As a Virginia jury was moving toward convicting him on eight counts of financial fraud last week, Paul Manafort’s lawyers were reportedly in talks with prosecutors about securing a plea deal before his second trial in Washington, DC.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign, engaged in discussions of a possible plea deal to prevent the second trial from going forward.
However, the report said those talks broke down when the special counsel Robert Mueller raised a number of issues with Manafort’s lawyers. Sources told The Journal it was unclear what those issues were.
Manafort’s first trial, in the Eastern District of Virginia, focused primarily on his efforts to commit tax and bank fraud related to his political consulting work in Ukraine. He was convicted last week on five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud, and one count of failure to report foreign bank accounts. His former right-hand man, Rick Gates, struck a plea deal with Mueller’s team in February and was the government’s star witness against Manafort in the trial.
Manafort was charged with 18 counts total in the Virginia trial, but the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the other ten counts, leading US District Judge T.S. Ellis III to declare a mistrial on those. One of the jurors told Fox News last week that the vote on those 10 counts was 11 to 1 in favor of conviction. Prosecutors have until Wednesday to announce whether they will retry Manafort on those charges.
His second trial will take place in Washington, DC, and is scheduled to kick off on September 17. Prosecutors have charged Manafort in the second indictment with money laundering, conspiracy, making false statements, obstruction of justice, and failure to register as a foreign agent.
According to a court filing earlier this month, Mueller’s team plans to introduce three times as much evidence in the Washington, DC, trial as it did in the Virginia trial. In the latter, they showed the jury around 400 documents, emails, and financial records to make their case. They plan to introduce “well over” 1,000 pieces of evidence in the Washington, DC trial, the court filing said. They also said they expect to take ten to 12 days to make their case in the second trial.
Manafort’s efforts to secure a plea deal last week do not necessarily indicate that he was willing to flip in Mueller’s Russia probe, which is examining Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the race in his favor.
Instead, in most cases, defendants typically plead guilty to avoid a lengthy trial and secure a reduced sentence if prosecutors agree to such a deal.
That said, the biggest question for legal experts is why Manafort chose to go to trial in the first place.
The answer to why Manafort hasn’t flipped, they say, can likely be boiled down to one thing: a presidential pardon.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lead defense lawyer, said the president is not currently considering pardons for anyone caught in Mueller’s crosshairs and will wait until the end of the investigation to make his final decisions.
But Trump has made several statements indicating that he may show leniency toward his former campaign chairman.
“Manafort maximizes his chances of getting a pardon by going to trial,” said Alex Whiting, a longtime former federal prosecutor in Boston and Washington, DC. “In his situation, given the facts of his case, the rational thing to do is plead guilty without cooperating and get the benefit of a guilty plea, or plead guilty and cooperate and get a bigger benefit. The only way it makes sense for him to go to trial is if he thinks he’s going to get a pardon.”
Trump ramped up his praise for Manafort on Wednesday, after news broke that his longtime former attorney, Michael Cohen, had struck a plea deal with New York prosecutors and signaled that he would be willing to cooperate with investigators against Trump.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” Trump tweeted shortly after the Cohen news broke. “‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ – make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!”
“If Trump pardons Manafort now, then Manafort can be subpoenaed to testify,” Whiting said. “And of course, if Manafort pleaded guilty, he may choose to cooperate. The pardon dangle encourages Manafort to hang tough, not cooperate, and reap the benefit later, maybe in a year or two.”