The breakdown in Paul Manafort’s cooperation with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation is a significant setback — not necessarily to the special counsel’s inquiry itself, but certainly to those who thought Manafort might blow the lid off a grand conspiracy between Russians and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 election.

Manafort pleaded guilty this past September on the eve of his trial in federal court in D.C. As part of his plea, he agreed to cooperate with the special counsel and provide truthful information concerning any crimes he either knew about or in which he participated. The plea was seen as potentially the biggest break yet in Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 election, including the possible involvement of members of the Trump campaign. Manafort had extensive personal ties to Russia and served as Trump’s campaign chairman during the critical summer of 2016. He attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting that June between Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, and Russian individuals promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Manafort was a guy in the room where it happened — if, indeed, anything happened.

What’s more, Manafort got a pretty good deal. By pleading guilty to two counts of conspiracy, he capped his maximum potential sentence at 10 years, vs. a minimum of more than 17 years had he gone to trial. This suggested he may have convinced prosecutors he had something significant to offer in return.

The rise of kleptocracy and the threat it poses to democracy are missing from the conversation about Paul Manafort, says Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

But now, somewhat abruptly, Manafort’s cooperation has ended. In a joint court filing on Monday, prosecutors accused Manafort of breaching his plea agreement by lying to federal investigators “on a variety of subject matters,” and urged the court to move forward with sentencing. Manafort’s lawyers denied he had provided any false information but allowed that there was no reason not to proceed to sentencing.

So what can we conclude from these developments? First, we are unlikely to see Manafort on the witness stand in a Russian conspiracy trial, crying “j’accuse!” at other senior members of the Trump campaign. If prosecutors expected him to testify at any future trials, the parties almost certainly would not move forward with sentencing. Both sides would want to wait until Manafort’s testimony was completed so they could fully inform the sentencing judge about the nature and extent of his cooperation. But apparently prosecutors now believe Manafort either can’t provide any useful testimony, or that his frequent lies have made him a non-credible witness.

This does not necessarily mean the investigation is at an impasse, or that no additional indictments are coming. Manafort was not the only card in Mueller’s hand. For example, contrast Manafort’s status with that of Rick Gates, his former associate who was Trump’s deputy campaign chairman. Gates has also pleaded guilty, and Mueller recently moved to postpone his sentencing because Gates is still cooperating in “several ongoing investigations” — presumably truthfully. Gates’s potential significance should not be overlooked; he was with the campaign longer than Manafort and has significant Russian ties of his own.

Manafort is just the latest to learn the folly of trying to pull the wool over Mueller’s eyes. No one but Manafort knows why he might have lied. But without any credit for cooperating, Manafort, who is 69 years old, almost certainly faces the maximum sentence of 10 years, in addition to whatever sentence he receives in a separate case in Virginia. Some believe the fix is in and that Manafort has been secretly guaranteed a presidential pardon. That’s certainly possible, though personally I’d be reluctant to stake not spending the rest of my life in prison on a promise from Donald Trump.

In any event, Manafort is soon headed to prison and likely obscurity. But his case promises one more potentially fascinating development: Mueller’s prosecutors have pledged to file a sentencing memo with the court describing Manafort’s crimes, including his post-plea lies to investigators. A memo such as this is an opportunity for prosecutors to tell the court and the public what they have found. Depending on where the investigation stands, critical portions of that memo could be filed under seal. But if it’s public, then by describing Manafort’s lies — and how they know they were lies — members of Mueller’s team could offer the first detailed account yet of what they have learned about interactions between Russians and the Trump campaign.

Ironically, that could end up being Manafort’s most significant contribution to the Mueller investigation.

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