WASHINGTON — The breakdown of a plea deal with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an explosive British news report about alleged contacts he may have had with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threw a new element of uncertainty into the Trump-Russia investigation.
On Tuesday, a day after prosecutors accused Manafort of repeatedly lying to them, trashing his agreement to tell all in return for a lighter sentence, he adamantly denied a report in the Guardian that he had met secretly with Assange around March 2016. That's the same month Manafort joined the Trump campaign and Russian hackers began an effort to penetrate the email accounts of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
The developments thrust Manafort back into the investigation spotlight, raising new questions about what he knows and what prosecutors say he might be attempting to conceal as they probe Russian election interference and possible coordination with Trump associates in the campaign that sent the celebrity businessman to the White House.
All the while, Manafort's lawyers have been briefing Trump's attorneys on what their client has told investigators, an unusual arrangement that could give Trump ammunition in his feud against special counsel Robert Mueller.
“They share with me the things that pertain to our part of the case,” Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told The Associated Press.
Giuliani also said Trump, who has recently stepped up his attacks on Mueller, has been enraged by the treatment of Manafort.
Other figures entangled in the investigation, including Trump himself, have been scrambling to escalate attacks and allegations against prosecutors who have been working quietly behind the scenes.
Besides denying he'd ever met Assange, Manafort, who is currently in jail, said he'd told Mueller's prosecutors the truth during questioning. And WikiLeaks said Manafort had never met with Assange, offering to bet London's Guardian newspaper “a million dollars and its editor's head.”
Assange, whose organization published thousands of emails stolen by Russian spies from Clinton's campaign in 2016, is in Ecuador's embassy in London under a claim of asylum.
It's unclear what prosecutors contend Manafort lied about, though they're expected to make a public filing that could offer answers.
Dissolution of the plea deal could be a devastating outcome for a defendant who suddenly admitted guilt last September after months of maintaining his innocence and who bet on his cooperation getting him a shorter sentence. But it's also a potential setback for investigators, given that Manafort steered the campaign during a vital stretch of 2016, when prosecutors say Russian intelligence was working to sway the election in Trump's favor.
The prosecutors’ filing underscored their exasperation not only at Manafort's alleged deception but also at the loss of an important witness present for key moments under scrutiny, including a Trump Tower meeting at which Trump's eldest son expected to receive “dirt” about Clinton from a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
“The fact is, they wanted his cooperation. They wanted him to truthfully reveal what he knew, so they're not getting what they wanted,” said Washington defense lawyer Peter Zeidenberg. “This isn't like a good development where they're clapping their hands and saying, ‘Now we get to crush this guy.’”
Manafort's motivation, if indeed he lied to prosecutors, also was unclear.
In an interview, Giuliani said Trump and his lawyers agree a presidential pardon should not be considered “now” but added, “The president could consider it at an appropriate time, as Manafort has the same rights as any American.”
Giuliani also accused Mueller's team of mistreating Manafort in hopes of getting him to give false testimony against the president. He said Trump “thinks it is outrageous and un-American and sounds like something that would happen under an oppressive dictatorship.”
Mueller's filing on Manafort came at a delicate time for investigators, who have gone months without new charges and continue to probe possible links between Trump associates and WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website.
As Trump continues raging against the investigation — he tweeted Tuesday that Mueller was doing “TREMENDOUS damage to our Criminal Justice system” and called the investigation “a total disgrace” — others in the crosshairs have filled the vacuum of Mueller's recent silence by publicly declaring their innocence, accusing prosecutors of coercing testimony or tempting fate by turning aside negotiations.
One associate of Trump confidant Roger Stone is contesting a grand jury subpoena in court. Another, Jerome Corsi, said he was rejecting an offer to plead guilty to a false statements charge and has complained in news media interviews about his interrogations by prosecutors.
Stone, under investigation himself for connections to WikiLeaks, has repeatedly disparaged Mueller's investigation and said his friend Corsi was at risk of prosecution “not for lying but for refusing to lie.”
A document drafted by Mueller's team as part of a plea offer says Corsi tipped off Stone in August 2016 that WikiLeaks planned to release damaging documents about Clinton. The tip accurately forecast that WikiLeaks would publicity post the material, including messages from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, in October. It is the first known reference by Mueller to Americans close to Trump appearing to have foreknowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans.
The draft document was first reported by NBC News, and a copy of it was posted online by The Washington Post. Stone has denied knowing about WikiLeaks’ plans in advance.
Manafort, meanwhile, had been quiet since pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy against the United States. He has met repeatedly since then with investigators.
He remained in the spotlight Tuesday when the Guardian published a report saying he had secretly met Assange around March 2016, when he was brought aboard the Trump campaign. The report suggested a direct connection between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign.
Manafort called the story “totally false and deliberately libelous,” saying in a statement that he had never met Assange or anyone close to him.
The Guardian cited unidentified sources as saying Manafort first met Assange at the embassy in 2013, a year after Assange took refuge there to avoid being extradited to Sweden over sex crime allegations. The newspaper said that Manafort returned in 2015 and 2016 and that its sources had “tentatively dated” the final visit to March.
There was no detail on what might have been discussed.
The Trump campaign announced Manafort's hiring on March 29, 2016, and he served as the convention manager tasked with lining up delegates for the Republican National Convention. He was promoted to chairman that May.
An AP investigation into Russian hacking showed that government-aligned cyberspies began an aggressive effort to penetrate the Clinton campaign's email accounts on March 10, 2016.
Justice Department prosecutors in Virginia recently inadvertently disclosed the existence of sealed criminal charges against Assange, though it's unclear what that case entails. Prosecutors were in court Tuesday arguing against unsealing any charge.
Meanwhile, a judge may soon set a sentencing date for Manafort now that his hopes for leniency appear dashed.
“The cooperating defendant usually is very aware of what's at stake,” said Shanlon Wu, who represented Manafort's onetime co-defendant Rick Gates. "What I always say to any client of mine who's contemplating that — there is no going back.
“It's like being a little bit pregnant,” he added. “There's no such thing.”
- Trump on Paul Manafort pardon: 'I wouldn't take it off the table'
- US charges WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with publishing classified info
- Sweden to reopen rape case against WikiLeaks' Julian Assange
- WikiLeaks' Julian Assange facing hearing on US extradition request
- Nothing wrong with help from Russians, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani says
- Journalism or not? WikiLeaks' status in media world complex
- WikiLeaks' Julian Assange arrested in London; US charge unveiled (UPDATED)
- William Barr says he thinks 'spying' occurred against Trump campaign
- UK police outside Ecuador embassy amid WikiLeaks tweets
- Adviser and allies warning Trump against issuing pardons
- Manafort now faces 7 years in prison -- and additional New York charges (UPDATED)
- Israelis prepare for elections as experts cite cyber threats
- Paul Manafort scheduled to learn sentence for tax and bank fraud
- Court deadlines set stage for more Russia probe details
- Top House Dems raise prospect of impeachment, jail for Trump
- Paul Manafort gets about 4 years in prison when 20 was possible
- AP sources: Trump, others agitated by Giuliani's performance
- Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort due back in court over allegations he lied
- Rudy Giuliani rules out Robert Mueller interview with Donald Trump
- Trump confidant Roger Stone to face federal judge in DC
- Lawmakers press for a full Russia probe report from Robert Mueller
- Roger Stone heads to court; Robert Mueller cites potential evidence trove
- Trump confidant Roger Stone is arrested, says he's falsely accused (UPDATED)
- Report: Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange ahead of 2016 leaks
- Robert Mueller accuses Paul Manafort of breaking plea agreement by lying
- Russia probe revival expected if Democrats win House
- Donald Trump tells AP he won't accept blame if GOP loses House
- Probes of Donald Trump taxes carry potential for millions in fines
- Mueller probe gets info from ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen
- Paul Manafort signals he intends to plead guilty before new trial
- Concern in White House over shortage of lawyers, press aides
- Democrats seek to keep focus on corruption, not impeachment
- Trump denies wrongdoing, says Cohen is making up stories
- Jury returns guilty verdict on eight charges in Paul Manafort charges; 10 more declared mistrial
- Analysis: With Cohen plea, GOP faces familiar Trump quandary
- Wyoming rebuffs Trump, picks native son in GOP governor race
- Uncertainty looms over House race after incumbent Duncan Hunter indicted
- The Latest: Cohen says hush money paid to influence election (UPDATED)
- Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort found guilty on 8 of 18 counts (UPDATED)
- Jury to begin deliberating in Manafort financial fraud trial
- Rick Gates' testimony dredges up Trump inaugural spending mystery
- Prosecutors to rest case at Paul Manafort's financial fraud trial
- Cross-examination focuses on Manafort protege's own crimes (UPDATED)
- Star witness against Paul Manafort admits embezzling from him
- Trump appears to change story on meeting with Russian lawyer
- Testimony by 'right-hand man' critical in Manafort trial
- Bookkeeper: Manafort didn't disclose foreign accounts to her
- White House: Trump's tweet about Russia probe was an opinion
- The Latest: Defense: Manafort trusted others to handle money
- Donald Trump calls on Jeff Sessions to end Robert Mueller's Russia probe
- Manafort accused of amassing 'secret income' as trial opens
- Trial set to begin for ex-Trump campaign chairman Manafort
- Manafort trial to shed light on Mueller probe evidence
- Judge jails ex-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort ahead of trial
- Manafort accused of several tries to tamper with witnesses
- The princes, the president and the fortune seekers
- The year of Mueller: 12 months in, here's what we've learned
- Special counsel team has floated idea of subpoena for Trump
- Report: Mueller team gives Trump lawyers a list of questions
- Comey says it possible Russians have leverage over Trump
- Trump furious after FBI seizes documents from his lawyer (UPDATED)
- In reversal, former Trump aide says he'll probably cooperate
- Attorney pleads guilty to lying about interactions with Trump campaign aide
- Ex-Trump campaign aide pleads guilty in Russia probe
- New charges brought against ex-Donald Trump campaign associates
- Pence's approach to troubles in White House: He wasn't there
- US issues 'Putin list' of Russian politicians, oligarchs
- Trump calls report he ordered Mueller's firing 'fake news'
- Trump 'looking forward' to being questioned under oath
- Sessions questioned in Russia probe, Trump may be up soon
- House panel subpoenas Bannon in Russia probe showdown
- House panel interviewing Bannon after his fall from power
- AP source: Mueller conveys interest in questioning Trump
- Donald Trump's allies defend him against book's claims
- 13 Days in July: The Trump White House's crucible
- Paul Manafort says special counsel wants to unfairly restrict his freedom of speech
- Flynn lied to FBI, confirms cooperation with special council (UPDATED)
- Flynn may be moving to cooperate with Mueller's Russia probe
- Russia hackers had targets worldwide, beyond US election
- Ex-Trump aides due back in court following indictment
- Former Trump adviser's guilty plea could rattle White House
- With first charges, Mueller sends warning to Trump, aides
- Manafort indicted; ex-Trump aide pleads in Russia probe (UPDATED)
- Trump says any Manafort's misdeeds occurred 'years ago'
- Amid cooperation, some Trump allies urge Russia probe fight
- Emails point to Manafort offer to brief Russian in campaign
- Donald Trump Jr. heads to Capitol to explain 2016 meeting
- Source: Grand jury hears from lobbyist in Trump Tower confab
- FBI agents searched former Trump campaign chair's home
- Senate Judiciary Committee withdraws subpoena for Manafort
- Trump son-in-law Kushner denies collusion with Russia
- Trump campaign inner circle called before Senate committees
- Trump Jr. admits he wanted info on Clinton from Russian
- Report: Donald Trump Jr. was promised damaging info about Clinton
- Mueller probe could draw focus to Russian crime operations
- Former Trump campaign chairman registers as foreign agent
- Trump lashes out at 'bad,' 'conflicted' Russia investigators
- Saudis paid for US veteran trips against 9/11 lawsuit law
- Flynn documents sought by Senate panel in Russia probe
- Trump boasts of hiring only the best, but picks haunt him
- AP Exclusive: Manafort firm received Ukraine ledger payout
- AP Exclusive: U.S. probes banking of ex-Trump campaign chief Manafort
- AP Exclusive: Manafort had plan to benefit Putin government
- Investigations into Russia to continue after Flynn's exit
- Trump campaign chairman Manafort resigns after latest shakeup
- Ukraine releases documents showing attempts at foreign influence of Trump campaign
- GOP leaders hope for momentum boost in Trump campaign shake-up -- but make contingency plan
- Trump shakes up campaign as poll numbers slip
- Aides: Trump foreign policy to include realism, no nation building
- Trump refines economic policy
- Frustration with Trump mounts -- in his own party
- Cruz remains defiant, says Trump made GOP contest personal
- Trump coronated as GOP nominee -- not without some speed bumps
- Trump announces Indiana Gov. Pence as VP pick
- Trump campaign brushing aside plagiarism charges in Melania's convention speech
- GOP convention kicks off; Trump to make surprise visit today
- Campaign's goal: Show Trump in a different way
- Trump postpones vice president announcement in wake of Nice attack
- Trump tees off on Hillary, calling her 'world class liar'
- Trump fires embattled campaign manager in hopes shake-up rights presidential bid
- Trump trying to 'normalize' with foreign policy speech
- Trump polishing rough edges with eye toward general election
- As specter of brokered convention looms, Trump cries foul over delegate process
- Trump ahead in delegate count, but could be playing from behind if fight drags out