- Justice Department veterans are flummoxed that lawyers representing Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign, are still in touch with Trump’s lawyers following Manafort’s guilty plea.
- “It is absolutely not normal for a convicted felon and now cooperator to continue to loop in a potential target’s attorneys on the relationship with the prosecutor,” one former DOJ attorney said.
- There is no official guideline that bars lawyers for different sides of an investigation from communicating with one another, but such communications could severely undermine, or even tank, a cooperation deal.
- By staying in touch with Trump’s team while cooperating, experts said Manafort could be trying to keep all his options open, including angling for a potential presidential pardon.
As Paul Manafort dominates headlines this week, DOJ veterans say there’s one big question they want an answer to: Why is Manafort’s legal team still communicating with lawyers representing President Donald Trump in the Russia investigation?
Manafort, the former chairman of the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy and obstruction charges and has since been cooperating with the special counsel.
Trump’s lead defence lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told CNN on Tuesday that Manafort’s lawyers had been in touch with him about their interactions with Mueller and said they were running into issues with the special counsel.
“We discuss things that are appropriate,” Giuliani said. “[Manafort’s team is] in control of it. I have no idea what else they’re questioning them about. I don’t want to know.”
But later Tuesday, The New York Times reported that one of Manafort’s lawyers, Kevin Downing, had repeatedly briefed Trump’s team on what Mueller was asking Manafort about.
Giuliani also told The Times Downing had given him specifics on what prosecutors wanted to know – an apparent departure from his earlier statement to CNN that he had “no idea” what Manafort was questioned about and didn’t “want to know.”
Prosecutors reportedly learned of the communications between Manafort’s and Trump’s teams two months ago and tensions between the two sides have been on the rise since. They spilled out into the open on Monday, when Mueller’s office said in a new court filing that Manafort had breached his plea deal by lying to investigators.
Giuliani told INSIDER earlier this year that Manafort was in a joint defence agreement with Trump. But when a defendant flips and agrees to a plea deal, it requires that they pull out of any joint defence agreements they’re party to.
“It is absolutely not normal for a convicted felon and now cooperator to continue to loop in a potential target’s attorneys on the relationship with the prosecutor,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the DOJ.
“I doubt many prosecutors have had defendants who burn up the phone lines talking to an opposing counsel who may end up cross-examining him some day,” he said.
‘A pardon is still the holy grail for Manafort’
There is no technical or legal guideline that bars an attorney for one target of a criminal investigation from communicating with lawyers representing another target, whether or not a joint defence agreement exists.
But such communications could severely undermine, or even tank, a cooperation agreement if lawyers for one side revealed too much information to lawyers on the other side.
Since pleading guilty, Manafort has met with prosecutors nearly a dozen times, and though members of Mueller’s team have been asking him about a wide range of topics, they’re “not getting what they want,” a source with knowledge of the discussions told ABC News.
The dispute between the two sides reportedly stemmed from suspicions that Manafort was not being entirely forthcoming about all the information he may know that’s relevant to the Russia investigation.
A source with direct knowledge of the matter told INSIDER on Tuesday that Manafort’s plea deal with Mueller is still intact.
“If as a prosecutor I was dealing with Manafort’s attorneys, I’d have made clear from day one that any communication with Trump’s attorneys, or other attorneys for other subjects, would jeopardize the cooperation,” Elie Honig, a former prosecutor from the Southern District of New York who specialised in organised-crime cases, told INSIDER.
Manafort’s guilty plea came after a lengthy court battle, during which his lawyers put up an aggressive defence against Mueller by challenging his authority and arguing that he had overstepped the scope of his mandate when he charged Manafort with crimes unrelated to Russian collusion.
Legal experts said at the time that Manafort’s refusal to flip could have been part of an effort to angle for a presidential pardon. His lawyers’ unusual decision to stay in touch with Trump’s team, even after pleading guilty, may point to the same strategy.
“It does seem that Manafort is trying to keep all his options open for as long as possible,” Cramer said. “He is a career fraudster so he is consistent, if nothing else. He was easily convicted and then decided to cooperate rather than go through another trial and more prison time being added to his sentence.”
“But a pardon is still the holy grail for Manafort,” he added.
Trump, for his part, appears to grow more heated with Mueller and the Russia probe every day.
The president has alternated between defending and distancing himself from Manafort. Giuliani told INSIDER earlier this year that Trump would not consider whether or not to pardon his former campaign chairman until after the Russia probe had concluded.
But even if Trump pardons Manafort, it doesn’t mean he would be out of the woods.
“Manafort cannot count on a pardon, even if he were promised one,” Ilene Jaroslaw, a former federal prosecutor from the Eastern District of New York, told INSIDER. “His assets are forever forfeited, and he remains vulnerable to prosecution for state offenses, such as tax evasion.”