Mueller investigation gains new momentum

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation into Russian interference has new momentum following the conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDem warns Trump: 'Obstruction of justice' to fire Rosenstein Ex-White House official revises statement to Mueller after Flynn guilty plea: report Former White House lawyer sought to pay Manafort, Gates legal fees: report MORE and guilty plea of former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

Manafort’s conviction affirmed the credibility of an investigation that has endured near-daily attacks from President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE, while Cohen’s guilty plea to campaign finance violations and other charges could present the special counsel with a key witness willing to cooperate. 

Neither development is directly related to Mueller’s inquiry into whether there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. Still, those closely watching the investigation say that they bolster Mueller’s probe at a critical point and insulate it further from critics calling for its swift end.

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“Both of yesterday’s developments are important levers for Mueller,” said Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor. “They are also important politically because, I think, they will at least to some degree undermine the argument for winding his investigation down.”

In a mere hour’s time Tuesday afternoon, a striking image emerged of two members of the president’s inner circle facing intense legal peril.

A jury in Alexandria, Va., found Manafort guilty on eight counts of bank and tax fraud that together carry a maximum 80 years in prison. A mistrial was declared on 10 other counts.

Legal analysts say that Manafort is likely reevaluating whether he should cut a deal with the government in exchange for cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, to reduce his jail time.

“In my opinion this trial in a large part is about flipping Manafort,” said Seth Waxman, a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. “This is a sweeping victory for the Mueller investigation both as a legal matter and an investigatory matter.”

Manafort could potentially have valuable information with respect to Mueller’s collusion inquiry.

Manafort was one of three individuals close to the president who participated in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer during the heat of the presidential campaign. Trump, who claims to have had no advance knowledge of the meeting, has admitted that its purpose was to get damaging information on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2016 pollsters erred by not weighing education on state level, says political analyst Could President Trump's talk of a 'red wave' cause his supporters to stay home in midterms? Dem group targets Trump in M voter registration campaign: report MORE.

Manafort thus far has not expressed a willingness to cooperate. 

He will be sentenced in Virginia at a later date. Realistically, former prosecutors say that Manafort faces between eight and 15 years in prison — which, for a man near 70, could still amount to spending the rest of his life in jail.

He also faces a September trial in federal court in D.C. on separate charges of money laundering and illegal foreign lobbying also arising from Mueller’s investigation, which would likely carry additional prison time if he is found guilty.

There is also the question of whether Trump could pardon Manafort. The president has responded to the news by describing his former campaign aide as “a good man” and saying the conviction has “nothing to do with Russian collusion,” repeating his characterization of the investigation as a “witch hunt” and a “disgrace.”

“Now [Manafort] is in a position where he’s going have to reevaluate whether he is going to come to the table with Mueller in Washington,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami.

Meanwhile, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felony counts after reaching a deal with federal prosecutors in New York following a months-long investigation that grew out of Mueller’s probe. In dramatic court testimony, Cohen implicated Trump in a scheme to pay off two women in order to prevent the release of information that could have damaged his White House bid.

Cohen’s plea agreement contains no requirement for him to cooperate with federal investigators, though former prosecutors note that in some cases a cooperation agreement is kept under seal in order to protect the subject.

Cohen could ultimately cooperate with Mueller’s probe, either voluntarily or as a result of a subpoena. Cohen could look to provide information to Mueller in exchange for a leniency in his own case.

Lanny Davis, Cohen’s attorney, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday that his client has knowledge “that should be of interest” about potential collusion and Russia's election hacking that he would be willing to pass to Mueller. Davis, who is also a columnist for The Hill, would not say whether Cohen is cooperating with the special counsel. 

The special counsel’s office declined to comment on whether investigators have engaged with Cohen.

Ron Hosko, a 30-year veteran of the FBI, said he would expect Mueller to be interested in his testimony.

“You can be guaranteed that the main players are having conversations — in addition to having conversations with Lanny Davis and others,” Hosko said. “We want all potential intelligence from any witness, target, subject.”

It is unclear exactly what danger Cohen could pose to Trump if he cooperates.

Cohen has worked with Trump for over a decade and until recently was viewed as one of the president’s key confidants. The Trump-Russia dossier compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele also contains a series of allegations against Cohen that he has denied.

The White House has shrugged off the possibility of Cohen’s cooperation with Mueller.

“I don’t think the president is concerned at all,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday. “He knows that he did nothing wrong and that there was no collusion.”

Mueller has already secured cooperation from several individuals linked to Trump, including Richard Gates, Manafort’s former business partner and an ex-Trump campaign aide; former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign foreign policy adviser George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosFlynn sentencing move spurs questions about duration of Mueller probe Time for sunshine on Trump-Russia investigation Trump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe MORE.

On Tuesday, the special counsel delayed the sentencing of Flynn for the fourth time — a signal he is still providing cooperation of value to the probe.

“He is either still working with [Mueller] or is perceived to be of potential value or even as a cooperator at a trial in the future,” said Jack Sharman, a former Whitewater special counsel to Congress. “DOJ practice is to not cut you loose until they’ve gotten all the blood out of the turnip that they can.”

Mueller’s team is expected to now focus on its next court test against Manafort in D.C., slated to begin on Sept. 17

While the Manafort verdict provides momentum for the investigation and fodder for its defenders, Mueller’s critics are unlikely to hold back as the investigation continues.

“A large number of counts, ten, could not even be decided in the Paul Manafort case,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “Witch Hunt!”