WASHINGTON – The trial of Paul Manafort was not about election conspiracy or presidential obstruction of justice. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to crimes that had nothing to do with Russia’s campaign to sabotage the presidential race.
Yet the deepening legal peril for both men could have significant implications for the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
The cases of both men are, at the moment, tangential to the central questions of Mueller’s inquiry: whether President Donald Trump and his associates conspired with Russia’s election interference, and whether the president tried to obstruct the Justice Department’s investigation into the matter. But neither Manafort nor Cohen are believed to be cooperating with the special counsel — situations that could change now that they face years in prison.
Whether either man has anything of value to offer Mueller’s investigators is another question, and experts pointed out that the legal proceedings have dealt significant damage to the credibility of both. The team for Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, has at least signaled a willingness to provide information to the special counsel in exchange for some kind of leniency.
“Cohen has done everything but shout from the rooftops that he wants to cooperate,” said Ross Garber, a criminal defense lawyer and adjunct professor at Tulane Law School. “I expect the government is interested in what he has to say and then can evaluate whether there is any value to it.”
Cohen’s plea agreement does not require that he cooperate with federal investigators in New York who have been scrutinizing payments to two women to secure their silence before the 2016 election about affairs that they say they had with Trump. But even though Cohen has pleaded guilty in New York, legal experts say, Mueller can still call him to testify before the grand jury in Washington hearing evidence about the Russia investigation.
As for Manafort, the former chairman of the Trump campaign, Mueller’s prosecutors built their case on two timeless and prosaic matters: greed and theft. They sketched a portrait of a man who raked in millions in foreign lobbying and tried every means he could to hide the income in offshore bank accounts to evade taxes.
What he did not pay in taxes, the prosecutors argued, he spent on cars and expensive clothes, even a $15,000 coat made of ostrich skin.
That the charges against Manafort had nothing to do with Russian interference in the election opened Mueller’s team to a barrage of attacks by Trump and his allies that the special counsel had embarked on a crusade to discredit the administration.
But the fact that a jury returned a guilty verdict on eight counts bolsters the credibility of the special counsel’s pursuit of Manafort’s financial crimes. Mueller was directed to investigate Moscow’s interference, possible coordination by Trump associates and any other potential crimes he discovered along the way.
“The verdict highlights that the prosecutors are not engaged in a witch hunt. They aren’t engaged in fabricating evidence of following shadows,” said Jimmy Gurulé, a professor at Notre Dame Law School. “It goes to the competency of the investigation.”