Ever since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III alleged Paul Manafort lied to prosecutors after cutting a deal, the question has been why. Why jeopardize your cooperation agreement? What could make you risk more years in prison?
It became even more curious when we learned Manafort’s legal team continued briefing President Trump’s team the whole time, even as Manafort might have been sharing derogatory information about Trump — a move that clearly irked Mueller’s team.
On Thursday, it got even more strange.
At the former Trump campaign chairman’s sentencing hearing, prosecutors alleged that Manafort not only lied to them — as a separate judge has confirmed he did — but that he provided nothing of substantial use, either. Much of his time spent meeting with them was, in fact, because he had lied.
“Manafort did not provide valuable information to the special counsel that wasn’t already known,” Mueller team prosecutor Greg Andres said.
Manafort was ultimately spared a harsh prison sentence Thursday. Judge T.S. Ellis III sentenced him to 47 months in prison, well shy of the 19 to 24 years that prosecutors had sought for his tax- and bank-fraud convictions. He could still face more jail time in the coming days, when the judge in Washington who ruled that he had lied to prosecutors, sentences him in a separate case. (The judge could also rule that Manafort’s sentences will run concurrently, leading to less than four years behind bars.)
The 47-month sentence, though, was delivered because Ellis deemed the sentencing guidelines to be too harsh, not necessarily because Manafort was a sympathetic figure. In fact, in a brief statement to the court before sentencing, Manafort did not apologize for his crimes. Instead, he said that he was “humiliated.”
“'Ashamed’ would be a gross understatement,” he said.
But let’s go back to Manafort’s cooperation, or lack thereof. We have now learned that Manafort not only lied to prosecutors but that he apparently never really gave them anything. He entered into a cooperation agreement and then, according to Mueller’s team, failed to cooperate in any useful way.
We don’t know most of what he said in those sessions, but we do know that he lied about a few important topics, including one involving an issue at “the heart” of Mueller’s probe.
- About interactions with an associate who Mueller’s team says is tied to Russian intelligence, Konstantin Kilimnik, including sharing polling information (the matter at “the heart” of Mueller’s probe, according to court filings).
- About a payment to a law firm.
- About an unknown Justice Department investigation.
In other words, Manafort lied about something at “the heart” of the probe but never shared anything new at “the heart” of it, according to prosecutors. It’s one thing to actually cooperate and then slip into some lies because you might want to hide something; it’s another thing to never say anything helpful.
Manafort’s promised cooperation with prosecutors was always going to be a potential bonus at Thursday’s sentencing hearing, and not necessarily a strike against if he failed to follow through. It could lead to more potential jail time at his next sentencing, though, and we don’t yet know how that will play out.
But the more we learn about this aborted arrangement, the more intrigue it adds to the question of why Manafort ever entered into it in the first place. Did he ever intend to help prosecutors? Did he ever intend to say anything derogatory about Trump, even if true? Could he still be banking on a pardon?
After Thursday’s sentencing, there are more questions than ever before.