Even before his relatively brief tenure as manager of the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort was one of the more infamous behind-the-scenes players in American politics. Manafort, who had worked for multiple Republican presidential campaigns in the 80’s and 90’s, was primarily known as a high-priced political consultant with a taste for life’s finer things. Manafort was not known for a strong ethical sensibility, as he was more than willing to work for brutal foreign dictators if their checks cleared.
Manafort took over the Trump campaign in June of 2016 after winning a power struggle with previous campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. He lost the job in August, after media outlets published reports fully revealing the extent of Manafort’s work for Ukraine’s pro-Russian president.
As a result of his close ties to the Trump campaign, Manafort has long represented a serious legal threat to Donald Trump and his family. When the Special Counsel’s office indicted Manafort on a range of charges in late 2017, there was some press speculation that Manafort might “flip,” or cooperate with Mueller’s office in exchange for reduced charges.
That hasn’t happened. While many other figures have cooperated with Mueller, Manafort has steadfastly refused to do so. The inability to win Manafort’s cooperation represents one of the biggest obstacles in the quest to get full answers to the links between the Trump campaign and Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election.
In this edition of our ongoing examination of obstruction of justice in the Mueller Report, American Legal News is looking at Paul Manafort – specifically, the President’s actions toward his former campaign manager. The Special Counsel’s analysis indicates the President’s actions to influence Manafort’s behavior after his arrest could very well qualify as obstruction of justice.
On July 26, 2017, FBI agents raided Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia. They did so after Mueller obtained a search warrant authorizing law enforcement to seize documents and other evidence related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. Manafort had been under federal surveillance since 2014 as part of an investigation into his work in Ukraine and accusations of money laundering and tax evasion related to payments he received for that work.
In October of 2017, Manafort was indicted by a grand jury impaneled by the Special Counsel. He was then arrested and charged with, among other things, engaging in a conspiracy against the United States, money laundering, acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government and making false statements to federal law enforcement. Prosecutors alleged that Manafort had laundered more than $18 million in fees he received as payment for lobbying and consulting services he performed for Ukraine’s pro-Russian government.
While Manafort’s business partner, Rick Gates, reached a plea agreement with prosecutors, Manafort elected to fight the charges, which continued to proliferate as the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged Manafort with bank fraud and a tax avoidance scheme.
In August of 2018, a jury found Manafort guilty on 8 of 18 charges in the Eastern District of Virginia trial. A mistrial was declared on the other 10 charges after a single juror said she had reasonable doubts. Manafort was later sentenced to 47 months in jail for the offenses, minus nine months for time served.
In September of 2018, Manafort pleaded guilty to two charges brought in the District of Columbia – witness tampering and conspiracy to defraud the United States. The judge in that case later sentenced him to 73 months in jail, with 30 concurrent with the Virginia jail time.
The President Goes to Bat for Manafort
The Mueller Report delves into the President’s public comments about Paul Manafort in Section J of the report’s second volume, which also discusses Michael Flynn and an individual whose name is redacted due to the existence of an ongoing investigation.
Section J chronicles extensive efforts by the President and his aides to publicly influence Manafort’s behavior by lavishing praise on the former campaign manager, criticizing the “severity” of his sentence and dangling the possibility of a presidential pardon.
According to the report, the President discussed Manafort’s case with his aides and demanded to know if Manafort had any information that could prove harmful. In public, with Manafort facing a July 2018 hearing to determine if his bail should be revoked for tampering with witnesses, the President said that Manafort was receiving “unfair” treatment and said of the case against Manafort “I don’t think it’s right.”
Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and the President’s personal lawyer, publicly mentioned the possibility of a pardon for Manafort after his case played out, though he later tried to walk back those comments.
Section J proceeds like this for several pages, documenting the President’s many public comments in support of Manafort, including saying on the day of Manafort’s convictions that “it was a sad day for the country.” He also praised Manafort for refusing to “break,” unlike Michael Cohen. That became a theme for the President, who frequently praised Manafort’s bravery for not cooperating with the Special Counsel, at one point even suggesting that it should be illegal for defendants to “flip” by testifying against others in exchange for a lighter sentence.
The Mueller Report’s obstruction analysis is clear that these comments had ramifications beyond the President merely saying obnoxious things on TV and Twitter. The report’s authors write “there is evidence that the President’s actions had the potential to influence Mueller’s decision whether to cooperate with the government,” which is crucial to the determination of whether or not there was an obstructive act. And the report is crystal clear that the President’s actions toward Manafort were connected to an official proceeding.
Finally, on the question of whether or not the President’s actions were made with “corrupt intent,” the report says, “Evidence concerning the President’s conduct towards Manafort indicates that the President intended to encourage Manafort to not cooperate with the government.”
However, on the question of whether the President obstructed justice in trying to influence the jury in Manafort’s trials, the Mueller Report’s corrupt intent is less conclusive, saying that there are “alternative explanations” for the President’s comments.
In the final analysis, then, the Mueller Report paints a picture of a President who quite likely engaged in obstruction of justice in his comments regarding Manafort’s lack of cooperation with the government and, phrased generously, whose comments fall just short of obstruction in their potential to influence a sitting jury in a federal trial.