As President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort discusses a possible plea deal, he may finally succumb to the intense pressure brought by prosecutors to cooperate and the long odds of emerging unscathed from a second trial scheduled to begin later this month.
Since his conviction in a Virginia federal courtroom in August, the 69-year-old political consultant has been engaged in off-and-on plea negotiations with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, according to people familiar with the matter.
At first blush, there is not a great deal at stake for either side — prosecutors have already won a hefty conviction against Manafort, and for him, a plea deal now may not shave much off his prison time. He has yet to be sentenced in the first case, but lawyers say he could get roughly seven to 10 years under federal guidelines.
Manafort now faces trial in the District on seven charges, including failure to register as a lobbyist for a foreign country, and attempting to tamper with witnesses in that case.
Manafort’s behavior has led some law enforcement officials to suspect he is secretly counting on a pardon from President Trump, his former boss, according to people familiar with the internal discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Trump has refused to talk about whether he has considered a pardon for Manafort, but he has repeatedly defended his former campaign lieutenant and has already issued pardons in a handful of cases against high-profile Republicans.
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Chicago, said the possibility of a pardon is the best explanation for Manafort’s decisions.
“If it wasn’t for the possibility of a pardon, it would be insane for him not to cut a deal at this point,” said Cotter. “He’s already guaranteed to go to prison for years, he’s got little reasonable chance of winning in D.C., it’s incredibly expensive, and there’s no benefit to him (in going to trial). And he’s in the enviable position that, even after a conviction, if he’s willing to tell the truth, the government is still interested in talking to him. That’s pretty rare.”
People familiar with the plea talks said Manafort has been unwilling so far to cooperate with Mueller by providing any new information or testimony in the ongoing investigation into whether Trump associates may have conspired with the Kremlin to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Manafort.
A guilty plea without such cooperation is a much less attractive proposal for Mueller’s team, but legal analysts say both sides still have plenty to gain from a plea deal, even without cooperation.
“Manafort’s leverage in trying to extract any kind of beneficial treatment from the prosecutors will all but disappear if he doesn’t jump at the opportunity to reach a deal before the next trial begins,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice.
By pleading, Manafort would also duck the cost of paying his legal team to represent him over a weeks-long trial. For complex white-collar cases like Manafort’s, the tab for such a trial could be $1 million or more.
Some white collar defendants will choose to go to trial in part because it keeps them free on bail until the case is resolved. Even that incentive has been removed for Manafort. He was ordered to jail in June, after prosecutors said he attempted to tamper with witness testimony in the upcoming case.
For prosecutors, the rewards of a possible guilty plea are different. Every trial poses at least some risk , and a plea would eliminate that. Even a deal without cooperation would still be a public win for prosecutors.
“Manafort would have to admit in open court to having willfully engaged in criminal conduct,” Mintz said. “That will typically be fairly detailed and it would certainly put to rest once and for all the notion that Manafort is an innocent person who has simply been caught up in the larger political maelstrom. That benefit to prosecutors — a clear-cut victory with a clear admission of guilt by Manafort — would be tremendous.”
Since he was first indicted in late 2017, Manafort has given every indication he planned to fight the charges to the bitter end. Even when his business partner, Rick Gates, took a plea and testified against him, Manafort fought the case alone.
Last month, he was convicted in Virginia of eight counts, including bank fraud and tax charges.
After that verdict, Trump heaped praise on Manafort, comparing him favorably to the president’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty in an unrelated case and implicated Trump.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” Trump tweeted. “’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!”