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Manafort indictment could 'play out badly for Trump administration'

  • Special counsel Robert Mueller just sent a searing missile across the bow of the Trump administration in the form of an indictment of Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager.
  • The charges include tax evasion, money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent, and even the suggestion of mortgage fraud involving a Manafort relative.
  • Here are three reasons the indictment could have resounding impact.

Special counsel Robert Mueller just sent a searing missile across the bow of the Trump administration in the form of an indictment of Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager. The indictment is a prosecutorial work of art. It is highly specific and identifies multiple transactions reaching back several years. The charges include tax evasion, money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent, and even the suggestion of mortgage fraud involving a Manafort relative.

Without doubt, the indictment signals a very significant turn in the investigation. Let's be clear: none of the charges relate to Manafort's role in the Trump campaign and all of the alleged illegal activities took place well before he became Trump's campaign manager. But the indictment is important for three reasons.

First, it gives Mueller and his team job security for the time being. No one is going to fire a special counsel who has just indicted the President's former campaign manager. So for now, Mueller has a complete path to continue and expand his investigation with no interference from the administration or Congress. He can use the full resources of the federal government and FBI to investigate just about anything he wants to. This will likely include matters well-beyond the campaign such as Trump's taxes, business deals, and the activities of Trump's family and friends. Mueller's work may never reach the concept of Russian "collusion" (which, by the way, is not a federal crime), if he can find criminal violations apart from the campaign itself

"No one is going to fire a special counsel who has just indicted the President's former campaign manager. So for now, Mueller has a complete path to continue and expand his investigation with no interference from the administration or Congress."

Next, the indictment signals to anyone who is targeted that Mueller is serious and he is playing hardball. The Manafort indictment is chock full of very specific transactions and includes money laundering counts, which are some of the most serious in the federal system and could lead to many years in jail. No one can doubt Mueller's resolve to use the most extreme prosecutorial tools to pursue his prey. The indictment – along with the search of Manafort's house and use of the grand jury to subpoena a Manafort lawyer - sends a clear message to the defense bar that Mueller means business.

Finally, Mueller now has someone at the top of the Trump pyramid he can squeeze. The next step will be for Mueller to suggest to Manafort and his team that he can reduce his prison exposure by "cooperating" with the investigation - meaning giving information about others and talking about the campaign. This gives Mueller a tremendous advantage in the investigation. Manafort is facing very serious charges that could include a relative as well. There will be a tremendous amount of pressure on him to try to resolve the case in a way that avoids him spending the rest of his life in jail. Most defendants can't deal with this type of pressure, and the prosecutors are going to insist that Manafort give them what they want to hear. Whether Manafort "flips" is anyone's guess. But this could play out badly for the president.

So what does all of this mean? At a minimum, the country is looking at a long slog of a special counsel investigation through the rest of the Trump administration. None of this is going away anytime soon. Whether or not the the investigation ends with impeachment proceedings, we can be certain that the administration is going to be distracted with this investigation for some time.

The focus of the Mueller investigation will likely go far afield of the election issues alone. The Mueller team is composed of some very talented and persistent prosecutors who are not going to rest until every stone is turned. One thing is certain - for the rest of the time Trump is in office, his agenda and administration will be consumed by dealing with the special counsel and news stories about prosecutions.

Commentary by John F. Lauro, a former federal prosecutor in New York City and currently a criminal defense lawyer with a national practice, where he represents high-profile clients in federal, criminal and civil cases. Follow him on Twitter @Lauro_john.

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