Manafort’s screwed; Trump’s implicated; and parts of Mueller’s investigation may become public

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Back in September, Paul Manafort—Russian agent and former Trump campaign chair extraordinaire—accepted a plea deal that required him to divulge pretty much everything, to be on call to testify, and to cooperate generally. In return, special counsel Robert Mueller’s team offered a slight break on sentencing guidelines, a recommendation that his sentences from two different federal trial courts run concurrently, and a shield from additional charges, among other things. Mueller’s promises were conditioned on Manafort’s truthful cooperation.

Two months later, after “at least a dozen sessions interrogating [Manafort,]” Mueller has filed a formal status report alleging that Manafort has violated the plea agreement by lying to investigators. That’s a problem—for Manafort.

A breach relieves the government of any obligations it has under the agreement, including its agreement to a reduction in the Sentencing Guidelines for acceptance of responsibility, but leaves intact all the obligations of the defendant as well as his guilty pleas.

If proven, and that seems likely, Manafort’s post-plea lies release Mueller from his side of the bargain. He’s gotten Mueller to pull the trigger on sentencing, which is Mueller’s prerogative by the terms of this somewhat unusual agreement. Litigating those lies works against him—and President Donald Trump, as some constitute new crimes.

Bottom line: Manafort’s screwed, primarily because he has nothing left to offer Mueller. He wasn’t truthful with Mueller’s team; he’s not going to be credible in a courtroom. They can’t even use him as a witness. And, FYI, there’s no “do-over” here: Manafort’s guilty plea sticks.

There’s a possibility Trump will try to rescue Manafort.

It’s more likely, though, that this battle will play out in court.

Manafort’s defense team claims he has not violated the agreement; they have indicated their tack with statements like, Manafort “believes he has provided truthful information.” They’re pushing for sentencing based on an intact plea agreement. That’s a long shot.

Mueller’s investigation could suffer a significant setback as a result of Manafort. There’s certainly an opportunity cost keenly felt: Had he been truthful, Manafort would have been a witness of tremendous value, and all the more so after recent revelations about the timing of his interactions with Russian agents, Julian Assange, and the Trump campaign. Now, instead of providing testimony that would reduce his punishment, Manafort could be facing new charges along with the old.

The flipside, of course, is that a legal contest over Manafort’s violation of the plea agreement will get ugly quickly—for Manafort and Trump. Depending on what’s made public—and that’s the very, very strong default for legal proceedings—we could get a précis of Mueller’s investigative report.

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Markm Mitchell
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Markm Mitchell

The legal system works, for the most part, slowly.