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OPINION

Manafort still could turn on Trump

By RANDALL D. ELIASON | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 22, 2018

Paul Manafort has been found guilty of eight felonies and could spend the rest of his life in prison. That prospect undoubtedly has a way of focusing the mind. The question is, what will Manafort do now?

Despite the sideshows involving the judge quarreling with the prosecutors and the drama of the jury deliberations, the outcome of Manafort’s trial in the Eastern District of Virginia never looked in much doubt. The government presented what seemed to be an overwhelming case, based largely on financial records and other documents that don’t lie and can’t be cross-examined.

The defense put on no case, choosing to argue the government had not met its burden. Although the defendant is never required to present evidence, it’s a gutsy move to put nothing at all before the jury. But in this case, the decision seemed driven less by boldness than by necessity. Given the documentary evidence, there was little the defense could say. The best hope of Manafort’s lawyers was to poke holes in the prosecutor’s presentation, portray Manafort’s associate Rick Gates as the real villain and try to raise a doubt in the mind of at least one juror. It appears they were successful as to about half the counts, which is no small feat. But in the end, conviction on eight felony counts carrying potentially decades in prison cannot be seen as anything but a win for the government and a devastating blow to Manafort. In this situation, eight is more than enough.

A dry financial-crimes case like this typically would not generate daily headlines and long lines of people seeking to watch the proceedings. But of course, the interest in Manafort stems from his ties to the Trump campaign and his potential ability to cooperate in the broader investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. And that status means the president’s former campaign chairman still has some options.

If Manafort were inclined to cooperate with Mueller, the logical time would have been before going to trial. Prosecutors are less likely to look favorably upon a witness who seeks to cooperate only after forcing the government to convict him. But Manafort is in an unusual situation: He has a second major case against him set to begin in the District of Columbia next month. He could still cut a deal that would include the government dismissing some or all of those charges in exchange for his cooperation. And though the charges he was just found guilty of carry potentially decades in prison, his time could be greatly reduced if prosecutors spoke favorably about his cooperation at his sentencing.

So the door to potential cooperation is not completely closed to Manafort. Nevertheless, his refusal so far to cut a deal seems so illogical, you have to wonder what is really going on. Perhaps, as many have suggested, he is counting on a presidential pardon. But it’s awfully risky to wager your freedom on a pardon from an erratic president who has at times distanced himself from you and who would face enormous political blowback from such an act. And there are still potential state charges against Manafort lurking in the background — charges for which President Donald Trump can’t grant a pardon.

It’s also possible Manafort simply doesn’t want to be a “snitch” as a matter of principle — although given the portrait of Manafort’s principles that emerged at trial, it seems odd he would choose to die on that particular hill. Or perhaps Manafort truly has no information to offer that would be valuable to Mueller’s investigation. That, too, seems hard to believe, given his role as Trump’s campaign chairman during the critical period involving the campaign’s contacts with Russians. Even if the information would not necessarily lead to criminal charges, it seems very unlikely that Manafort knows nothing Mueller would find worthwhile.

And since we’re speculating, we can’t rule out the possibility that Manafort has stayed silent out of fear for his safety. His cooperation could potentially implicate some very powerful people in Russia. Given the way those figures sometimes deal with their enemies, Manafort may believe that spending the rest of his days in a minimum-security prison is preferable to someday ending up with polonium in his tea.

So what’s next for Manafort? We should know soon. His trial in Washington is set to begin on Sept. 17. If he is finally going to decide to cooperate, the time is now. If he proceeds to trial in Washington, it will be a sure sign that, for whatever reason, he will not voluntarily tell Mueller what he knows. In the meantime, as Tuesday’s guilty plea by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen demonstrates, the legal train involving those closest to the president will move forward — regardless of whether Manafort gets on board.

Randall D. Eliason teaches white-collar criminal law at George Washington University Law School.

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