Politics

3 Key Takeaways from Paul Manafort’s Plea Deal With Mueller

Mueller scores a victory, a Trump pardon looks dicey, and hindsight’s 20-20 for Manafort

A protester is seen outside of the United States District Court in Alexandria, Virginia where President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort stood trial July 31, 2018. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Paul Manafort’s plea agreement is a monstrously one-sided deal in favor of the government.

That’s what experts who talked to Roll Call unanimously concluded after taking a few hours to digest the former Trump campaign chairman’s decision to reach a bargain with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s prosecution team.

Manafort agreed as part of his plea deal Friday to “cooperate fully, truthfully, completely, and forthrightly” with Mueller’s team and other law enforcement officials. In exchange, the government will request that judges in Virginia and Washington, D.C., hand him a sentence no longer than 10 years in prison for the 20 counts on which he has either pleaded or been found guilty.

A jury in Eastern Virginia found the former political consulting titan guilty on eight counts related to tax evasion and loan fraud last month but remained hung on 10 other counts. Manafort pleaded guilty to those remaining 10 counts Friday as part of his plea agreement.

Here are three takeaways from the deal and what Manafort’s cooperation with the special counsel means for his sentencing, the Mueller investigation, and a potential pardon from the president.

1. This was not a “win for both sides” — Mueller’s team won

No matter how you look at it, this deal has to be seen as a massive victory for Mueller and his special counsel team.

The only concession the special counsel made was to repackage the charges against Manafort in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia from seven counts to two and to ask judges for a shorter sentence.

Besides that, prosecutors extracted a guilty plea, a cooperation agreement from Manafort to tell them everything he knows and fork over any documents they request, an admission of guilt to the 10 remaining charges from the Eastern Virginia trial, and likely a multiyear prison sentence for Manafort.

“The government has gotten everything that it could possibly want,” one former top U.S. Justice Department Criminal Division attorney said.

The language of the plea agreement is “really one-sided,” she said.

For example, the government did not specify how much of a reduction it will seek on Manafort’s sentencing if he follows through on his cooperation agreement.

“There’s no limit on what they can request,” the former DOJ attorney said. They can ask for a 25 percent departure from the sentencing guidelines. They can ask for a 75 percent departure. It’s entirely up to Mueller and his team based on the value of the information they receive from Manafort.

Mueller’s team could also pull out of the agreement at any time if they feel Manafort is not fully cooperating. That’s boilerplate for most plea agreements.

What’s extraordinary about this plea agreement, though, is the lack of protections Manafort has if that scenario were to play out.

The breach clause of the plea deal is remarkably bare, and the government has retained the right to use anything Manafort says in his cooperation meetings against him if prosecutors decide to pull out of the agreement and try him.

“Usually, there would be some protection that if the government believes that the agreement was breached, that they can’t use the statements that were made to the government during the period of cooperation with that person,” the former prosecutor who spoke to Roll Call said. “The defendant’s lawyers would usually try to put some protections in there against that.”

“But here,” she said, “there’s none.”

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2. That pardon from Trump suddenly looks less likely

For months, analysts, experts and political talking heads have speculated Trump could reward Manafort with a presidential pardon for holding out on a plea agreement — where he would be asked all sorts of questions about his dealings with the president on the 2016 campaign — and going to trial.

By striking an 11th-hour deal with Mueller, Manafort could be putting that potential pardon in jeopardy.

“It’s still in play, but he’s going to give everything up [on Trump],” former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Harry Litman said.

“The whole point [of declining to enter into a plea agreement and going to trial], it seemed that he was playing out the string for a pardon. Now, he plays out the string, but I think he cuts it,” Litman said.

Manafort’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors Friday could indicate he didn’t feel he could count on Trump for a pardon.

Taking the plea deal is a stunning reversal of legal strategy for Manafort, who endured a three-week trial in Eastern Virginia in which the government presented a highly compelling case to extract guilty verdicts on eight of 18 counts.

“Now, he’s doing the thing that will keep Trump from giving him a pardon: He’s giving up everything he knows about Trump,” Litman said.

The president’s personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has argued, however, that a plea agreement between Manafort and the special counsel does not affect Trump because his former campaign chairman has nothing compromising to say about the president.

“From our perspective, we want him to do the right thing for himself,” Giuliani told Politico on Thursday. “There’s no fear that Paul Manafort would cooperate against the president because there’s nothing to cooperate about and we long ago evaluated him as an honorable man.”

3. Manafort’s plea deal with Mueller likely would not have been as lopsided if he had struck one earlier

Holding out on cooperation with Mueller’s team for as long as he did only weakened Manafort’s bargaining position.

When the Eastern Virginia jury found him guilty in August, that conviction carried with it a maximum 80-year prison sentence. Manafort is 69.

Had he decided to cooperate with prosecutors well before that trial began — he had months to do so — the plea agreement would probably have looked a lot different, and more balanced, than the one filed in court Friday in D.C. 

“It’s a really sort of obvious lesson — it’s kind of ‘pride goeth before the fall,’” Litman said. “It’s pathetic to have steadfastly stayed with a non-cooperation strategy only to have to cave at the end. … He’s left with a fraction of the deal that he might have hoped for.”

The tilt toward the special counsel in the plea agreement’s language gives Manafort plenty of incentive to tell them everything he knows about the possible criminal dealings of other Trump campaign officials.

Prosecutors hold all the cards: If they decide the information Manafort proffers is redundant or offers them little value, it’s within their right to pull out of the agreement and continue prosecuting him.

Above all, Manafort needs to tell the full truth. Mueller has collected folders upon folders of information since he began his investigation and spoken with dozens of witnesses. Manafort would be hard-pressed to bend the truth around him.

“As always, Rule No. 1 with Mueller, you don’t know what he knows,” Litman said. “If Manafort says anything that’s false, everything, everything goes away, including this plea agreement. The whole hammer returns.”

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