Court Battles

High intrigue surrounds Mueller filing in Manafort case

Special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday is expected to file a bombshell report that describes how former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort eviscerated his plea agreement with federal prosecutors.

The highly anticipated memo, slated for release as a court filing, will likely shed more light on Mueller’s investigation into whether President Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

But just how much new information will be made public remains to be seen.

{mosads}The court document, which federal prosecutors said last week would offer a “detailed” account of how Manafort committed crimes by lying to the FBI, is likely to be heavily redacted in areas that concern the overarching, ongoing probe.

Still, whatever information is disclosed is expected to be revelatory in terms of the content and nature of Manafort’s remarks to the special counsel’s office and other FBI investigators. In order to demonstrate that Manafort lied, Mueller will need to refer to evidence or reasons he has for believing Manafort did not tell the truth.

“In laying out Manafort’s lies and how they know they’re lies, we’re going to learn a lot about the investigation,” said Elie Honig, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. “There will be plenty of clues and indicators about where Mueller has gone and will go.”

Any information that could compromise Mueller’s investigation or other probes is likely to be redacted, so the federal judge overseeing Manafort’s case in Washington, D.C., District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, and Manafort’s attorneys would be permitted to view the document in full but the public will not.

Earlier this week, Mueller filed a sentencing memo laying out the cooperation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. That document was heavily redacted to conceal information Flynn has provided in the probe and to at least two other matters under investigation by the Justice Department.

Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C., said he expects the public memo on Manafort to include specifics about the defendant’s lies, unless those details touch on subjects central to the Russia investigation.

“It may be that we see an equal number of redactions in the Manafort memo,” Kirschner said, comparing it to the Flynn filing.

{mossecondads}Still, Friday’s deadline offers Mueller a fresh opportunity to put facts about the Manafort case and the broader investigation into the public realm. While Mueller and his team of prosecutors have refrained from speaking publicly or commenting on developments in their cases, the special counsel has notably put forth detailed court filings that illuminate an investigation that has captured intense public interest.

“The prosecutor has an awful lot of discretion,” Honig said. “It could be a very terse, one- or two-page conclusory statement, or it could be a narrative-style submission.”

It remains unclear exactly what Manafort lied about. He was initially ensnared in the Russia investigation on charges related to his foreign lobbying for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. Manafort was viewed as a key cooperator with U.S. government investigators because of his visibility into the Trump campaign and information he could offer in related foreign lobbying investigations.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Manafort allegedly misled investigators about his lobbying work and contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian who worked for the offshoot of Manafort’s firm in Ukraine. Kilimnik, suspected of ties to Russian intelligence, was charged alongside Manafort with witness tampering earlier this year but has remained out of the reach of U.S. prosecutors.

Mueller first revealed last week that Manafort allegedly lied to the special counsel’s office and other FBI investigators “on a variety of subject matters,” noting that a forthcoming submission would explain “the nature of the defendant’s crimes and lies, including those after signing the plea agreement herein.”

Manafort has denied that he misled investigators in breach of his plea agreement.

Mueller’s disclosure came days after Trump submitted written answers to the special counsel’s questions about collusion, raising questions among some legal experts about the timing of the two developments.

If prosecutors accuse Manafort of lying about something that Trump has said publicly, it could signal the president also lied in his written answers to Mueller, according to former federal prosecutor Shanlon Wu.

Wu said that the Manafort memo, in addition to testimony from Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, could be very dangerous for the president if they contradict the written answers Trump provided on Nov. 20.

Cohen has pleaded guilty to several federal crimes in New York and formally agreed last week to cooperate with Mueller, reportedly sitting for interviews with the special counsel’s office that have totaled 70 hours.

Legal experts say it’s possible Manafort lied about others in the campaign who have had contact with Russian officials, but they noted it’s unlikely any of those names would be revealed in Friday’s memo.

“If he’s disclosing information about somebody who ultimately won’t be prosecuted because Mueller has fallen out of bed with Manafort, there’s more reason to be less clear about it,” said Joel Cohen, a white collar defense attorney and former federal and state prosecutor. “It’s unfair to identify someone as having done wrong if they won’t ultimately be prosecuted for it.”

If Manafort lied by omission, that would suggest he might be trying to protect individuals or avoid retribution from someone.

“I’ve dealt with dozens of cooperators in my time as a prosecutor, and the reason they go off the rails, as it appears Manafort has, is they are omitting — they are protecting themselves or others,” said Honig. “I think it’s likely that Manafort withheld info from Mueller here. The question, then, is going to be what information was he holding back, who was he protecting, and why?”

Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee, is giving Manafort’s defense team until Wednesday to file a preliminary response to the prosecution’s report. Manafort’s attorney, Kevin Downing, said in court last week that he might request further investigation to prove Mueller’s allegations that his client lied to the FBI.

While Berman Jackson set March 5 as Manafort’s target sentencing date, she said she will hold a hearing in mid- to late January to determine whether Manafort breached his plea deal. As part of the deal, Manafort had agreed to plead guilty to two felony charges — conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to launder money — and fully cooperate with Mueller’s probe. In return, prosecutors agreed to drop five other charges, including failure to register as a foreign lobbyists, making false statements and tampering with witnesses.

But prosecutors said in court last week they are considering bringing new charges against Manafort for lying to the FBI in breach of the agreement. Even if he’s not charged, Joel Cohen said the judge can choose to give Manafort more time if it turns out he sent Mueller on a wild goose chase.

The Manafort filing is one of several Mueller will file this week in his sprawling Russia investigation. The special counsel is also slated to submit details Friday on Michael Cohen’s cooperation ahead of his sentencing on eight federal charges in New York.

Tags Donald Trump Manafort case Paul Manafort Robert Mueller Russia Investigation Special counsel
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