The breakdown of a plea deal with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an explosive British news report about alleged contacts he may have had with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threw a new element of uncertainty into the Trump-Russia investigation on Tuesday.
A day after prosecutors accused Manafort of repeatedly lying to them, trashing his agreement to tell all in return for a lighter sentence, he adamantly denied a report in the Guardian that he had met secretly with Assange in March 2016. That’s the same month he joined the Trump campaign and that Russian hackers began an effort to penetrate the email accounts of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The developments thrust Manafort back into the investigation spotlight, raising new questions about what he knows and what prosecutors say he might be attempting to conceal as they probe Russian election interference and any possible coordination with Trump associates in the campaign that sent the celebrity businessman to the White House.
At the same time, other figures entangled in the investigation, including Trump himself, have been scrambling to escalate attacks and allegations against prosecutors who have spent weeks working quietly behind the scenes.
Besides denying he’d ever met Assange, Manafort, who is currently in jail, said he’d told special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors the truth in weeks of questioning. And WikiLeaks said Manafort had never met with Assange, offering to bet London’s Guardian newspaper “a million dollars and its editor’s head.”
Assange, whose organization published thousands of emails stolen from Clinton’s campaign in 2016, is in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London under a claim of asylum.
It is unclear what prosecutors contend Manafort lied about, though they’re expected to make a public filing ahead of sentencing that could offer answers.
Dissolution of the plea deal could be a devastating outcome for a defendant who suddenly admitted guilt last September after months of maintaining his innocence and who bet on his cooperation getting him a shorter sentence. But it’s also a potentially major setback for investigators given that Manafort steered the campaign during a vital stretch of 2016, including a time when prosecutors say Russian intelligence was working to sway the election in Trump’s favor.
The prosecutors’ terse three-page filing underscored their exasperation not only at Manafort’s alleged deception but also at the loss of an important witness present for key moments under investigation, including a Trump Tower meeting at which Trump’s oldest son expected to receive “dirt” about Democrat Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
“The fact is, they wanted his cooperation. They wanted him to truthfully reveal what he knew, so they’re not getting what they wanted,” said Washington defense lawyer Peter Zeidenberg. “This isn’t like a good development where they’re clapping their hands and saying, ‘Now we get to crush this guy.’”
Manafort’s motivation, if indeed he lied to Mueller’s team, also was unclear.
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said in a telephone interview that Trump and his lawyers agree a presidential pardon should not be considered “now.”
However, he added, “The president could consider it at an appropriate time as Manafort has the same rights as any American.”
The Monday night revelation of the Mueller filing on Manafort came at a delicate time for investigators, who have gone months without any new charges and continue to probe possible links between Trump associates and WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website that released tens of thousands of Democratic emails stolen by Russian spies during the 2016 campaign.
As Trump continues raging against the investigation — he tweeted Tuesday that Mueller was doing “TREMENDOUS damage to our Criminal Justice system” and called the investigation “a total disgrace” — others in the crosshairs have filled the vacuum of Mueller’s recent silence by publicly declaring their innocence, accusing prosecutors of coercing testimony or tempting fate by turning aside negotiations.
An associate of Trump confidant Roger Stone is contesting a grand jury subpoena in court. Jerome Corsi said Monday he was rejecting a plea offer and told CNN that being questioned was like being “interrogated as a POW in the Korean War.”
Stone, under investigation himself for connections to WikiLeaks, has repeatedly disparaged Mueller’s investigation and said Monday his friend Corsi was at risk for prosecution “not for lying but for refusing to lie.”
That statement called to mind a Trump tweet from earlier this month in which he stated without evidence that Mueller’s investigators were “screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want.”
Manafort, for his part, had been quiet in public since pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy against the United States. He has met repeatedly since then with investigators.
He remained in the spotlight Tuesday when the Guardian newspaper published a report saying he had secretly met Assange within days or weeks of being brought aboard the Trump campaign. The report suggested a direct connection between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign.
The Guardian, which did not identify the sources for its reporting, said Manafort met with Assange “around March 2016” — the same month that Russian hackers began their all-out effort to steal emails from the Clinton campaign.
Manafort called the story “totally false and deliberately libelous,” saying in a statement that he had never met Assange or anyone close to him.
The Guardian cited unidentified sources as saying Manafort first met Assange at the embassy in 2013, a year after Assange took refuge there to avoid being extradited to Sweden over sex crime allegations.
The newspaper said Manafort returned in 2015 and 2016 and that its sources had “tentatively dated” the final visit to March.
There was no detail on what might have been discussed.
The Trump campaign announced Manafort’s hiring on March 29, 2016, and he served as the convention manager tasked with lining up delegates for the Republican National Convention. He was promoted to chairman that May.
An AP investigation into Russian hacking showed that government-aligned cyberspies began an aggressive effort to penetrate the Clinton campaign’s email accounts on March 10, 2016.
Justice Department prosecutors in Virginia recently inadvertently disclosed the existence of sealed criminal charges against Assange, though it’s unclear what the case involves. Prosecutors were in court Tuesday arguing against unsealing any charge.
Meanwhile, a judge may soon set a sentencing date for Manafort whose hopes for leniency now appear dashed.
“The cooperating defendant usually is very aware of what’s at stake,” said Shanlon Wu, who represented Manafort’s onetime co-defendant Rick Gates. “What I always say to any client of mine who’s contemplating that — there is no going back.
“It’s like being a little bit pregnant,” he added. “There’s no such thing.”