Win­dow to Mueller case opens

Sa­gas of Manafort, Co­hen set to col­lide in court to­day

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kevin John­son and Bart Jansen

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 his 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 Sergei 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’s mis­deeds

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 pro-Rus­sian 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 ei­ther 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.

Co­hen’s com­pli­ance

Co­hen pleaded guilty Nov. 29 to ly­ing to Congress about the ex­tent of plans for the real es­tate deal in Moscow, which con­tin­ued into June 2016 – well into the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and longer than Trump ac­knowl­edged.

Co­hen has co­op­er­ated with Mueller since plead­ing guilty in Au­gust to mak­ing six-fig­ure hush pay­ments to women al­leg­ing they had ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs with Trump.

The prose­cu­tion fil­ings will prob­a­bly de­scribe Co­hen’s co­op­er­a­tion since Au­gust on those and per­haps other is­sues.

Comey’s co­op­er­a­tion

Be­fore Democrats take con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives next month, Repub­li­cans want to ques­tion Comey about his de­ci­sion not to pros­e­cute Clin­ton for her use of a pri­vate email server when she was sec­re­tary of state. They also want to ask about Comey’s role in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion.

Law­mak­ers in­ter­viewed se­nior Jus­tice De­part­ment and FBI of­fi­cials pri­vately for months. Comey has tes­ti­fied that he didn’t co­or­di­nate with the Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Jus­tice De­part­ment or White House.

Some Repub­li­cans ques­tioned whether in­ves­ti­ga­tors were bi­ased. Trump sug­gested Comey wanted a job in a po­ten­tial Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Comey ini­tially re­fused to an­swer ques­tions in pri­vate be­cause he was con­cerned law­mak­ers would leak par­tial state­ments. He reached an agree­ment for a tran­script to be re­leased within 24 hours.

Pa­padopou­los’ pri­son time

Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los, a for­mer for­eign pol­icy aide on Trump’s cam­paign, fin­ishes his 14-day sen­tence Fri­day for ly­ing to the FBI about his Rus­sian con­tacts.

Pa­padopou­los ar­rived Nov. 26 at a min­i­mum-se­cu­rity camp in Ox­ford, Wis­con­sin, the Bureau of Prisons con­firmed to USA TO­DAY. This sen­tence was short­ened by time served when he was ar­rested. He was fined $9,500 and or­dered to com­plete 200 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice.

Pa­padopou­los “lied to the FBI re­gard­ing his in­ter­ac­tions with a for­eign pro­fes­sor whom he un­der­stood to have sig­nif­i­cant ties to the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, as well as a fe­male Rus­sian na­tional,” ac­cord­ing to Mueller’s team.

Pa­padopou­los iden­ti­fied that pro­fes­sor as Joseph Mif­sud, who in­tro­duced him to the Rus­sian woman he knew as Olga. Mif­sud told Pa­padopou­los that Olga was re­lated to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, and Pa­padopou­los iden­ti­fied her as “Putin’s niece” in a cam­paign email.

When asked about his con­tacts with Mif­sud and Olga, Pa­padopou­los falsely told the FBI agents that his meet­ings with them hap­pened be­fore he joined the Trump cam­paign.

Robert Mueller

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