WASHINGTON — The breakdown of a plea deal with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an explosive British news report about alleged contacts he may have had with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threw a new element of uncertainty into the Trump-Russia investigation.
On Tuesday, a day after prosecutors accused Manafort of repeatedly lying to them, trashing his agreement to tell all in return for a lighter sentence, he adamantly denied a report in the Guardian that he had met secretly with Assange around March 2016. That's the same month Manafort joined the Trump campaign and Russian hackers began an effort to penetrate the email accounts of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
The developments thrust Manafort back into the investigation spotlight, raising new questions about what he knows and what prosecutors say he might be attempting to conceal as they probe Russian election interference and possible coordination with Trump associates in the campaign that sent the celebrity businessman to the White House.
All the while, Manafort's lawyers have been briefing Trump's attorneys on what their client has told investigators, an unusual arrangement that could give Trump ammunition in his feud against special counsel Robert Mueller.
“They share with me the things that pertain to our part of the case,” Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told The Associated Press.
Giuliani also said Trump, who has recently stepped up his attacks on Mueller, has been enraged by the treatment of Manafort.
Other figures entangled in the investigation, including Trump himself, have been scrambling to escalate attacks and allegations against prosecutors who have been working quietly behind the scenes.
Besides denying he'd ever met Assange, Manafort, who is currently in jail, said he'd told Mueller's prosecutors the truth during questioning. And WikiLeaks said Manafort had never met with Assange, offering to bet London's Guardian newspaper “a million dollars and its editor's head.”
Assange, whose organization published thousands of emails stolen by Russian spies from Clinton's campaign in 2016, is in Ecuador's embassy in London under a claim of asylum.
It's unclear what prosecutors contend Manafort lied about, though they're expected to make a public filing that could offer answers.
Dissolution of the plea deal could be a devastating outcome for a defendant who suddenly admitted guilt last September after months of maintaining his innocence and who bet on his cooperation getting him a shorter sentence. But it's also a potential setback for investigators, given that Manafort steered the campaign during a vital stretch of 2016, when prosecutors say Russian intelligence was working to sway the election in Trump's favor.
The prosecutors’ filing underscored their exasperation not only at Manafort's alleged deception but also at the loss of an important witness present for key moments under scrutiny, including a Trump Tower meeting at which Trump's eldest son expected to receive “dirt” about Clinton from a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
“The fact is, they wanted his cooperation. They wanted him to truthfully reveal what he knew, so they're not getting what they wanted,” said Washington defense lawyer Peter Zeidenberg. “This isn't like a good development where they're clapping their hands and saying, ‘Now we get to crush this guy.’”
Manafort's motivation, if indeed he lied to prosecutors, also was unclear.
In an interview, Giuliani said Trump and his lawyers agree a presidential pardon should not be considered “now” but added, “The president could consider it at an appropriate time, as Manafort has the same rights as any American.”
Giuliani also accused Mueller's team of mistreating Manafort in hopes of getting him to give false testimony against the president. He said Trump “thinks it is outrageous and un-American and sounds like something that would happen under an oppressive dictatorship.”
Mueller's filing on Manafort came at a delicate time for investigators, who have gone months without new charges and continue to probe possible links between Trump associates and WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website.
As Trump continues raging against the investigation — he tweeted Tuesday that Mueller was doing “TREMENDOUS damage to our Criminal Justice system” and called the investigation “a total disgrace” — others in the crosshairs have filled the vacuum of Mueller's recent silence by publicly declaring their innocence, accusing prosecutors of coercing testimony or tempting fate by turning aside negotiations.
One associate of Trump confidant Roger Stone is contesting a grand jury subpoena in court. Another, Jerome Corsi, said he was rejecting an offer to plead guilty to a false statements charge and has complained in news media interviews about his interrogations by prosecutors.
Stone, under investigation himself for connections to WikiLeaks, has repeatedly disparaged Mueller's investigation and said his friend Corsi was at risk of prosecution “not for lying but for refusing to lie.”
A document drafted by Mueller's team as part of a plea offer says Corsi tipped off Stone in August 2016 that WikiLeaks planned to release damaging documents about Clinton. The tip accurately forecast that WikiLeaks would publicity post the material, including messages from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, in October. It is the first known reference by Mueller to Americans close to Trump appearing to have foreknowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans.
The draft document was first reported by NBC News, and a copy of it was posted online by The Washington Post. Stone has denied knowing about WikiLeaks’ plans in advance.
Manafort, meanwhile, had been quiet since pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy against the United States. He has met repeatedly since then with investigators.
He remained in the spotlight Tuesday when the Guardian published a report saying he had secretly met Assange around March 2016, when he was brought aboard the Trump campaign. The report suggested a direct connection between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign.
Manafort called the story “totally false and deliberately libelous,” saying in a statement that he had never met Assange or anyone close to him.
The Guardian cited unidentified sources as saying Manafort first met Assange at the embassy in 2013, a year after Assange took refuge there to avoid being extradited to Sweden over sex crime allegations. The newspaper said that Manafort returned in 2015 and 2016 and that its sources had “tentatively dated” the final visit to March.
There was no detail on what might have been discussed.
The Trump campaign announced Manafort's hiring on March 29, 2016, and he served as the convention manager tasked with lining up delegates for the Republican National Convention. He was promoted to chairman that May.
An AP investigation into Russian hacking showed that government-aligned cyberspies began an aggressive effort to penetrate the Clinton campaign's email accounts on March 10, 2016.
Justice Department prosecutors in Virginia recently inadvertently disclosed the existence of sealed criminal charges against Assange, though it's unclear what that case entails. Prosecutors were in court Tuesday arguing against unsealing any charge.
Meanwhile, a judge may soon set a sentencing date for Manafort now that his hopes for leniency appear dashed.
“The cooperating defendant usually is very aware of what's at stake,” said Shanlon Wu, who represented Manafort's onetime co-defendant Rick Gates. "What I always say to any client of mine who's contemplating that — there is no going back.
“It's like being a little bit pregnant,” he added. “There's no such thing.”
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