U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has accused President Donald Trump's former Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort of lying and violating his deal with prosecutors to cooperate with their investigation into ties between Russia and Trump's 2016 election campaign.
The apparent breakdown of Manafort's plea deal, disclosed in a court filing late on November 26, puts him in jeopardy of facing a lengthier jail sentence and more criminal charges from Mueller, while apparently eliminating any possibility that he might appear as a top-level witness for the prosecution.
Manafort was the most senior former Trump aide to plead guilty to charges in exchange for cooperation and a more lenient prison sentence. He was present at several key events Mueller is probing as part of his wide-ranging Russia investigation.
In the plea agreement announced in September, Manafort agreed to provide Mueller with information about those events. Investigators were known to be focusing on a Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and several Russians, including a Russian lawyer Trump Jr. was told had damaging information on his father's Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In the new court filing, Mueller's team said that after Manafort agreed to truthfully cooperate with the investigation, he "committed federal crimes" by lying about "a variety of subject matters." Prosecutors said they will detail the "nature of the defendant's crimes and lies" in writing at a later date to the judge.
Through his attorneys, Manafort denied lying, saying he "believes he provided truthful information" during a series of sessions with Mueller's investigators. He also disagreed that he breached his plea agreement.
Still, both sides said they now agree they can't resolve their conflict, and both sides asked U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson to set a date for Manafort's sentencing.
The breakdown in Manafort's agreement with prosecutors raises the possibility that he is seeking to curry favor with Trump in a bid to get a presidential pardon by protecting others who worked on Trump's campaign from prosecution, a former U.S. prosecutor told Reuters.
"It seems to me he’s angling for the pardon," said David Weinstein. Trump has hinted that he might pardon aides who remain loyal to the White House.
Manafort has been in jail since pleading guilty in September to conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
He made the plea deal to head off a second trial after being convicted last summer on eight felony counts related to millions of dollars he hid from U.S. tax authorities in offshore bank accounts.
Both cases stemmed from Manafort's political work for the former pro-Russia president of Ukraine, and undisclosed lobbying work he admitted to carrying out on behalf of Ukraine in violation of U.S. law.
As part of his plea agreement, Manafort not only pledged to fully cooperate with prosecutors, but he also forfeited many of his rights, including to withdraw from the deal if he broke its terms.
In return, prosecutors agreed to ask the judge for a reduction of his sentence if he provided "substantial assistance" to the Russia investigation.
But with prosecutors now saying he breached the agreement, Manafort faces serious consequences such as the possibility of facing additional criminal charges, including those prosecutors dropped when he signed the plea deal.
Manafort already faces up to five years in prison on the two charges in his plea agreement. In addition, prosecutors have said he could face as much as 10 years in prison for his conviction on tax evasion-related charges this summer.
Before he worked on Trump's campaign for several months in mid-2016, at a critical juncture in the run-up to the November election, Manafort made tens of millions of dollars working for the party of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by pro-Western street protests in 2014.
Mueller's investigation has produced two cases charging Russians with alleged interference in the election, including one in which Russian intelligence agents were charged with hacking Democratic party e-mails that were embarrassing to Clinton and leaking them to Wikileaks during the campaign.
Clinton has blamed the leaks in part for her unexpected defeat by Trump in the election.
Another Mueller case charged that Russians working for and associated with a St. Petersburg troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, ran a social media disinformation campaign during the election that was aimed at stoking divisions between U.S. voters on controversial issues such as immigration, race, and gun control.
Russia has denied the allegations, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow will not extradite any of those charged to the United States to face trial.