Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s criminal trial on bank and tax fraud charges begins Tuesday with Manafort facing charges of tax evasion and money laundering of $30 million he earned overseas.
This will be the first actual trial resulting from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign. The trial, however, will not be about collusion but about financial crimes.
If prosecutors secure a conviction on any of the 18 criminal charges facing Manafort it will be a major victory for Mueller’s investigation that has led to the indictment of 32 people so far.
As drama unfolds in the courtroom there will be much speculation about whether Manafort is still in a position to strike a deal with prosecutors. Many legal analysts have said they expected Trump’s former campaign chairman to negotiate reduced charges and lenient sentencing in exchange for his testimony about Donald Trump, his family members, and other Trump associates. Some have said the trial delay meant Manafort is ready to flip.
Manafort has always said that he’s not interested in a plea deal, but the legal experts have said that it’s not too late. Everyone knows that Manafort faces the very real possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison, which should be a motivator for him to “flip” on Trump and negotiate a deal with prosecutors.
Jonathan Turley, a highly-regarded law professor from George Washington University said Manafort’s position as the first person in the Mueller probe to be put on trial might work against him. According to Turley:
“Manafort is in the unfortunate position of being the matinee defendant in the Mueller investigation. He’s the highest figure to be indicted, with the exception of Michael Flynn, but Flynn’s was a small charge of making false statements. He has to bring serious deliverables to the table to reach a deal.”
Manafort also faces a second trial in September in Washington, D.C., on separate charges brought by Mueller. These include conspiring to defraud the government and launder money, making false statement to federal officials, and failing to disclose he was acting as a political consultant and lobbyist for now-former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Given the large number of criminal charges against him, and the mountains of documentary evidence the government has compiled to prove his wrongdoing, it is puzzling why Manafort continues to take the risk of going to trial.
Turley said it may be because Manafort still expects Donald Trump to give him a presidential pardon.
“Manafort seems to have stuck with this pardon strategy that Michael Cohen recently abandoned,” Turley said. “Manafort has refused to cooperate with Mueller and has refrained from attacking the president.”
But Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Mueller in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C., said Manafort’s reluctance to cut a deal may be due to fear of retaliation from Vladimir Putin.
“It may be that Manafort is scared of the Russians,” Kirschner said. “Look what they’ve done to others who have crossed them. People who cross Putin often end up dead.”
“This isn’t spy novel fiction,” Kirschner went on. “If he cooperates with the government, the Russians might go after his family.”
Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Harry Litman chimed in, saying that even though it’s not clear why Manafort hasn’t decided to turn state’s witness and cooperate with law enforcement, he should have flipped long before now.
“Is he irrational, is he hoping for a pardon, does he fear the Russians more than he fears Trump? We really don’t know,” Litman said, expressing puzzlement at Manafort’s behavior.
If Manafort actually goes through with the trial and doesn’t flip to testify against Donald Trump nobody will know for sure why, but everyone will believe it’s because of threats from Trump’s handler in the Kremlin.