Written by Sharon LaFraniere
A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, had lied multiple times to prosecutors after pledging to cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
The decision by Judge Amy Berman Jackson of US District Court in Washington may affect the severity of the sentences imposed on Manafort. Jackson is scheduled to sentence him next month on two conspiracy counts, and he is also awaiting sentencing for eight other fraud convictions in a related case.
After Manafort agreed in September to cooperate with the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, the judge found, he lied about his contacts with a Russian associate during the campaign and after the election. Prosecutors claim that the associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, has ties to Russian intelligence and have been investigating whether he was involved in Russia’s covert campaign to influence the election results.
The judge also found that Manafort had lied about a payment that was routed through a pro-Trump political action committee to cover his legal bills, and about information relevant to another undisclosed investigation underway at the Justice Department.
But Jackson decided that prosecutors failed to prove that Manafort had deceived them about two other matters: Kilimnik’s role in a conspiracy with Manafort to obstruct justice, and whether Manafort had been in contact with Trump administration officials.
Although the defence won on those points, the judge’s split decision bodes poorly for Manafort. Her ruling likely wipes out any chance that Jackson will show Manafort any leniency. It could also affect the severity of his punishment in a case tried in federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia, over the summer. He was convicted by a jury there in August for tax evasion, bank fraud and other crimes.
The reasoning behind the judge’s ruling could become clearer in the next few days when a transcript of Wednesday’s closed hearing on the matter becomes public. But like transcripts of earlier hearings, it is likely to be heavily redacted to protect the secrecy of the special counsel’s inquiry.
The prosecutors managed to convince Jackson that Manafort had deceived them about his talks with Kilimnik, which included discussions about a possible deal that might have served the Kremlin’s ends. The two men repeatedly discussed a proposal to resolve a conflict over Russia’s incursions into Ukraine that might have given Moscow relief from U.S.-led sanctions imposed in retaliation.
Andrew Weissmann, one of Mueller’s top deputies, told the judge this month that those interactions go “to the larger view of what we think is going on and what we think is the motive here.” He suggested that Manafort had misled the prosecutors into believing that he discussed the plan with Kilimnik just once, in a meeting on Aug. 2, 2016. Only when Manafort was confronted with evidence did he acknowledge that he and Kilimnik continued to discuss the proposal on at least three occasions after Trump was elected, he said.
The prosecutors also told the judge that Manafort deceived them about transferring Trump campaign polling data to Kilimnik during the campaign. The New York Times has reported that the data included both private and public data, and that Manafort wanted the information delivered to two Ukrainian oligarchs who had financed Ukrainian political parties that were aligned with Russia.
Manafort’s lawyers had said that Manafort had only wanted to share public data in the interest of promoting himself in hope of winning more work through Kilimnik or the oligarchs. Those oligarchs and their allies had paid Manafort tens of millions of dollars in Ukraine to help Viktor Yanukovych win the presidency. Yanukovych was forced out of power in a popular uprising in 2014 and fled to Russia.
But the prosecutors pitted Manafort’s assertions against those of Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman. Gates pleaded guilty to two felonies and has been cooperating with Mueller’s team for the past year.
During the earlier hearing, Weissmann appeared to suggest that Manafort’s lies about the polling data were too important to dismiss as innocent lapses of memory. Whether any Americans, wittingly or unwittingly, engaged with Russians who were trying to interfere in the presidential election went to “the core” of the special counsel’s inquiry, Weissmann said.
He suggested that Manafort might have been trying to cover up the data transfer because it might hurt his chances of winning a presidential pardon for his crimes.
If it became known that Manafort had given Kilimnik the campaign’s polling data, Weissmann said, it could have “negative consequences in terms of the other motive that Manafort could have, which is to at least augment his chances for a pardon.”