The gap among Republicans is slight, with lots and lots of undecideds available to stampede over into the “support” column if Trump ends up handing him a “get out of jail free” card. But POTUS has made his sympathy for Manafort plain over the past few months, both on Twitter and in interviews. You might think that would be enough to make GOPers somewhat sympathetic to a pardon when asked about it.
But you would be wrong.
Trump has two big political problems working against him on a Manafort pardon. One is the simple fact that this case was taken all the way to a jury and guilty verdicts were returned on eight counts. MAGA Nation can tell itself that Mike Flynn and George Papadopoulos were railroaded by a corrupt FBI that leaned on them in interviews and then twisted things they said to produce indictments, but Manafort put Mueller to his proof and Mueller delivered. If Trump overturns his sentence, he’s not sticking it to the “deep state” and the DOJ/FBI. He’s sticking it to a federal jury. In fact, when YouGov polled people on whether they think Manafort was guilty or innocent, at least a plurality of all three groups concurred with the jury. Even Republicans split 40/12 in believing in Manafort’s guilt. A pardon from POTUS under those circumstances is destined to seem more corrupt.
The other problem, ironically, is that Manafort was pinched on charges that had nothing to do with Trump or the 2016 election, as Trump himself would eagerly remind you. That’s good for the White House writ large, of course, but it also presents a dilemma for Trump in wanting to free Manafort. If it’s the collusion narrative that’s an illegitimate “witch hunt!!!”, on what grounds should Manafort be pardoned? You could imagine an argument for pardoning someone that builds on the “witch hunt” allegations: “The entire idea of collusion between Team Trump and the Kremlin is a Democratic smear advanced by Mueller’s office for their own partisan reasons, therefore anyone snared by it deserves to be set free.” But Manafort wasn’t snared for crimes committed in connection with collusion. He was convicted for tax fraud, among other things. So what “principled” reason is there to set him free? Pardoning him under the circumstances would amount to an admission by Trump that all of his cronies are bulletproof, whether or not they’re guilty and whether or not they went down on anything having to do with the “deep state.”
Which is not a great rallying point for the base. “Drain the swamp! (Except for the president’s corrupt friends.)”
It might be different if Manafort had been a loyal Trumper from the start, a Rudy- or Newt-type who believed in the cause, got caught doing something he shouldn’t have, and was now receiving the criminal-justice equivalent of a gold watch from POTUS as thanks for his years of loyal service. That would be a gross misuse of the pardon power but it might fly with Trumpers: “X is a team player and that’s reason enough to set him free.” But Manafort was a hired gun, nothing more or less, and was long gone by the moment of triumph on Election Day. Pardoning him only makes sense as either (a) a way to spite Mueller or (b) a way to signal to other cronies who might be able to incriminate Trump in something to keep their mouths shut and trust that pardons are coming for them too. Either way, the politics of all this are dodgy enough for Trump and the White House that POTUS really might be persuaded by Kelly and other aides in the end not to pardon him, as there’s little upside and lots of downside to doing so. And Manafort pretty clearly knows it.