A federal judge on Thursday again delayed a key pretrial hearing for Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, as news reports said he was close to an agreement to plead guilty in a foreign-lobbying and money-laundering case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson had originally set the hearing for Wednesday morning, then shifted it to Friday at 9:30 a.m. On Thursday, she delayed the hearing again, to later Friday morning.
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The unexplained delays came amid reports of ongoing discussions between Manafort’s defense lawyers and Mueller’s prosecutors about a potential deal to head off the looming trial. The high-profile legal showdown that Manafort faces in Washington could be an embarrassing distraction for President Donald Trump and the White House in the lead-up to the November midterm elections.
Jury selection for Manafort’s D.C. trial is, at this time, set to begin Monday, with opening arguments scheduled for a week later.
ABC News reported that it spotted Manafort’s defense team arriving at Mueller’s Washington office late Thursday morning in a vehicle that entered through a garage sometimes used to sneak witnesses in and out without attracting media attention. The lawyers stayed more than four hours before emerging, ABC said.
Details of Manafort’s potential plea were not immediately clear. And spokespeople for Manafort and for Mueller declined to comment on the tentative deal. One key question is whether any agreement would require him to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation and offer testimony to the special counsel, particularly on the core question of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Numerous aides to the president have said they believe Trump is likely to grant Manafort a pardon that would effectively wipe out any guilty pleas through such a deal, as well as eight charges he was convicted of by a jury following a trial in Alexandria, Virginia, last month.
However, Trump has also railed against “flippers” and publicly praised Manafort for refusing to “break” under pressure from the special counsel, making any perception that Manafort is cooperating with the Russia inquiry a possible deal-breaker for a pardon.
In an interview with POLITICO on Wednesday, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani said the president and his lawyers were not concerned about Manafort cutting a deal to resolve charges against him.
“We can see a reason why he might want to do that,” Giuliani said. “What’s the need for another trial? They’ve got enough to put him in jail. … I think it’s pretty clear if they were going to get anything from him, they’d have gotten it already. What’s the point of further harassing him?”
Giuliani also said he did not believe that a guilty plea by Manafort would wipe out his chances for a pardon.
“I don’t see why it would foreclose it, no,” the Trump attorney and former New York mayor said. Giuliani has previously said he has encouraged Trump to hold off any pardon for Manafort until Mueller’s investigation is complete.
When Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner and co-defendant, agreed in February to plead guilty to two felony charges and cooperate with investigators, Manafort professed to be mystified by the development.
“I continue to maintain my innocence,” Manafort wrote. “I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence. For reasons yet to surface, he chose to do otherwise. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me.”
When Manafort went to trial earlier this summer in a separate tax-and-bank-fraud case brought by Mueller, Trump seemed to praise Manafort for his defiance.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” Trump wrote on Twitter last month.
“One of the reasons I respect Paul Manafort so much is he went through that trial — you know, they make up stories. People make up stories. This whole thing about flipping, they call it, I know all about flipping,” Trump added on “Fox & Friends.” “It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal. … For 30, 40 years, I’ve been watching flippers. Everything’s wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they — they flip on whoever the next highest one is, or as high as you can go.”
Under sentencing guidelines, Manafort faces a likely sentence of eight to 10 years on the eight charges he was convicted on last month, although a judge can deviate from that range. Prior to any plea deal, lawyers said, Manafort was exposed to a sentence of a decade or more if convicted on the Washington charges, which include conspiracy against the United States, failing to register as a foreign agent, money laundering and witness tampering. It would be up to the second judge who sentenced Manafort to decide whether the sentences would run concurrently or consecutively.
Such sentencing provisions are usually the subject of painstaking negotiations between defense lawyers and prosecutors in a plea deal. The sentences for Manafort, however, could be all but academic if Trump grants a pardon.
Indeed, Manafort might never be sentenced at all. Last year, Trump granted a pardon to Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who is a loyal political supporter and who was awaiting sentencing on a contempt-of-court charge.
That act of clemency stirred political controversy, but it could be mild compared to the furor a pardon for Manafort might set off since many will view it as an act aimed at thwarting or lashing out at Mueller’s investigation into alleged cooperation by Trump allies with Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Manafort was under house arrest after he was first charged last October, but Jackson ordered him jailed in June following the allegations that he tampered with witnesses in the case. He’s been in custody since.
A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office in Alexandria, Virginia, said Thursday that Manafort remained in their custody, but she referred questions about any movements in recent days to the U.S. Marshals Service.
Manafort’s Virginia trial was deeply irritating to Trump, who grumbled about all the media attention it received, according to aides and advisers. The Washington trial could prove even more galling for him, and not only because of its proximity to the election. While much mention of the Trump campaign hasn’t been expected, the D.C. trial is expected to focus on the foreign control of lobbying that Manafort did for Ukraine, former President Viktor Yanukovych and his political allies.
The foreign-influence aspect of the case could lead to a more sinister tone in news coverage compared with the Virginia case, which was primarily about Manafort’s failure to pay income taxes and allegations that he lied to banks when submitting loan applications.