Paul Manafort choice to cooperate with Mueller probe should make Trump nervous, say analysts
Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s decision to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is a “significant breakthrough” that should make President Trump nervous, key Democrats and legal analysts said Sunday.
Manafort pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy against the U.S. and one count of conspiracy obstructing justice through an effort to influence witness testimony in his D.C. trial, which had been scheduled for Sept. 24.
None of the crimes that Manafort pleaded guilty to occurred during his brief tenure at the helm of the Trump campaign in 2016, and neither President Trump nor the campaign was mentioned in court Friday.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a statement emphasized that Manafort’s plea deal is “totally unrelated” to the president and his 2016 campaign, and Mr. Trump’s attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who earlier this week said the administration had no fear of Manafort cooperating with the Mueller team, reiterated that confidence in a statement released Friday.
“Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign. The reason: The president did nothing wrong,” Mr. Giuliani said.
Yet the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said the fact Mr. Trump’s team hasn’t ruled out a pardon for Manafort speaks volumes, as the operative starts singing to investigators.
“Clearly the Trump team is terrified about what Manafort may have to say,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Even one of Mr. Trump’s most public defenders said Mr. Manafort’s decision to cooperate should set off alarm bells for the president.
“This was a very bad day for the Trump administration. It’s bad because he doesn’t know what Manafort is saying,” Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor emeritus, told NBC.
The plea agreement spares Manafort from a trial, which would be his second in as many months. In August, a federal jury in Alexandria, Virginia, convicted him on eight counts of tax and bank fraud, but deadlocked on 10 other charges.
Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann of Mr. Mueller’s team told Judge Amy Berman Jackson that the plea is a “cooperation agreement. That means both the other charges and the unresolved charges in the Virginia case will be dropped at sentencing or “at the agreement of a successful cooperation.”
It is not clear how much help Manafort will provide to Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors. His attorneys have repeatedly insisted that he had no information to share and were seeking a plea deal that did not involve cooperation.
But Mr. Weissmann said in court Friday that Manafort has already provided the government with information.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said there’s is no point in speculating whether Manafort has damaging information until Mr. Mueller reports out his findings, since there’s been no clear evidence yet of collusion between the Trump camp and Russia.
“We’re waiting on Mueller,” Mr. Graham told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Let’s let Mueller do his job.”
The special counsel’s prosecutors agreed to drop five D.C. charges against Manafort, including money laundering, tax fraud, failing to disclose foreign bank accounts, violating the Federal Agents Registration Act and lying to federal investigators. However, a filing before the hearing says that Manafort has admitted to those crimes.
Wearing the same suit he wore to his Virginia trial, Manafort told Judge Jackson that he understood his plea and his rights under the agreement.
Judge Jackson if what prosecutors said is a “true and accurate description” of what he did in this case.
“It is,” Manafort responded.
The one-time Trump campaign chairman faces a maximum sentence of five years and a $250,000 for each charge, but will likely be sentenced to less, Judge Jackson said. A status conference is set for Nov. 16.
In a filing ahead of Friday’s hearing, prosecutors repeated their claims that Manafort earned more than $60 million lobbying the U.S. on behalf of pro-Russia Ukrainians and laundered that money by stashing it in offshore accounts and keeping that information from his own accountants and bookkeepers. Mr. Weissman said in court that Manafort cheated the United States out of over $15 million in taxes.
The plea deal was not surprising. Media reports had surfaced in recent days that Manafort’s team was close to a deal with prosecutors.
The Manafort guilty plea also continues Mr. Mueller’s winning streak.
He has secured guilty pleas from the U.S. citizens that have either been directly charged in the investigation or prosecuted as a referral from his office.
Among the high-profile defendants who have pleaded guilty are longtime Trump fixer Michael Cohen, whose case was referred to New York prosecutors by Mueller’s team; George Papadopoulos, a key Trump campaign figure; and Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
“You have to begin to wonder how exactly it could be the case the president knew nothing about what was going on,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington Democrat, told CNN. “We obviously still have a ways to go in terms of connecting Russia to the campaign and the president, that is still out there.”
But Cohen and Manafort were inside men, she added, so the Mueller team was “just handed the keys to the castle.”