Since his indictment last October, Paul Manafort has steadfastly fought the special counsel at every turn as other past advisers of President Donald Trump have struck plea deals, cooperated with investigators and—in the case of Rick Gates—testified for prosecutors in court.
With his conviction Tuesday on tax and bank fraud charges, the former Trump campaign chairman faces the firm prospect of a long prison sentence. And there’s more to come as Manafort’s defense team readies for another trial, this time in a Washington, D.C., federal court that’s set to begin Sept. 17.
Manafort may now find himself at a fork in the road, considering a new course. Indeed, white collar defense lawyers say he has two routes to take: cooperate with the special counsel’s office, or angle for a presidential pardon.
Cooperate. If not, pray for a pardon.
“I’d say cooperate,” says Schertler & Onorato’s Robert Bennett, a veteran criminal defense attorney in Washington. “Now that you’ve been convicted, you have a better sense of what you’re facing. Make the best possible deal that you can. But if he has a promise of a pardon in his back pocket, with an understanding that he will be pardoned if he does not cooperate, then the strategy makes sense. It’s the only explanation for the strategy.”
“You would only go before the firing squad if you were told that, before they pulled the trigger, ‘I’m going to put you out of this.’ That’s the only thing that makes sense for his continuing the fighting,” Bennett added.
Ultimately, Bennett says, defense attorneys have to heed their clients’ wishes: “You do essentially what the client wants. That’s part of the game.”
For Manafort, the specter of the second trial in Washington, D.C., where he faces a more diverse array of charges, could up the pressure. He might also find more of an uphill climb in the District: The judge overseeing his case, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, has largely sided with the government in pretrial motions, and she also ordered Manafort to jail earlier this year.
Manafort also might find a more liberal pool of jurors in D.C. than in the Eastern District of Virginia.
“The obvious and rational thing would be to make a deal,” says Arent Fox partner Peter Zeidenberg, who served as deputy special counsel in the prosecution of Scooter Libby. “They haven’t done that so far, so maybe it’s the client, maybe it’s another game plan, but the obvious thing would be to cut a deal with the government.”
Don’t count on an appeal.
Manafort’s attorneys have not publicly indicated whether they will appeal the verdict in the financial fraud trial in Virginia. Nor should they pin their hopes on one, Zeidenberg said.
“That’s not going to help. It’s very unlikely he would win on an appeal,” he said. “And if he did, it would just mean he’d get another trial. … There weren’t any cutting-edge legal issues. There wasn’t a question of constitutionality of the statute. This was a cut and dry income tax fraud, garden variety stuff. That’s not going to get overturned on appeal.”
The case for fighting it out.
Still, with Manafort already facing the prospect of a hefty prison sentence from his conviction in Virginia, he may have little to lose defending himself at trial in Washington, even with all the challenges that come with that case. A few acquittals could help with the public’s perception of him. As for the pardon discussion, duking it out in D.C. could endear him to his audience of one: Trump.
“What do you really have to lose? And [the trial’s] so soon. It’s not like you have to wait a year for the trial. It’s in a few weeks,” said one white-collar defense lawyer, who previously served as a federal prosecutor.
“What he really has, if he has anything, it doesn’t matter if he gives it up three weeks from now or today if he has stuff Mueller wants,” the former prosecutor added. “The only thing he has to lose is whatever he’s paying his attorneys.”