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Sending a message to Manafort

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In a famous scene from The Godfather Part II, Frankie Pentangeli, who had worked as a lieutenant for the Corleone family, is set to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Michael Corleone’s criminal activities. The prosecution had “flipped” Pantangeli in exchange for a lighter sentence, but Michael Corleone had secretly arranged for Frankie’s brother, Vincenzo, to be flown in from Sicily. Vincenzo, old, afraid and a non-speaker of English, was totally confused as he entered the Senate hearing room, but Frankie understood what was happening: If he proceeded with his planned testimony, his brother’s life would be measured in days.

Frankie thus made a complete turnaround from what the prosecution had expected. I never know no Godfather,” he told the shocked Senate Committee. “I made up a lot of stuff about Michael Corleone ’cause that’s what they wanted. But it was all lies. Uh, everything. And I kept saying Michael Corleone did this and Michael Corleone did that. So, I said yeah sure — why not?”

That’s how a flip gets unflipped: Apply pressure so great that the witness is willing to serve a long prison time, in order to protect something nearer and dearer to him than his freedom.

We have now the modern-day Frankie Pantangeli in the form of Paul Manafort, the flipper who has unflipped. He was supposed to be cooperating with the Mueller investigation, but instead—out of the blue—Manafort has changed his mind. As a result, he will probably spend the rest of his life in jail. Why did Manafort flip?

We can’t know for sure, obviously, nor do we know if this is the end of the story. Maybe, confronted with the distinct possibility of a very long sentence, Manafort will rediscover the wonders of cooperation. But we do have to wonder why he unflipped in the first place.

Here’s one thing we do know: Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller “to make sure his family remained safe and live[d] a good life,” according to his lawyer. That family includes his wife, Kathleen, and daughters Jessica and Andrea. They had grown accustomed to a rich lifestyle, living in “Georgetown mansions,” wearing “custom” clothes, and driving “lavish cars.” When they wanted out of Washington, they had their choice of “homes up and down the East Coast.”

Manafort wouldn’t be the first to sacrifice himself for his family. But what threat did he perceive coming at them? No evidence has yet emerged to suggest he did. But so strange has been Manafort’s self-destructive behavior (why would a 69-year old man voluntarily increase the length of his prison sentence?) that we can surmise certain possibilities.

He’s being held at a Virginia jail under a “VIP” designation, “the only inmate…with that housing unit description,” which probably means he’s in solitary confinement. But that doesn’t mean he has no contact with anyone else. There are guards, of course, and medical personnel, and Manafort must run into other inmates here and there. Anyone might have had time to whisper into his ear.

“Paulie, I got word from the outside. Your wife is worried about the kids.” In the atmosphere of threats and paranoia in which Manafort now exists, it would not take too many words to convey a simple but frightening message to Manafort: The lives of your family are in danger. Or maybe somebody got to Kathleen. “Mrs. Manafort? Nice to meet you. A word to the wise: tell your husband not to cooperate, or you and your daughters might have some trouble.”

Getting a message to Manafort, in other words, would pose no difficulty. But who would send such a threat? Common sense suggests two sources that, ultimately, merge into one: Russians connected to Putin, and Trump himself. Can anyone doubt that Putin has ordered the assassination of inconvenient people throughout his career? For that matter, Trump is clearly a man who, operating at the fringes of legality, may well have had people bumped off in order to keep his criminal activities secret. Were Manafort truly to rescind his cooperation would be a gift to both Putin and to Trump. Both men have an enormous self-interest in shutting Manafort up. Both are capable, both emotionally and logistically, of killing anyone who threatens them, even if the threat is entirely indirect and involuntary.

This is still a developing story, but it would not surprise me to learn, someday, that someone “got” to Manafort and scared the bejesus out of him by implying the strong possibility that his family would suffer if he went ahead with his cooperation agreement. He is Frankie Pantangeli. Kathleen, Jessica and Andrea (or perhaps their children) are Vincenzo Pantangeli. And so we have a flipper unflipping. It’s the stuff of movies.

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