Manafort heads for Senate showdown after subpoena

Manafort heads for Senate showdown after subpoena
© Greg Nash

The Senate Judiciary Committee has subpoenaed former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to appear before the panel in an open hearing on Wednesday morning, setting up a high-stakes showdown with one of the central figures in the ongoing uproar over Trump and Russia.

The order was a dramatic reversal from just days before, when the committee said it had reached an agreement with Manafort and the president’s eldest son, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: Dems playing destructive 'con game' with Kavanaugh Several Yale Law classmates who backed Kavanaugh call for misconduct investigation Freedom Caucus calls on Rosenstein to testify or resign MORE Jr., that allowed them to skirt a subpoena in exchange for providing records and a private interview.

But Manafort’s deal appears to have broken down since Friday. If Manafort does not appear at the appointed time — 10 a.m. — on Wednesday morning, he risks being held in contempt of Congress.

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According to committee leaders, Manafort was willing to do only one transcribed interview that only a handful of members of Congress would be able to see, effectively curtailing any opportunity that other committees would have to question him. 

Even Judiciary committee members and staff would have been cut out under the terms Manafort’s lawyer proposed.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump: Dems playing destructive 'con game' with Kavanaugh Kavanaugh accuser Ramirez's attorney says Republicans were no-shows on scheduled call Grassley taps Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to question Kavanaugh, Ford MORE (R-Iowa) and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinKavanaugh accuser Ramirez's attorney says Republicans were no-shows on scheduled call Dem senators slam GOP for announcing Kavanaugh vote ahead of Ford testimony Grassley to Feinstein: We won't delay Kavanaugh hearing MORE (D-Calif.) refused to accept the deal.

“While the Judiciary Committee was willing to cooperate on equal terms with any other committee to accommodate Mr. Manafort’s request, ultimately that was not possible,” they wrote in a joint statement released Tuesday morning.

The committee may yet come to an eleventh-hour agreement with Manafort, although a spokesman for Feinstein said late in the afternoon Tuesday that he did not know of any ongoing talks. Grassley’s office did not respond when asked if negotiations were ongoing.

But the two lawmakers indicated in their statement that the door was still open.

“As with other witnesses, we may be willing to excuse him from Wednesday’s hearing if he would be willing to agree to production of documents and a transcribed interview, with the understanding that the interview would not constitute a waiver of his rights or prejudice the committee’s right to compel his testimony in the future,” they said.

At issue is a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Manafort, Trump Jr. and a woman described as a Russian government lawyer offering dirt on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSenate panel subpoenas Roger Stone associate for Russia probe Webb: The new mob: Anti-American Dems Clinton to hold fundraiser for Menendez in NJ next month MORE. An email setting up the meeting said the information was part of the Russian government’s effort to elect Trump.

Trump Jr. has said the conversation centered on a push to rename, soften or repeal the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on some Russians for human rights violations. The lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was then lobbying against those sanctions.

The meeting has drawn fierce congressional scrutiny from all sides. 

On Tuesday morning, Manafort met behind closed doors with the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee “by previous agreement,” according to his spokesperson, where he “answered their questions fully.”

Manafort’s demands are smart lawyering, said Andy Wright, a former White House counsel and congressional lawyer on the House Oversight Committee — but it’s unlikely Grassley and Feinstein would ever agree to them given how many other committees are involved in the sweeping investigations into Trump and Russia, many of which implicate Manafort.

It would force even the Intelligence Committee — which has access to a broader swath of intelligence than Judiciary — to rely on the questions posed by a panel with completely different investigative and jurisdictional concerns.

The committee doesn’t have the authority to compel the written interview, only Manafort’s appearance or documents. When negotiations over access to the interview fell apart, the committee reverted to the best tool they do have: a subpoena requiring Manafort to testify publicly.

Manafort could appear before the committee on Wednesday morning and assert his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

But Wright says that Manafort may have effectively waived his Fifth Amendment rights by appearing before the Intelligence Committee. 

“I would guess he would assert the Fifth at this point — but if he’s gone and given a big fat interview [to the intel panel] about a lot of the topics Judiciary wants to hear about, I don’t see how he’ll be able to say he didn’t waive his Fifth Amendment privileges,” Wright said.

If he fails to appear entirely, the Senate could vote to hold him in contempt and refer the matter for prosecution to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia — although the chances are slim that the U.S. attorney would move forward with a prosecution.

There is a precedent for such a refusal. The Senate certified a criminal contempt charge against Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderRosenstein fiasco raises the stakes in midterms for DOJ’s future Why must everything Rosenstein be filled with drama?   Dems fight to protect Mueller amid Rosenstein rumors MORE during President Obama’s second term, but the U.S. attorney refused to bring it before the grand jury.

But Feinstein on Tuesday seemed to hint that such a maneuver would be unlikely.

“We can hold him in contempt and that’s a more complicated process. I hope that’s not the case,” she told CNN that afternoon.

Grassley has said that his interest in Manafort is related to enforcement of the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) under both the Trump and Obama administrations, one of the stated purposes of the hearing.

Investor Bill Browder, who worked to push the Magnitsky Act through Congress and is also scheduled to testify Wednesday, has filed a complaint with the Justice Department alleging Veselnitskaya and a handful of other Washington lawyers and lobbyists ran afoul of FARA by failing to register as foreign lobbyists.

Democrats, meanwhile, will likely be more interested in the Trump Tower meeting as evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The hearing is also billed as a probe of “attempts to influence U.S. elections.”

Manafort has long been a focal point in the speculation over Trump and Russia, due in part to his work for a Putin-backed campaign in Ukraine.

Committee leaders have waived a previously issued subpoena for another witness originally asked to testify on Wednesday, Glenn Simpson. Simpson, who heads a D.C.-based investigative firm that contracted the production of a dossier full of incendiary allegations about Trump, agreed to provide a transcribed interview in exchange for not testifying.

Although the committee has lifted the subpoena and Simpson will not be forced to testify, Grassley and Feinstein emphasized in a statement that the agreement “does not constitute a waiver of Mr. Simpson’s rights nor prejudice the committee’s right to compel his testimony in the future.”