everyone in between has been obsessing about him for so long, there are still a lot of political issues that go well beyond this president, his campaign, Russia, and everything associated with both. If nothing else, Monday's indictment should help blow the doors off an ethical cancer growing on our political system for too long.

The bottom line in this story goes beyond President Trump and Paul Manafort. It extends to the long list of people who seem quite willing to commit every one of the crimes Manafort is charged with and more. Trump haters may not get the impeachment or resignation they crave and Trump supporters may not get the exoneration they want. But we are already getting a vital window into something both sides should want to root out of our country for good.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.