Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s lies caught up with him in federal court on Wednesday. The result was a decision that likely means, absent either a deal or a presidential pardon, he’ll spend the rest of his life in jail.
The judge’s finding that Manafort, 69, breached his cooperation deal with prosecutors by lying after his guilty plea could add years to his prison sentence and came after a set of sealed court hearings.
Manafort had denied intentionally lying after his plea deal, but U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the District found he lied in three of five areas alleged by prosecutors. She said she would factor in his deception on other topics at sentencing March 13.
The subject matter of Manafort’s lies goes to the core of possible cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russians linked to Russian intelligence — in this case, Konstantin Kilimnik, who met with Manafort during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In particular, the court found that Manafort lied about his contacts with Kilimnik both during and after the election. Manafort was also found to have lied about “a payment that was routed through a pro-Trump political action committee to cover his legal bills, and about information relevant to another undisclosed investigation underway at the Justice Department.”
In some sense, we should have expected this outcome. “No surprise Manafort was caught lying again,” says Joyce White Vance, a former federal prosecutor. “The open question is whether Manafort was freelancing or whether others from the campaign were involved.”
In previous court filings that were inadvertently released, we learned that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had evidence that Manafort gave Kilimnik private polling data. This exchange, according to what federal prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told a federal judge last week, went “to the heart” of the Mueller investigation.
The Post previously reported that, at a hush-hush August 2, 2016 meeting at the Grand Havana Room, a private cigar room in New York, Manafort, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates and Kilimnik discussed “a proposed resolution to the conflict over Ukraine, an issue of great interest to the Russian government, according to a partially redacted transcript of the Feb. 4 hearing.” It was there that there may have been “a handoff by Manafort of internal polling data from Trump’s presidential campaign to his Russian associate.”
Manafort finds himself in a much worse position than he was as a cooperating witness trying to whittle down his potential sentence for eight felony convictions handed down last year in Virginia. “Manafort is either the most self-destructive, irrational liar in history, or he is still protecting a secret so dark that exposing it would kill his chance for a pardon,” former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller tells me. “Now that he’s facing a jail sentence that could stretch for the rest of his life, we’ll find out if his risky gamble will pay off.”
This, in short, was collusion — Trump’s top campaign official giving material to a suspected agent of a hostile foreign government that the campaign had already been warned was attempting to interfere with our election. Whatever you call it — direct or indirect evidence — this now is one link proven in court between the campaign and the Russians. We know of others, of course, including the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 designed to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, Trump’s public call for Russia to go after Clinton’s emails, and more than 100 contacts between Russian figures and members of the Trump circle.
It’s difficult to think of an explanation for Manafort’s lying that doesn’t open new avenues for Mueller to explore. “There is no non-nefarious explanation for the chairman of a presidential campaign secretly meeting with a suspected Russian agent in the midst of an election that the Russians are actively trying to influence and then lying about it to the prosecutor after agreeing to cooperate.,” says Max Bergmann of the Moscow Project. “The only reason for Manafort to lie at this point is to cover up something truly devastating.”
Oddly, it was on Wednesday morning that we learned Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, believed there’d been no direct evidence of collusion. That assertion is hard to square with the court’s finding later on Wednesday and publicly available evidence. The only question is which of these contacts Trump was aware of and/or authorized, and what the nature of any quid pro quo may have been.
Former prosecutor Mimi Rocah observes, “It isn’t surprising to me that the judge found that Manafort lies because prosecutors don’t try to void cooperation agreements lightly. But it’s still shocking.” She notes that “Manafort chose to lie about his dealings with a Russian intelligence officer and spend years more in prison than he would have if he had told the truth. So the looming question that remains in my mind is — why? “
Those speculating that Mueller is wrapping up soon better reset their clocks. With Manafort now under extreme pressure, he could for the first time tell us what exactly is the deep dark secret about Russia and the Trump operation that so many people have lied to cover up.