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- The biggest question on many legal scholars’ minds is why Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign, would violate his plea deal with the special counsel Robert Mueller and risk life in prison.
- To most Justice Department veterans, only two reasons came to mind.
- Manafort could be angling for a presidential pardon. But it may not be that simple; with the 2020 election coming up and a newly empowered Democratic-led House of Representatives, pardoning Manafort could be politically fatal for Trump.
- One criminal defense attorney who is actively involved in the Mueller probe floated a second theory behind Manafort’s actions. “Maybe Manafort was lying because telling the truth would reveal something more sinister,” they told INSIDER. “Who else would risk doing something this stupid without a guarantee of freedom?”
Of all the people ensnared in the FBI’s Russia investigation so far, no one has confounded legal scholars more than Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign.
Manafort has been charged twice in the Mueller probe for offenses related to his years of work lobbying for a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party in the US. Following his first trial, he was convicted on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. Manafort was scheduled to go to trial again in September, but he instead struck a deal with the special counsel’s office to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of obstruction of justice in exchange for his cooperation.
Given Manafort’s elevated position on the Trump campaign, as well as his close ties to several people in the president’s inner circle, legal experts told INSIDER there was a good chance he could have gotten a significantly reduced prison sentence if he cooperated fully and expressed remorse for his crimes.
So when news broke that Manafort’s lawyers were briefing Trump’s legal team about everything prosecutors were asking Manafort, and later that Manafort was accused of lying to prosecutors, Justice Department veterans were flummoxed. Some said there were only two reasons Manafort would risk his plea deal and his freedom.
“Manafort is, at his core, a con man,” said one former senior Justice Department official who worked closely with Mueller. “It’s very possible he looked at the option before him – the plea deal – and figured he would have a better chance of getting off scot-free, without having to serve time, with a pardon.”
“The way Manafort gets a pardon is to show Trump the one thing he wants most: loyalty,” the former official told INSIDER. “And we saw that with Manafort’s lawyers keeping Trump’s team in the loop about what he was being asked. Let’s not forget Trump has also publicly expressed sympathy toward Manafort and praised him for not breaking.”
‘Maybe Manafort was lying because telling the truth would reveal something more sinister’
Manafort and the former US national security adviser Michael Flynn are the only two people in Trump’s inner circle embroiled in the Russia probe who have not been public targets of his anger. Last year, The New York Times reported that Trump’s former defense lawyer, John Dowd, floated potential pardons to both men in summer 2017 in what appeared to be a quid pro quo offer in exchange for their silence.
One criminal defense attorney, who requested anonymity because they are actively involved in the Mueller probe, offered a second explanation for Manafort’s actions: “Maybe Manafort was lying because telling the truth would reveal something more sinister,” they told INSIDER. “Who else would risk doing something this stupid without a guarantee of freedom?”
Of everyone in Trump’s orbit, Manafort has the murkiest ties to Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian interests.
Prosecutors are said to be investigating, in particular, his links to the former Russian intelligence operative Konstantin Kilimnik, the Russian-Ukrainian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Manafort is known to have offered Deripaska “private briefings” on the 2016 campaign in what intelligence veterans said was an effort to resolve his longstanding financial disputes with Deripaska. Prosecutors also said Manafort shared confidential Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik, who is in frequent contact with Deripaska, during the election.