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Manafort guilty: Courtroom win bolsters special counsel's credibility

Why We Wrote This

Paul Manafort was the first person to stand trial of 32 individuals charged by the special counsel’s office in the Trump-Russia investigation. Tuesday’s guilty verdict could serve to apply pressure on Manafort to cooperate with Robert Mueller on the central focus of their investigation: collusion with Russia.

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo
In a tax evasion and bank fraud trial, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted on eight out of 18 counts Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. Shown here as he departs from U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., Feb. 28, 2018.

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They came as a one-two punch. Paul Manafort’s conviction today on tax evasion and bank fraud charges was announced in federal court in Alexandria, Va., within the same hour that President Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, entered a guilty plea for eight charges in federal court in New York. The Manafort conviction marks the first courtroom victory for special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors and federal agents. The courtroom win also bolsters the special counsel’s credibility in the face of escalating public criticism by Mr. Trump and one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, according to legal analysts. Despite the verdict, it remains unclear whether Mr. Manafort will now be any more willing to work with prosecutors. It is also unclear what, if anything, Manafort could provide to Mr. Mueller’s team that might help advance the Trump-Russia investigation. Manafort faces a second federal trial in Washington next month on charges that he conspired against the United States by acting as a lobbyist from 2005 to 2014 on behalf of politicians and political parties in Ukraine without registering with the US Justice Department.

Paul Manafort’s conviction on tax evasion and bank fraud charges clears the way for special counsel Robert Mueller to exert even more pressure on the former Trump campaign chairman to cooperate in his investigation of alleged Russian meddling and collusion in the 2016 presidential election.

The verdict, announced in federal court in Alexandria, Va., came within the same hour that President Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, entered a guilty plea for eight charges in federal court in New York.

Mr. Cohen’s plea included an acknowledgement that he violated federal campaign finance laws by arranging “hush-money” payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels and one other woman to maintain their silence about alleged affairs they had with Mr. Trump.

In the Manafort case, the jury of six women and six men found the longtime political consultant guilty of eight of the 18 federal charges in his indictment. They included five counts of filing false tax returns for the tax years 2010 through 2014.

He was also convicted of two counts of bank fraud and one count of failing to report an overseas financial account.

The jury deliberated for nearly 30 hours over four days.

US District Judge T.S. Ellis declared a mistrial in the 10 other charges on which the jury was unable to reach unanimous decisions. 

Despite the verdict, it remains unclear whether Mr. Manafort will now be any more willing to work with prosecutors than he has been to date.

It is also unclear what, if anything, Manafort could provide to Mr. Mueller’s team of investigators and prosecutors that might help advance the Trump-Russia investigation.

Second trial in September

Regardless, the special counsel’s office is poised to continue ratcheting up the pressure on Manafort.

He is facing a second federal trial in Washington next month on charges that he conspired against the United States by acting as a lobbyist from 2005 to 2014 on behalf of politicians and political parties in Ukraine without registering with the US Justice Department.

The 12-day federal tax and bank fraud trial in Alexandria was also related to Manafort’s work as a political consultant in Ukraine. That case focused on efforts from 2010 to 2014 by Manafort and others to hide some of his income from US authorities. Investigators also uncovered evidence that Manafort submitted false or misleading documents to obtain loans from US banks from 2015 to 2017 after Manafort’s overseas consulting income dried up.

During that same period, in mid-2016, Manafort served as Trump’s campaign chairman and manager.

The conviction marks the first courtroom victory for Mueller and his team of prosecutors and federal agents. Manafort was the first person to stand trial of 32 individuals charged by the special counsel’s office in the Trump-Russia investigation.

Among those indicted are 13 Russians charged with using social media to interfere in US elections and 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking and publicly releasing private emails of officials at the Democratic National Committee.

Escalating public criticism from White House

The courtroom win bolsters the special counsel’s credibility in the face of escalating public criticism by Trump and one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, according to legal analysts. Trump has repeatedly blasted the Russia collusion investigation in tweets and public comments as a “witch hunt.”

The harsh rhetoric is taking a toll on Mueller’s standing with the public. A Politico/Morning Consult Poll reported that Mueller’s unfavorability rating has risen in the past year from 23 percent in July 2017 to 36 percent in June.

The increasingly hostile posture by the White House has also given rise to speculation that the president might issue a pardon to Manafort and others targeted in the Mueller probe.

Last Friday, during the jury’s second day of deliberations, Trump was asked by reporters if he would pardon Manafort.

“I don’t talk about that,” he said.

But then Trump added: “I think the whole Manafort trial is very sad. When you look at what is going on there. I think it’s a very sad day for our country.”

Trump said Manafort worked on his campaign for a “very short” period of time. “But you know what, he happens to be a very good person. And I think it is very sad what they’ve done to Paul Manafort.”

Some legal analysts view Trump’s comments as a signal to Manafort about a possible pardon.

“By calling Manafort’s trial unfair and Paul a good man, Trump is tampering with the unsequestered jury,” Harvard Law Prof. Laurence Tribe tweeted last weekend.

He added that Trump was “hinting to Manafort that he’s in for a pardon unless he now starts cooperating with Mueller”.

Sen. Susan Collins, (R) of Maine, said Tuesday’s guilty verdict was not unexpected. “It seems to me that the prosecution built a pretty strong case, so I’m not really surprised at those convictions,” she told the Monitor.

At a recent breakfast meeting with reporters hosted by the Monitor, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said the president questions whether Manafort is being treated fairly by the special counsel’s office.

“Has Paul received the same treatment that anybody else would have received had they been accused of the same crime and not associated with Trump?” Mr. Lewandowski asked. “It is a question [the president has] raised, and I think it is a fair question.”

Lewandowski said a pardon may depend in part on the jury verdict. “If he’s guilty on all 18 counts that’s very different than if you’re guilty on one or two,” he said in comments last week.

But he added that he has not spoken directly to the president about a pardon.

On Tuesday, Senate minority leader Charles Schumer told reporters, “I understand the president’s on his way to a rally. He better not talk about pardons for Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort tonight, or any time in the future.” He had not been fully briefed on the plea deal or convictions.

Although Mueller’s primary focus is to investigate an alleged conspiracy between Russia and members of the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election, the Manafort trial in Virginia focused on actions unrelated to Russia and the 2016 election.

Many legal analysts, including Judge Ellis, suggest that prosecutors indicted Manafort on tax and bank fraud charges as a way to pressure Manafort into cooperating in the central focus of their investigation – collusion with the Russians.

As a result of his conviction, Manafort, who is in his late 60s, may face about seven to 10 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. The government is also seeking to forfeit two of Manafort’s homes, an estate in the Hamptons on Long Island, and a brownstone in Brooklyn on Union Street.

Manafort is a long-established lobbyist and political consultant in Washington, having worked on campaigns for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and most recently, Donald Trump.

Prosecutors believe he received $60 million from his work on behalf of pro-Russian politicians and political parties in Ukraine. They said he routed the money through a network of secret overseas accounts that he and his business associate, Rick Gates, controlled.

While Manafort paid taxes on much of his overseas income, he did not disclose the existence of the secret accounts on his tax forms. In addition, Manafort and Mr. Gates wired non-taxed funds from the secret foreign accounts to US-based vendors and others to pay for expensive clothing, luxury cars, home renovations, and real estate.

Gates pleaded guilty in February and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. He testified against his former boss, enduring portions of three days on the witness stand. He was the single most important witness in the government’s case against Manafort. In addition to outlining the broad scope of the tax evasion, Gates offered insider details, testifying that his actions were known, directed, and authorized by Manafort.

Manafort’s lawyers had sought to blame much of the illegal activity on Gates himself, who acknowledged in court that he embezzled several hundred thousand dollars from Manafort. But the argument was apparently not enough to sway the jury.

Gates’ testimony was closely watched for a second reason. Many legal analysts were looking for hints of whether Gates has provided evidence of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to the Mueller team. He testified that he has met with investigators more than 20 times as part of his cooperation agreement.

The most intriguing moment in the trial in that regard came when Gates, under cross-examination, was asked whether he had been questioned by the special counsel’s office about activities during the Trump presidential campaign.

Gates acknowledged that he’d answered questions from the special counsel’s office about the Trump campaign. But when he was pressed for more detail, prosecutors objected.

The lawyers then conferred with the judge in a sidebar conference out of earshot of the jury and the public gallery.

When the cross examination of Gates resumed, the defense lawyer moved on to a new area.

Two days later, prosecutors filed a motion asking Ellis to seal four portions of the transcript of that sidebar conference. It amounted to about 16 lines total of transcript type.

“During the sidebar conference, substantive evidence pertaining to an ongoing investigation was revealed,” the government’s motion says in part. The transcript must be sealed to preserve the confidentiality of the government’s ongoing investigation, the motion says.

Ellis agreed and ordered the requested portions of the transcript be sealed “until the relevant aspect of the investigation is revealed publicly, if that were to occur.”

It is not clear what “ongoing investigation” was revealed in the sidebar conference. But some analysts speculate that perhaps Gates has provided evidence related to the Trump campaign and Russia.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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