A verdict in Paul Manafort’s Virginia trial could come as early as this week, but it will hardly be the last word on his fate.
A conviction would threaten to jail Manafort, 69, for the rest of his life. But he would have the option to appeal — or hope for a politically explosive pardon from President Donald Trump. Even if a jury acquits the former Trump 2016 campaign chairman on the tax and bank fraud charges that special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors have detailed out over the past two weeks, Manafort is hardly out of the woods.
Most notably, the longtime GOP operative still faces a second federal trial slated to begin in mid-September in Washington. And that case, accusing Manafort of money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent while lobbying for the government of Ukraine, could be even more challenging.
“Even if, against all odds, [Manafort wins] here, they’re right back at it in a month so,” said a defense lawyer who has worked on the Russia investigation.
Things can always get worse still for Manafort. Mueller’s team of investigators have been examining him for more than a year as part of their probe into 2016 Russian election meddling, and federal prosecutors can always file new charges separate from the ones already on the books. (The current charges against Manafort are largely unrelated to the 2016 election.)
The prosecution is expected to rest its case as early as Monday, giving the floor to Manafort’s lawyers.
“Mueller’s got so many different ways to win. He’s got limitless resources,” said a second attorney with a Trump official mired in the case.
First, both Mueller and Manafort need to get through the trial now underway in an Alexandria, Virginia, courtroom. Prosecutors spent the past two weeks laying out details of Manafort’s lavish spending, including a now infamous $15,000 ostrich jacket purchased with profits he made from political consulting work in Ukraine several years ago. Mueller’s team also introduced evidence showing that Manafort concealed the millions he made through that work in a bid to evade U.S. taxes.
Their case — charging 18 counts in all — was bolstered by the cooperative testimony of Manafort’s former business partner, Rick Gates, whose credibility Manafort’s five-man legal team has already started to hammer as they mount their defense.
Still, many legal experts say, the evidence against Manafort is powerful and winning his acquittal will be a daunting task, even if the quarrelsome judge presiding in the case has caused unexpected problems for the prosecution team.
“I’d certainly pardon Manafort, because he’s been totally screwed as a result of having been associated with the Trump campaign” — Joseph diGenova, informal Trump adviser
The prosecution is expected to rest its case as early as Monday, giving the floor to Manafort’s lawyers. But as U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III has repeatedly told the jurors, the defendant is not obliged to call any witnesses and his attorneys could simply ask that the trial move straight to closing arguments once the prosecution finishes. That could have jurors deliberating by midweek.
Still, Manafort’s lawyers have signaled they do plan to put up a fight: They obtained subpoenas before the trial calling for a half dozen witnesses. They also may make motions to acquit Manafort before the case even goes to the jury. (Lawyers call that a longshot.)
Although none of the charges against Manafort directly involve President Trump, the conviction of his former top campaign aide would be a political embarrassment for Trump and a potent political retort against Trump’s claim that Mueller is conducting a “witch hunt.”
Manafort can always appeal a conviction. But his lawyers have so far had little success fighting Mueller’s prosecution, including through a defeated motion this summer which sought to toss out all of the charges against Manafort on the grounds that the special counsel’s very appointment was legally flawed.
But with other court challenges playing out against Mueller on Constitutional grounds, some legal experts predict Manafort could challenge any convictions through an appeal that reaches the Supreme Court.
Manafort’s best chance at salvation after a conviction could lie with Trump’s executive clemency powers. The president has already granted pardons to several notable conservative figures, including Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza and Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. And some Trump allies say he’d be justified in using his unchecked power to keep Manafort out of jail.
Trump in June declined to rule out a pardon for Manafort. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, that month also said clemency remains on the table for the ex-aide. “When the whole thing is over, things might get cleaned up with some presidential pardons,” he told the New York Daily News.
“I’d certainly pardon Manafort, because he’s been totally screwed as a result of having been associated with the Trump campaign,” said Joseph diGenova, an informal Trump adviser who nearly joined the president’s personal legal team in the spring.
Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard law professor, said Trump shouldn’t be in any rush to pardon Manafort. That decision could come later in his term and should really “depend on what Manafort does” after a potential conviction.
Another intriguing scenario discussed by some legal experts: the possibility that Manafort, if convicted, would surrender and offer his cooperation to Mueller in exchange for a potentially lighter sentence. (Mueller can ask Ellis for leniency, although Ellis, the presiding judge, would make the final decision.)
“Manafort flips after conviction,” Seth Waxman, a former federal prosecutor, predicted on Twitter Saturday.
In an interview last week, Giuliani told POLITICO that he believes Mueller team hopes to flip Manafort into a government witness who might offer damaging revelations about Trump himself.
“Whether he did anything wrong or not, there’s no way they’d have raised it to this level to prosecute it if they weren’t basically trying to put excessive pressure on him to cooperate against the president,” the former New York mayor said.
It’s not clear whether Manafort has incriminating information about Trump or, if he does, why he would not have offered it already.
Nor is it clear whether Manafort’s cooperation would be of use to Mueller after he has been branded a federal convict, especially with Trump’s own lawyers already warning that Manafort may lie to avoid prison.
“If the guy was going to go ahead and lie and cooperate he’d do it to get himself out of jail,” Giuliani said. “What’s his testimony look like after he’s convicted?”
It is also possible that Manafort — especially if he is convicted in Virginia — could plead guilty to the charges he faces in the second trial, if only to avoid another public ordeal.
But one defense attorney working with a Trump official in the Russia probe said Manafort may conclude that maintaining his innocence, even after a conviction, might be preferable to a guilty plea that still earns him a long prison sentence.
Refusing to plea allows Manafort to “maintain [his] innocence to the grave,” said the lawyer. “You can make a respectable case when you’re a defendant and make a statement that people know you were wronged. Once you plead guilty, that’s gone. Your legacy is done.”