clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Judge rules that Manafort deliberately lied to Mueller’s team during cooperation

The former Trump campaign chair may now get a tougher sentence.

Paul Manafort on the morning of June 15, 2018. He was sent to jail later that day.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Evidence suggests that Paul Manafort deliberately lied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team after he had agreed to cooperate, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

After dueling filings and arguments from prosecutors and the defense over the past few months, Judge Amy Berman Jackson sided with Mueller’s team on three of the five areas in which they’d accused Manafort of lying.

Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chair, has already been convicted of financial crimes in Virginia and has pleaded guilty to other charges in Washington. He was not charged with new crimes related to these alleged false statements.

But now, Jackson will take these purported lies during cooperation into account when she sentences Manafort for the DC crimes on March 13 — and they may well spur her to give him a tougher sentence.

The wrangling between Mueller’s and Manafort’s teams about the alleged lies provided a fascinating glimpse into the investigation, revealing both deeper Russian ties and more shady financial behavior from Manafort. We learned that Mueller is claiming:

  • That Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime associate of his who the FBI thinks has “ties to Russian intelligence” (a Mueller prosecutor said this topic goes “very much to the heart of” their larger investigation)
  • That in 2017 and 2018, Manafort worked with Kilimnik to advance to promote a “Ukraine peace plan” (aimed, it seems, at settling the Russia-Ukraine conflict on terms favorable to Russia)
  • That $125,000 paid out from a pro-Trump Super PAC to a political media firm during the campaign was later used to help pay Manafort’s legal fees
  • That Manafort changed his story about a matter another Justice Department office is investigating — one that seems to involve the Trump campaign or administration

Mueller did not, however, use this dispute to give any sort of larger assessment on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia or the president himself.

How we got here

To recap: Manafort was indicted by Mueller in two venues, Virginia and Washington, DC. He was charged with tax violations, bank fraud, lobbying, and false statements — but he was not charged with any crimes related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. Last August, Manafort was convicted at his first trial, in Virginia. Then he struck a plea deal in DC to avert the second trial — and committed to cooperating with the government.

Manafort’s apparent “flip” appeared to be a major turning point in the Mueller investigation. It seemed as if Mueller now had a cooperator who had close ties to both Trump and Russia (the latter because Manafort worked for Ukraine’s pro-Russian political faction for many years).

So from September to November of last year, Manafort was questioned by Mueller’s team a total of 12 times, and also appeared to testify before Mueller’s grand jury twice. He was reportedly asked about a plethora of topics.

But eventually, Mueller’s team concluded that Manafort was repeatedly lying to them — and on November 26, they accused him of breaching his cooperation agreement.

What Mueller and Manafort’s attorneys have been arguing over

Because of the way the plea deal was structured, Manafort’s guilty plea and the related forfeiture of much of his wealth remained in place.

But Manafort’s team did dispute that he had deliberately lied, arguing that there was a combination of memory failures and mix-ups from Manafort and misunderstandings from the special counsel’s team.

Now, the government only had to meet a very low bar to find Manafort in breach of the agreement — basically, they just had to come to the good-faith conclusion that he lied.

However, the judge overseeing Manafort’s case in DC, Amy Berman Jackson, had her own reasons for wanting more details. She said she wanted to assess the government’s evidence about these alleged lies, because she wanted to weigh this as a factor in Manafort’s sentencing. (Meaning she might want to give Manafort a harsher sentence if she was convinced he lied.)

So in a series of partially redacted filings and then at a sealed hearing on February 3, prosecutors and the defense squared off, with Mueller’s team arguing that there was a pattern of deliberate lies from Manafort, and the defense claiming it was all a series of misunderstandings and unintentional misstatements.

An important technical note is that Jackson did not have to find that it was “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Manafort lied, the traditional standard for criminal conviction by a jury. She only had to rule on whether “a preponderance of the evidence” suggested Manafort lied — a lighter standard. The alternative was to rule that Mueller had “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence” that Manafort lied.

Five topics where Mueller accused Manafort of lying

To make the case that Manafort lied during cooperation, Mueller’s team singled out five topics in particular.

None of the topics, so far as we know, directly involve President Donald Trump. In particular, the infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer that Manafort attended is absent from the list. Roger Stone, Manafort’s longtime friend, is also not mentioned. We should not necessarily read too much into these omissions, though — Mueller’s team made clear that the five were not necessarily the only topics Manafort lied about. They are:

1) The $125,000 payment: In 2016, Manafort had helped set up a pro-Trump Super PAC and installed a longtime friend to run it. That Super PAC paid millions to a political ad-buying firm — and that firm then used $125,000 to help pay Manafort’s legal bills in 2017. Manafort then told Mueller’s team three different stories about where that money came from.

What was going on here? Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann offered an “educated guess” during last week’s hearing. Though the details are redacted, he seemed to be suggesting there was a kickback “scheme” of some kind involved, potentially involving Manafort himself. If true, would potentially mean that Manafort was siphoning off money donated to Trump’s Super PAC.

Weissmann said he wasn’t certain of this, but he was certain that Manafort kept lying about the payment. Manafort’s team argued his story didn’t change all that much.

Judge Berman Jackson ruled in Mueller’s favor here.

2) Conspiring with Kilimnik to tamper with witnesses: Last June, Mueller charged Manafort and Kilimnik (the associate with purported ties to Russian intelligence) of conspiring to obstruct justice. He accused the pair of encouraging witnesses to give a false story regarding their work for the former government of Ukraine. And when Manafort struck his plea deal a few months later, he admitted this charge was true.

However, Mueller’s team says that after the deal was struck, Manafort backtracked on this story and told them that Kilimnik did not actually knowingly commit a crime. Here, Weissmann suggests, Manafort “went out of his way” to “not want to provide any evidence that could be used with respect to Mr. Kilimnik.”

After Manafort had a discussion with his lawyers, though, he reverted to the story he told during his plea deal. So the defense claimed this was a misunderstanding that was quickly corrected.

Judge Berman Jackson sided with Manafort’s team here, finding that the special counsel’s office “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence” that Manafort lied on this topic.

3) Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik from 2016 to 2018: Mueller’s team said that between 2016 and 2018, Manafort had a series of interactions with Kilimnik regarding a supposed “peace plan” for Ukraine, and that Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik in 2016. Many of these details are redacted (and we only know it’s about polling data because of a redaction error by Manafort’s lawyers).

But in a tantalizing statement, Weissmann told the judge that an August 2, 2016, meeting between Manafort and Kilimnik “goes to the larger view of what we think is going on” and “goes to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s Office is investigating.” It’s a meeting of the sitting Trump campaign chair “at an unusual time” with someone the FBI thinks has “a relationship with Russian intelligence,” Weissmann said.

The purpose of the “peace plan,” it seems, would have been to help settle the Russia-Ukraine conflict on terms favorable to Russia, and then allow the lifting of sanctions on Russia.

Initially, Manafort said he only briefly discussed this with Kilimnik, in 2016, but dismissed it as a bad idea. But Weissmann says the evidence was in favor of the idea and continued to work with Kilimnik on it all the way up to early 2018.

Then there’s the sharing of the polling data with Kilimnik, who then shared it elsewhere. Manafort’s motivation here remains unclear — was he currying favor with oligarchs in hopes of future business, or was he sharing data that could inform Russia’s election interference efforts? (Manafort’s team disputed that he shared the data at all and said Rick Gates, a Mueller cooperator, was making this up.)

Judge Berman Jackson ruled in Mueller’s favor here.

4) Another DOJ investigation: Weissmann said Manafort also provided information relevant to a (redacted) investigation carried out by another Justice Department office — but, again, changed his story to get a particular person off the hook. We don’t know what this is about, but references in the hearing transcript suggest it relates to the Trump campaign or administration somehow. Judge Berman Jackson ruled in Mueller’s favor here.

5) Indirect contacts with the Trump administration: Mueller’s team said Manafort claimed never to have been in direct or even indirect contact with any sitting Trump administration official, but that at the very least, there had been some indirect contacts. (Manafort’s team said they were misconstruing some communications.)

Judge Berman Jackson sided with Manafort’s team here, finding that the special counsel’s office “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence” that Manafort lied on this topic.

What does it all mean?

For one, Manafort’s plea deal clearly wasn’t the game-changing Mueller probe development that some hoped for. Prosecutors have made clear they think he was of no real use as a witness, and that they think he was still hiding the truth from them on many topics.

But the back-and-forth has revealed new areas of the investigation. In particular, the accusation that Manafort shared private Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign is arguably the closest Mueller has come to alleging outright collusion.

Still, there are are a variety of potential explanations for what happened there. Manafort could have handed over the data without Trump’s knowledge — or with it. Manafort could have handed it over in hopes of impressing wealthy Ukrainian patrons — or he could have been providing data that would aid the Russian government’s election interference efforts.

As for Manafort’s own future, it’s been widely speculated that he’s hoping for a pardon from President Trump, and Mueller’s team even said in court that this could be a potential motivation for his false statements. Trump has conspicuously declined to rule out such a move.

For now, though, the former Trump campaign manager remains in jail, where he’s resided for eight months. His sentencing in Washington will take place on March 13, and his sentencing in Virginia currently has no scheduled date.

For more on the Mueller probe, follow Andrew Prokop on Twitter and check out Vox’s guide to the Trump-Russia investigation.