Window to Mueller case opens
Sagas of Manafort, Cohen set to collide in court today
WASHINGTON – The window into Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s closely held investigation into Russian election interference could become clearer Friday with a simple convergence of the federal court calendar.
In Washington, prosecutors are due to file papers explaining last week’s collapse of a cooperation agreement with Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman.
The filing is likely to outline what Mueller’s team characterized as Manafort’s repeated lies and additional “crimes,” leading to a breach of his plea agreement reached in September. His sentencing is set for March 5.
In New York, Mueller’s team is scheduled to file a sentencing memorandum for its newest cooperating witness – former Trump lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen – before his sentencing Wednesday on two convictions.
Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of
campaign finance law offenses as part of a plea agreement in August with federal prosecutors in New York. He reached a separate deal with Mueller’s team last week in which he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about plans for a Trump Tower project in Moscow.
The sentencing documents will probably reveal the scope of Cohen’s cooperation in both cases, which have included allegations about Trump’s hush money payments to two women alleging extramarital affairs with him and Trump’s efforts to conceal plans for a Moscow tower project even as he denied any Russian business interests during the 2016 campaign.
“Given his proximity and centrality to Trump’s operation before and after the election, it would be difficult to find any better cooperating witness than Michael Cohen,” former Miami federal prosecutor Kendall Coffey said. “If (prosecutors) are looking for information about Trump’s business dealings and how they may tie in to Russia, Cohen is likely to know that, and all of us may get an idea of where Mueller is headed in these new filings.
“In Manafort’s case,” Coffey said, “we are likely to learn of what may have pushed him to commit legal suicide.”
Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s team in September as part of a plea agreement to avoid a second trial on financial fraud charges in the District of Columbia. In August, a Virginia federal court jury convicted Manafort on eight counts of related financial fraud charges in the first contested prosecution brought by Mueller’s team.
The filings are scheduled days after Mueller cited the “substantial” cooperation provided by former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. Investigators recommended that he serve no prison time after pleading guilty last year to lying to the FBI in part about his pre-inaugural contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Though the 13-page Flynn filing was heavily reacted, Mueller acknowledged that Flynn met with prosecutors 19 times in the past year and cooperated in the Russia inquiry and two other investigations. The subjects of those additional investigations, one of them a criminal inquiry, were not disclosed.
The shadow of Mueller’s investigation is likely to reach beyond the courtroom, as former FBI Director James Comey is set to deliver closed-door testimony Friday to House members of the Judiciary and Oversight Committees. Republican committee leaders pushed for the politically charged meeting to question whether Comey was biased in favor of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in his management of the Clinton email investigation and the early stages of the Russia inquiry.
Trump fired Comey in May 2017 because of his oversight of the Russia inquiry, a move that spurred Mueller’s appointment.
Manafort, 69, a former lobbyist and political operative, reached a plea agreement in September in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. He admitted leading a long-running conspiracy involving his work on behalf of a proRussian faction in Ukraine led by the country’s former president Viktor Yanukovych. He pleaded guilty to obstructing Mueller’s investigation.
Manafort was convicted in August in federal court in Virginia for bank and tax charges related to the work in Ukraine. He faces sentencing Feb. 8 on those eight counts. The combined punishments could become a life sentence.
Manafort was not convicted in Virginia or D.C. of participating in election interference. But his oversight of the Trump campaign and his participation in key meetings made him a potentially valuable witness to Mueller’s team.