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Pardon carries risks for both Trump and Manafort
It's a Trump pardon or bust for Paul Manafort.
Winning a presidential pardon may be the only hope of escaping prison for President Trump's former campaign chairman now that he's been convicted on eight counts of tax and bank fraud stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
Manafort, 69, is facing a sentence that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life. And while no sentencing date has been set yet, he could know his prison term before a federal jury in Washington, D.C., considers evidence against him on separate charges in a second criminal trial that starts Sept. 17.
Trump's public comments about Manafort have been positive following Tuesday's verdict, making a number of observers think a pardon could be in the cards.
Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he feels "very badly" for Manafort and his "wonderful family."
"'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!" he tweeted.
Seth B. Waxman, a former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, said a pardon would be great for Manafort, in large part because of its permanence.
"There's not a better deal, and it can't be undone," he said.
But a pardon would pose real risks to the president.
Glenn Kirschner, a former prosecutor who worked with Mueller also in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, said a pardon for Manafort could be seen as the president trying to influence a witness who could testify against Trump or offer damaging information on Trump to the special counsel.
"Mueller could view that as obstruction of justice," he said.
Even if Mueller doesn't consider the the action a criminal obstruction of justice, the House could still include it in articles of impeachment, Kirschner said.
"It's the type of corruption that's part of high crimes and misdemeanors," he said. "No good could come of it."
While several top Republicans in the Senate warned against issuing a pardon, others were reluctant to discuss how Congress would react if Trump granted Manafort a get-out-jail-free card.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said he didn't want to speculate, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he wasn't going to talk about "what ifs."
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) refused to answer any questions about a possible pardon, saying that he was late to the Senate floor while moving through a crowd of reporters.
Some court watchers say they are less confident a pardon is in the works given the potential downsides for Trump.
Gene Rossi, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, where Manafort's case was tried, put the pardon likelihood at 25 percent.
"The pushback on Capitol Hill would be so enormous that the blue wave that's probably coming Nov. 6 would turn into a tsunami," he said.
As the jury reached its verdict in Manafort's case on Tuesday, Trump's former personal lawyer and self-proclaimed "fixer" Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax fraud, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.
Like Cohen, experts say Manafort could still decide to work with federal prosecutors.
Under federal rules, the government has up to a year after Manafort is sentenced to ask the judge for reduced jail time in exchange for his cooperation, Waxman said, adding that the request can be made beyond the year mark if government attorneys can show good cause why the cooperation didn't take place sooner.
"I think he has huge amounts of information to offer," Waxman said, noting that Manafort was one of the campaign officials in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who claimed to have dirt on then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Though Manafort's trial in Alexandria, Va., wasn't directly related to Mueller's probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, Waxman said it showed Manafort had connections to Russian officials.
"Conspiracies don't fall out of the sky," he said. "There were reasons the Russians felt comfortable reaching out to the campaign, and that's probably because there was a criminal relationship previously that made them comfortable making that call and Manafort comfortable receiving that call."
Though legal experts say federal prosecutors are likely to be far less generous with Manafort in working out a potential deal now, Kirschner said they could still agree not to retry him on the 10 counts that were ruled a mistrial.
He said they could also dismiss the charges he faces in his upcoming trial, and they could advocate for a four-year sentence instead of the seven to 10 years he's likely facing for his recent conviction.
But Manafort might not want a pardon, according to observers such as Kirschner who say it's possible he hasn't flipped because he fears retribution from Russia.
U.K. officials have accused Russia of poisoning an ex-Russian spy and his daughter earlier this year.
Another risk for Manafort in accepting a pardon: He would have to give up his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, meaning Mueller could force him to testify against Trump.
"The president doesn't hold all the cards he thinks he holds," Kirschner said.
Jordain Carney contributed.