NEW YORK (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort breached his plea deal by lying to federal investigators, according to a court filing on Monday, in a potential setback to the special counsel’s probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
FILE PHOTO: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives for arraignment on a third superseding indictment against him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on charges of witness tampering, at U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S. June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Manafort said in the same filing that he disagreed with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s assertion that he had lied, but both sides agreed the impasse meant that the court should move ahead and sentence him for his crimes. Without a pardon, Manafort could spend the rest of his life in prison, experts said.
The surprise development came at a critical time for Mueller, who is expected to finalize a report in the coming months on the findings of his 18-month probe into Russia’s election meddling and possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
While not a fatal blow, the failure to secure Manafort’s cooperation has damaged the credibility of an individual with deep ties to Russia and who prosecutors had hoped would prove to be a valuable witness, a former federal prosecutor said.
“It’s bad for the overall Mueller investigation,” said Patrick Cotter, a criminal defense lawyer in Chicago and former assistant U.S. attorney in New York. “He’s got one less witness today.”
Manafort, a longtime Republican political consultant who made tens of millions of dollars working for pro-Kremlin politicians in Ukraine, ran the Trump campaign as it took off in mid-2016. He attended a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 with a group of Russians offering “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who lost in an upset to Trump in the presidential vote that November.
Manafort had started cooperating with Mueller in September after pleading guilty in a federal court in Washington to conspiracy against the United States – a charge that included a range of conduct from money laundering to unregistered lobbying – and attempting to tamper with witnesses.
Mueller said in the filing that after signing the plea agreement: “Manafort committed federal crimes by lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Special Counsel’s Office on a variety of subject matters.”
Prosecutors did not provide details of the alleged lies but said they would do so prior to sentencing.
Manafort’s attorneys said in the same filing submitted to U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington that Manafort had met with the government on several occasions and made “an effort to live up to his cooperation obligations.”
ANGLING FOR PARDON?
The breakdown in the plea deal means that Manafort will most likely face a harsher sentence – both for the crimes he pleaded guilty to in Washington and for his conviction by a jury in August in a separate case in Virginia for bank and tax fraud.
“The consequences are potentially devastating for Manafort,” said Washington attorney Shanlon Wu, who represented Manafort’s ex-business associate Rick Gates before he pleaded guilty and became a star witness for prosecutors.
But the development will also raise speculation that Manafort may be seeking to curry favor with Trump or protecting other associates who worked on the campaign.
Rudy Giuliani, who represents Trump in the Russia investigation, told Reuters in October that he had periodically spoken with Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, and that he believed Manafort had not provided any information to prosecutors that was damaging to the president.
“The one thing you can do that is worse than not saying anything at all is to lie,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami. “It seems to me he’s angling for the pardon.”
Giuliani did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday. Trump has not ruled out the prospect of a pardon for Manafort.
Russia denies U.S. allegations it hacked Democratic Party emails and ran a disinformation campaign, largely on social media. Trump denies any campaign collusion and calls the investigation a political witch hunt.
Reporting by Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld in New York; Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney