Be­gin­ning of the end game?

The sec­ond con­vic­tion of Paul Manafort and his de­ci­sion to co­op­er­ate with in­ves­ti­ga­tors may sig­nal the Mueller probe has en­tered its fi­nal phase

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SUNDAY MORNING - By Matt Zapotosky, Carol Leonnig and Ash­ley Parker WASH­ING­TON POST

“I think Robert Mueller’s real quest here is for the truth, and Paul Manafort can get him closer to know­ing the truth.” former U.S. at­tor­ney Bar­bara McQuade

WASH­ING­TON — First came Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los, the former Trump cam­paign ad­viser who was ar­rested by the FBI when he stepped off a plane at Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port and soon agreed to help the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice as part of a plea agree­ment.

Then there was Michael Flynn, the pres­i­dent’s former na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser who ad­mit­ted he lied to the bureau and would now be co­op­er­at­ing with Robert Mueller’s team to make things right.

Next to fall was Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy cam­paign chair­man who con­ceded he con­spired to de­fraud the United States and tried to de­ceive in­ves­ti­ga­tors look­ing into his over­seas work.

One by one, the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice me­thod­i­cally turned al­lies of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump into wit­nesses for its in­ves­ti­ga­tion — irk­ing the com­man­der in chief so much that he has sug­gested the com­mon­place law-en­force­ment tac­tic “al­most ought to be il­le­gal.” But former Trump cam­paign chair­man Paul Manafort had long eluded Mueller’s team, with his re­sis­tance to a plea deal so in­tense that some in law en­force­ment fig­ured he must know he would soon re­ceive a par­don.

On Fri­day, though, the spe­cial coun­sel fi­nally nabbed his white whale. Manafort, whose role in the Trump cam­paign and ties to a Rus­sian-aligned strong­man and a sus­pected Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence agent make him an en­tic­ing co­op­er­a­tor, pleaded guilty to con­spir­acy to de­fraud the United States and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice. As part of his agree­ment with pros­e­cu­tors, he said he would tell the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice all that he knows.

Im­pli­cat­ing the pres­i­dent?

Manafort’s plea could be a key cog in push­ing Mueller’s case to­ward its ul­ti­mate end. Le­gal an­a­lysts say Manafort must have some­thing valu­able to share with Mueller’s team, which agreed to drop five of the seven charges he faced and po­ten­tially urge le­niency at his sen­tenc­ing, if his co­op­er­a­tion is help­ful.

Gen­er­ally, those who plead guilty sit down with pros­e­cu­tors to de­tail what they know in a “prof­fer” ses­sion, so the gov­ern­ment knows what it will get in the bar­gain. Manafort’s plea makes ref­er­ence to a writ­ten prof­fer agree­ment on Tues­day — show­ing he has been in talks with the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice at least for sev­eral days.

Whether Manafort ul­ti­mately im­pli­cates the pres­i­dent re­mains to be seen. Manafort’s de­fend­ers and Trump’s lawyers have long in­sisted that the po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant, who left the cam­paign in Au­gust 2016, had no in­for­ma­tion that would in­crim­i­nate Trump.

“I think Robert Mueller’s real quest here is for the truth, and Paul Manafort can get him closer to know­ing the truth,” said former U.S. at­tor­ney Bar­bara McQuade.

Trump at­tor­ney Rudy Gi­u­liani said Fri­day that it would im­pos­si­ble for Manafort’s co­op­er­a­tion with Mueller’s of­fice to im­peril the pres­i­dent. That is be­cause Trump and Manafort con­tin­ued to have a joint de­fense agree­ment — an in­for­mal ar­range­ment among lawyers to share in­for­ma­tion — which Manafort would have to can­cel if he be­lieved his co­op­er­a­tion could ex­pose Trump to le­gal jeop­ardy, Gi­u­liani said.

Trump’s le­gal team rec­og­nized it couldn’t con­trol Manafort’s de­sire to avoid a sec­ond trial af­ter be­ing con­victed on eight of 18 counts in a re­lated case in Vir­ginia last month. Trump him­self has not yet ad­dressed the plea di­rectly.

The charges to which Manafort pleaded guilty had noth­ing to do with the pres­i­dent. Rather, they fo­cused on Manafort’s per­sonal money laun­der­ing, fail­ure to reg­is­ter as a for­eign agent for work he did on be­half of Vik­tor Yanukovych, the pro-Rus­sian former pres­i­dent of Ukraine, and ob­struct­ing jus­tice with Kon­stantin Kil­imnik, whom pros­e­cu­tors have linked to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence.

But while the White House pro­jected con­fi­dence about its po­si­tion, some of­fi­cials pri­vately ac­knowl­edged that they could not be sure what Manafort might ex­pose about the cam­paign or about in­ter­ac­tions with Rus­sians.

Manafort was a par­tic­i­pant in the now-in­fa­mous June 2016 Trump Tower meet­ing, where the pres­i­dent’s son Don­ald Trump Jr. and son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner, sat down with a Rus­sian lawyer think­ing they would get dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion on Hil­lary Clin­ton. He also was a part of the Trump cam­paign when the Repub­li­can Party plat­form was changed in a way viewed as more fa­vor­able to Rus­sia be­cause it did not in­clude sup­port for arm­ing Ukraine.

“I think he po­ten­tially knows a lot of in­for­ma­tion, just in light of his role as the cam­paign chair­man dur­ing that cru­cial time dur­ing the sum­mer of 2016,” said McQuade, who watched much of Manafort’s first trial.

Manafort’s plea agree­ment short-cir­cuited a trial in Wash­ing­ton that was sched­uled to be­gin in the com­ing days with jury se­lec­tion. He in­stead agreed to ad­mit wrong­do­ing and co­op­er­ate fully with Mueller, turn­ing over any doc­u­ments that may be rel­e­vant to the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion and tes­ti­fy­ing in any pro­ceed­ings where that might be nec­es­sary. He also agreed to give up five prop­er­ties and a hand­ful of fi­nan­cial ac­counts.

Be­cause Manafort has al­ready been con­victed in Vir­ginia, co­op­er­a­tion might be the best way for him to re­duce his time in prison. He faces roughly 10 years in the Wash­ing­ton case and per­haps another 10 in Vir­ginia — though he would prob­a­bly be able to serve those to­gether, par­tic­u­larly if pros­e­cu­tors urge judges to go easy on him.

Po­ten­tial par­dons

So far, the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice has charged 32 peo­ple and three Rus­sian com­pa­nies. Six have pleaded guilty. Though Mueller has shrouded his probe in se­crecy, he is push­ing to wrap up a sub­stan­tial por­tion of his in­ves­tiga­tive work soon and is re­fer­ring cases to U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fices, ac­cord­ing to those fa­mil­iar with Mueller’s work who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

A grand jury still seems to be ac­tively in­ves­ti­gat­ing Trump as­so­ciate Roger Stone, and the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice is still ne­go­ti­at­ing with the pres­i­dent’s le­gal team over the pos­si­bil­ity of in­ter­view­ing Trump him­self. Stone said in a state­ment af­ter the plea: “I am un­cer­tain of the de­tails of Paul’s plea deal but cer­tain it has no bear­ing on me since nei­ther Paul Manafort or any­one else can tes­tify truth­fully that I am in­volved in Rus­sian col­lu­sion, Wik­iLeaks col­lab­o­ra­tion or any other il­le­gal act per­tain­ing to the 2016 elec­tion.”

While Manafort had pre­vi­ously seemed to be pos­tur­ing for a par­don — the pres­i­dent praised him on Twit­ter as a “brave man” af­ter he fought pros­e­cu­tors at the Vir­ginia trial — it was not im­me­di­ately clear whether Manafort would be able to main­tain that ef­fort af­ter his plea.

Ear­lier this sum­mer, Trump had sought his lawyer’s ad­vice on par­don­ing his former aides, in­clud­ing Manafort. But Gi­u­liani said he coun­seled Trump that he shouldn’t con­sider such a par­don un­til af­ter Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion was com­pleted, and the pres­i­dent un­der­stood.

“He agreed with us,” Gi­u­liani told the Wash­ing­ton Post last month.

Robert Wuen­sche photo il­lus­tra­tion / Staff

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