Fate of Manafort Plea Deal Still Uncertain After Closed Hearing

WASHINGTON (CN) – Behind closed doors during a sealed hearing, a federal judge likely decided Wednesday whether former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort breached his cooperation deal by lying to prosecutors. 

Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, leaves court after a May 23, 2018, hearing in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Without a transcript of the proceedings, it is uncertain how long the public must wait to learn Manafort’s fate.

Already bound by a gag order issued by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, neither Manafort’s attorneys nor prosecutors with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office offered a statement when the hearing concluded this afternoon.

“Time to go to the bar,” defense attorney Kevin Downing joked as he left the courtroom.

A transcript of a sealed hearing from last week shows that prosecutors are focused on an Aug. 2, 2016, meeting between Manafort, his campaign deputy Rick Gates and Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian political operative who prosecutors say is tied to Russian intelligence.

The meeting took place “at an unusual time” for the head of a presidential campaign, prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said, according to the transcript.

“That meeting and what happened at that meeting is of significance to the special counsel,” Weissmann added.

Prosecutors contend that Manafort lied about the meeting, which took place at the Grand Havana Room in New York City, not far from the Trump campaign’s headquarters at Trump Tower.

Less than two weeks prior to the meeting, Trump had secured the Republican nomination, and WikiLeaks had published thousand of emails Russian hackers stole from the Democratic National Committee.

Because of transcript redactions, it is unclear what Manafort, Gates and Kilimnik discussed at the Aug. 2 meeting aside from Ukrainian policy and a plan to end the conflict there.

Manafort meanwhile is also accused of having lied about the number of times he discussed the topic with Kilimnik, whom Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted in his probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Though Manafort told prosecutors the last time they discussed the topic was during the Aug. 2 meeting, Weissmann told Jackson at last week’s closed hearing that the pair met several times in 2017 – including once in Washington, D.C., during Trump’s inauguration – and last year as well.

Explaining the significance of Manafort’s dishonesty about the nature of his contacts with Kilimnik, Weissmann told Judge Jackson last week that it “goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what the motive here is.”

Weissmann continued: “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s Office is investigating.”

Manafort pleaded guilty in Washington to head off a second criminal trial after a federal jury in Virginia found him guilty last year of various financial crimes. In Washington, Manafort pleaded to conspiring to defraud the United States, obstruction of justice and violations of lobbying laws in relation to work he did on behalf of a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, including former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort had agreed as part of his guilty plea to cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation. That deal came to a halt, however, when prosecutors accused him of breaching its terms by lying during his cooperation sessions.

For his part, Manafort insists he did not lie about how many times he discussed Ukrainian policy with Kilimnik.

In a partially redacted post-hearing memo filed Wednesday morning, attorney Richard Westling with Epstein Becker says the special counsel overstated what the factual record shows.

“Even if the defendant was initially incorrect about how many times the issue was raised, a fair reading of the record demonstrates that Mr. Manafort was attempting to recall the discussions as best he could and was not intentionally misleading the interrogators about the matter,” the 13-page brief says.

When the topic first arose, “Manafort told Kilimnik that the idea was crazy and the discussion ended,” the brief says, noting that Manafort did not say the topic never came up again.

“There is no evidence to support the OSC’s speculation that Mr. Manafort had a secret ‘plan’ from the outset to hide subsequent meetings with Mr. Kilimnik about the Ukraine [redacted] from the OSC,” the brief says, referring to the Office of the Special Counsel.

In a heavily redacted portion of the brief, Westling dissects testimony from Rick Gates about the Aug. 2, 2016, meeting that prosecutors used to buttress their claims that Manafort lied.

Westling described Gates’ recollection of the meeting as “far from ideal,” and suggested that his various statements were marred by “striking inconsistency.”

If Jackson determines that Manafort did lie during his cooperation sessions, it could affect his sentence.

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