The 3 reasons a witness-tampering charge could deal a huge blow to Manafort's defence

  • Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign, has been accused of attempting to tamper with witness testimony.
  • If the special counsel Robert Mueller has enough evidence to prove Manafort did what he has been accused of, it could strike a blow to his defence and also spell trouble for Trump.
  • A witness-tampering charge, like lying to the FBI, can be used as evidence to show a guilty mind and may be “enticing to a jury,” one former federal prosecutor said.
  • If a judge believes Manafort sought to hamper the criminal trial, the judge is less likely to side with the defence during potentially close calls in a hearing, which could prove disastrous for Manafort.
  • And if a court revokes or restricts Manafort’s bail agreement in light of a witness-tampering charge, it ramps up the pressure on him to cooperate – which also spells trouble for Trump.

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Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign, has been trying to meet the terms of his $US10 million bail agreement since he was first indicted by the special counsel Robert Mueller last October.

And he seemed close to making it until Monday, when Mueller’s office accused him of attempting to influence witness testimony in connection to the Russia investigation. The special counsel subsequently asked a court to revoke or revise Manafort’s conditions of release.

Citing the FBI agent Brock Domin, a new court filing accuses Manafort and an associate denoted in the document as “Person A” of reaching out to two witnesses associated with Manafort’s past lobbying activities in an apparent attempt to coach their stories.

The revelation is a big deal – and bad news – for Manafort for a few reasons.

For one, prosecutors are likely to introduce evidence of witness tampering at Manafort’s trial to show consciousness of guilt, or a guilty mind.

In that sense, a witness-tampering charge is similar to a charge of lying to the FBI and can be “enticing to a jury,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former longtime federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department.

Moreover, judges tend to view witness tampering as a serious offence because it goes to the integrity of the justice system. If prosecutors introduce the charge at Manafort’s trial, “it will change the feel of the case with respect to the judge,” said Alex Whiting, a former assistant US attorney from Boston and Washington, DC, who is now a professor at Harvard Law School.

If the judge believes Manafort attempted to interfere with witnesses, the judge will most likely be less lenient toward the defence team, particularly when it comes to potentially close calls in a criminal trial, Whiting added, which could prove disastrous for the former Trump campaign chairman.

Also, if the court grants Mueller’s request to revoke or further restrict Manafort’s bail agreement, it could significantly increase the pressure on Manafort to cooperate with the special counsel.

Mueller’s office has charged Manafort with five counts in Washington, DC, and 18 counts in Virginia related to tax and bank fraud, money laundering, and failure to register as a foreign agent. The majority of the charges against him are tied to Manafort’s lobbying activities for the Ukrainian government.

Manafort, 69, could be in prison for the rest of his life if he is convicted.

“He is not a guy who will do well in cell block D,” Cramer said.

“Mr. Manafort is innocent and nothing about this latest allegation changes our defence,” the former Trump campaign chairman’s spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday. “We will do our talking in court.”

A plea deal between the former campaign chairman and the special counsel could also spell trouble for Trump, who has sought to distance himself and the campaign from Manafort since he was first indicted last October.

Manafort has a long history of murky financial dealings and ties to pro-Russian interests and allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was millions of dollars in debt when he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, and prosecutors are investigating whether he sought to use his role in the campaign to influence Trump’s platform on Russia.

Moreover, Manafort and his longtime associate Rick Gates were influential figures present at key points during the 2016 campaign, including:

  • When the GOP softened the language of an amendment to its platform that sought to strengthen the US’s military support for Ukraine against Russia.
  • When the radical pro-transparency group WikiLeaks published its first batch of hacked Democratic National Committee emails.
  • When senior members of the Trump campaign, including Manafort, met with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower who was offering dirt on the election’s Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Gates pleaded guilty in February to two counts of conspiracy and making false statements to the FBI.

Manafort has pushed back aggressively against prosecutors. But if Mueller “can persuade the judge that Manafort has in fact been attempting to tamper with witnesses, that will be a significant blow to Manafort’s defence going forward,” Whiting said.

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