Special counsel Robert Mueller may have won only a partial courtroom victory against Paul Manafort, but Tuesday’s guilty verdicts against the former Trump campaign chief strengthen Mueller’s hand in his wider probe of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Blasted by Trump and his allies as a biased and out-of-control prosecutor, Mueller —through his deputies who argued the case in court — has convinced an Alexandria, Virginia, jury that Manafort is guilty of eight out of 18 federal charges of bank and tax fraud. Manafort faces a maximum of 80 years in jail.
While some pro-Trump conservatives suggested Tuesday that Mueller had won a Pyrrhic victory because jurors deadlocked on a majority of the counts against Manafort, many legal experts called the outcome a clear success that will reassure Mueller’s defenders.
“This is unquestionably a win for the special counsel,” said Timothy Belevetz, a former assistant U.S. attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia. “It strengthens the special counsel’s mandate by demonstrating the office is productive and is achieving results.”
Even a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team conceded that the eight guilty verdicts were a victory for Mueller.
“I don’t think it’s ever a black eye to a prosecutor when they get eight guilty verdicts,” said Mark Corallo, who also served as a Justice Department spokesman under President George W. Bush. “That’s a very serious conviction. There’s no defeat to a prosecutor when they get eight out of 10, 15 or 20 charges.”
However, the result was muddy enough to provide Trump, Manafort and their allies with some talking points they can deploy.
One was the implication that Mueller had suffered a net loss because jurors had deadlocked on 10 counts, including seven charges of bank fraud and three involving failure to report foreign bank accounts.
“Federal Jury Fails to Convict Paul Manafort on Majority of Counts,” crowed a headline on the Trump-friendly website The Federalist.
Among the counts on which jurors deadlocked were four instances where prosecutors claimed Manafort had sought to trade on his role in the Trump campaign and his ongoing influence in Trump circles to secure loans.
There is also the absence of a direct Russian connection. Manafort was convicted on charges related to millions of dollars he earned through political consulting work in Ukraine years before he joined Trump’s campaign in early 2016; none involve Russian money or individuals.
Trump stressed that point on Tuesday afternoon, complaining as he has before that Mueller had strayed far from his original mission of investigating 2016 Russian election interference and alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. (Mueller’s mandate empowers him to pursue other crimes he discovers in the process of probing Russian meddling.)
“It has nothing to do with Russian collusion. This started as Russian collusion,” the president said as he arrived in West Virginia for an evening rally. “This is a disgrace. This has nothing to do with what they started out… looking for Russians involved in our campaign.”
Corallo called that argument a winner for Trump and a “political problem” for Mueller.
The mixed verdict will also bolster prior arguments by Manafort’s lawyers that Mueller’s case amounted to overkill.
During closing arguments, defense attorney Richard Westling accused Mueller’s team of seeking to ‘stack up the counts….to give you a sense that everything is so overwhelming that there is only one conclusion.”
Tuesday’s verdict could also give Mueller greater legal leverage as he pursues other avenues of investigation: Some lawyers believe the possibility of decades behind bars could convince Manafort to become more cooperative with Mueller.
“Like the prospect of the guillotine, the actual conviction on eight felony counts should ‘concentrate’ Manafort’s mind,” said Phil Lacovara, a former counsel to the Watergate prosecutors. “He took a gamble — that the case would be too complicated to allow conviction beyond a reasonable doubt — and he lost.
“Unless he has an assurance of a presidential pardon, it is now time for Manafort to look to his own interests and those of his family and to try to negotiate a ‘global’ deal with Mueller in return for full cooperation about his relationship with Russia, Ukraine, and the Trump campaign,” he added.
A Manafort acquittal could have been a severe setback for Mueller, an outcome that might have threatened Mueller’s support among Republicans in Congress.
But one defense attorney representing a senior Trump official in the Russia probe said the Manafort convictions may in turn lead some congressional Republicans to “find their backbones.”
The lawyer also dismissed the notion that the mixed verdict could put a damper on other parts of Mueller’s investigation.
“Mueller is going to do his fucking job,” the lawyer added. “Is a conviction or acquittal going to change his mind about issuing a subpoena to Trump? Not at all. He’s going to do the right things he thinks he needs to do to finish this investigation by his standards.”
The pattern of the counts where the jury deadlocked could be seen as a repudiation of Mueller’s star witness Rick Gates, whose testimony was more essential to the foreign account and bank fraud charges than to the tax fraud charges where Mueller won across the board convictions.
However, it’s hard to know for sure whether those issues led to the stalemate on the jury and whether the concerns were shared by more than one juror.
Mueller himself never stepped foot in the federal courthouse during the three-plus week trial. His team was led by prosecutors Greg Andres, Brandon Van Grack and Uzo Asonye, who argued the case, and FBI special agent Sherine Ebadi, who joined the special counsel attorneys at the main prosecution table during the entire trial.
Several other FBI, IRS and Treasury Department officials detailed to the special counsel probe also were constant presences at the Manafort trial, as was spokesman Peter Carr and Andrew Weissmann, the senior Mueller deputy who frequently sat in the back of the courtroom observing the proceedings and occasionally consulting with his colleagues.
Mueller took over the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in May of last year, after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey. He has since brought charges against 27 people — most of those Russian hackers and Internet trolls — while securing guilty pleas from Manafort deputy Rick Gates, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos and two others.
The special counsel’s work has also helped fuel investigations in other federal districts into everyone from longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty on Tuesday in New York to eight tax evasion, financial fraud and campaign finance charges, to Manafort’s former son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai.
And the Mueller probe itself remains a work in progress into Trump associates like Roger Stone and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son. Trump, too, remains the subject of an obstruction of justice probe into his role in the firing of Comey.