Manafort plea decision represents setback for Mueller

The breaking down of Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortPress: Mueller closes in on Trump Mueller polarizes GOP, Dems the more they hear his name, says polling editor Judge sets Tuesday hearing in Manafort case MORE’s plea deal has dealt a blow to special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation.

A witness to the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerKushner: Trump will make chief of staff decision 'when he’s ready' Press: Mueller closes in on Trump Democratic House panel could investigate ties between Kushner, Saudi crown prince: report MORE, Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpPress: Mueller closes in on Trump Fox host: Ocasio-Cortez's 'brain is as empty as socialism itself' De Niro returns to ‘Saturday Night Live’ as Mueller with warning for Eric Trump MORE, and a Russian lawyer predicated on damaging information about then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — NRCC exposes security flaws 2 years after Russia hacks | Google Plus to shut down early | Scathing House report scolds Equifax for breach | McCarthy knocks Google ahead of CEO's hearing Press: Mueller closes in on Trump McCarthy dismisses Dem-led Trump probes MORE, Manafort was seen as a valuable potential witness in Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

The decision to call him out as a liar effectively takes his testimony off the table, removing a valuable asset for the government. It comes after a lengthy trial where prosecutors won guilty verdicts against Trump’s former campaign chairman.

“They viewed him as giant prize and that’s why they were willing to take the risk of exposing parts of the investigation by going to trial,” said Seth Waxman, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor in D.C. “To lose the cooperation of Manafort is a devastating loss for the government.”

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The government has accused Manafort of breaching his plea agreement by repeatedly lying to federal investigators. It asked a federal judge on Monday to move forward with Manafort’s sentencing just more than two months after he began cooperating.

Mueller’s prosecutors wrote that Manafort lied to the FBI and the special counsel’s office “on a variety of subject matters,” saying they would file a “detailed sentencing submission” to the probation department and federal court laying out the nature of his lies.

While the details are unknown, experts say the development signals Manafort is lying about something significant, though it’s not necessarily information that’s key to the Russia investigation.

Glen Kopp, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Manafort could have lied about a number of smaller items that raised doubt among prosecutors about whether he would be truthful about other, bigger issues.

“It is not, on its face, a positive development in terms of further investigation when you have someone you believed could be helpful,” he said.

It’s possible prosecutors believe Manafort was untruthful with investigators working on other foreign lobbying investigations that grew out of Mueller’s probe. The special counsel has reportedly passed on three such cases to federal prosecutors in New York, and prosecutors in Washington secured a guilty plea from Manafort associate Sam Patten in late August.

It is unclear whether Mueller’s filing on Manafort’s transgressions will be made public. Sentencing memos from the prosecution and defense attorneys are typically part of the court’s public record, but prosecutors could choose to redact certain information given the sensitivity of the investigation.

Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor, said the filing, if public, could offer a rare glimpse into the lines of inquiry and evidence in the investigation, akin to Mueller’s detailed conspiracy indictments. Mueller is due to issue a report on the probe to the Justice Department upon its conclusion, but acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker will decide whether to send it to Congress or make it public.

“I think that’s a potential big next step if Mueller decides to be really inclusive there,” Kirschner said.

Manafort, meanwhile, denies that he breached the agreement. His defense attorneys said in the filing he “provided information to the government in an effort to live up to his cooperation obligations.”

The development means that Manafort’s testimony will unlikely be used to indict any individuals going forward. He is also unlikely to be called as a testifying witness at any trials, given that his credibility has been publicly called into question.

“I don’t think it will hurt the overall investigation, but it definitely hurts his usefulness at trial,” said Washington attorney Shanlon Wu, a former federal prosecutor who represented Manafort’s associate Richard Gates before he took a plea deal.

Kirschner said the investigation could be impeded if Manafort’s testimony was needed to secure an indictment against a potential defendant. But Kirschner, who worked with Mueller, doubted that the special counsel would hang a charge on Manafort’s testimony alone and would have ample other evidence.

It is not out of the question that Manafort will return to cooperating with prosecutors, but observers described it as unlikely given that Mueller has publicly questioned his credibility.

Meanwhile, Mueller is said to be pressing forward by investigating matters involving Manafort. On Tuesday, CNN reported that Mueller is probing a meeting last year between Manafort and Ecuador’s president. Earlier Tuesday, The Guardian reported that Manafort met secretly with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London months before the organization released a trove of hacked Democratic emails later tied to a Russian operation to interfere in the election. Manafort vigorously denied the report, accusing The Guardian of libel.

The breakdown of his plea agreement has left many wondering why Manafort would torch what was otherwise a sweet deal so late in the game.

Some have speculated he could be worried about the Russians retaliating against him or his family. Others say he could still be holding out for a presidential pardon, though questions have been raised about whether it would be legal.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she was unaware of any conversations about a presidential pardon for Manafort or anyone else ensnared in the investigation.

The government watchdog group Protect Democracy argues the president’s pardon power is limited by the Constitution and that he can’t issue a pardon to impede an investigation into himself or his campaign.

Wu said Manafort may have thought he could out-strategize and out-maneuver Mueller.

“I have seen this happen before with white collar defendants, who believe they are always the smartest person in the room,” he said.

The development comes at a consequential point in the investigation. Last week, Trump submitted written answers to the special counsel on questions about collusion. Mueller’s team has also been wrangling for an in-person interview with Trump but talks with his lawyers have proven futile, raising the possibility that he could try to subpoena the president.

Trump, meanwhile, has fervently castigated the probe, accusing Mueller of causing “tremendous damage” to the criminal justice system and treating people “viciously” in a series of tweets on Tuesday. He did not mention Manafort by name.

Manafort is scheduled to be sentenced in February for his conviction on the eight counts of bank and tax fraud in his Virginia criminal trial.  He faces a maximum of 80 years in prison in that case alone, but experts have said he likely won’t get that much time. Judges often allow sentences for separate charges to run concurrently. Federal prosecutors said in an earlier filing in that case that Manafort was likely to get eight to 10 years alone for the tax fraud charges.

In his plea deal to avert a second trial in D.C., Manafort pled guilty to two felony charges related to his foreign lobbying. In violating the agreement, he eviscerated his chance to get a lighter sentence for the charges in D.C. and Virginia.

Wu said prosecutors now essentially hold the keys to his prison cell.

“Without leniency on the part of prosecutors … that’s going to be a heavy hit for him particularly at his age,” he said.

Experts say Manafort has also opened himself up to potential new charges. Prosecutors could now charge the 69-year-old with lying to federal officials.