Just how close did Robert Mueller come to realizing his strategy of getting Paul Manafort to flip in prosecuting leftover charges from a 2014 Department of Justice investigation? Perhaps closer than imagined during his first trial, as the Wall Street Journal suggests. After Manafort’s defense team took the bold step of declining to present a defense earlier this month, arguing that Mueller’s team had failed to prove its case, the two sides opened talks on cutting a deal.
Unfortunately for Manafort, both strategies ended up flopping:
Paul Manafort’s defense team held talks with prosecutors to resolve a second set of charges against the former Trump campaign chairman before he was convicted last week, but they didn’t reach a deal, and the two sides are now moving closer to a second trial next month, according to people familiar with the matter.
The plea discussions occurred as a Virginia jury was spending four days deliberating tax and bank fraud charges against Mr. Manafort, the people said. That jury convicted him on eight counts and deadlocked on 10 others. Prosecutors accused Mr. Manafort of avoiding taxes on more than $16 million he earned in the early 2010s through political consulting work in Ukraine.
The plea talks on the second set of charges stalled over issues raised by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, one of the people said. It isn’t clear what those issues were, and the proposed terms of the plea deal couldn’t immediately be determined.
That’s quite a two-step for Manafort and his attorneys. It tends to indicate that they themselves didn’t put too much confidence into their decision not to present a defense, and raises the question as to why they chose not to do so at all. If they were willing to admit some guilt to avoid a jury conviction, why not do so in the first place? And if they thought it would be necessary to cut a deal at some point, why not at least try to put on a defense when the time came? What harm could it have done, other than to strengthen a prosecution case that they were privately ready to concede anyway?
Perhaps they wanted to keep their cards close enough to the vest to maintain their bargaining power. If that’s the case, though, this report suggests that they made yet another mistake in strategy. Whatever they had to offer wasn’t enough to get Mueller to bite, apparently. If Manafort had the goods on Donald Trump, one would think that the special counsel could overlook whatever deficiencies Manafort presents as a source to get that kind of direct testimony.
Instead, it’s full steam ahead on Manafort’s sentencing, his second trial in DC, and a potential retrial on the ten counts on which the jury deadlocked 11-1 for conviction. Maybe Mueller thinks he can squeeze Manafort harder in order to get what he wants. However, at this stage one has to assume that Manafort’s defense team would be putting everything on the table to get their client out of harm’s way. Their inability to cut a deal indicates that they don’t have much of value to offer prosecutors, on Trump or anyone else.
One has to wonder whether this report might change Trump’s mind about Manafort, though:
I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. “Justice” took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to “break” – make up stories in order to get a “deal.” Such respect for a brave man!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 22, 2018
Sounds more like Manafort was refused the opportunity to break. If Manafort was looking to cut a deal, that might put a spike through any efforts to get him a presidential pardon down the line. However, the fact that Manafort’s attorneys were looking to cut a deal with Mueller demonstrates a lack of faith in that path out of the legal woods, too, even before the news of these negotiations leaked.