Without Manafort, Mueller loses 'star witness': lawyer
CTVNews.ca Staff with files from Joy Malbon
Published Wednesday, November 28, 2018 7:38PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, November 28, 2018 8:42PM EST
Special Counsel Robert Mueller may have lost his “star witness” after U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that he’s not opposed to pardoning Paul Manafort. But that doesn’t mean Mueller’s investigation is over, according to a lawyer with experience investigating past presidents.
Trump told the New York Post Wednesday that a pardon is “not off the table” for his former campaign chair Paul Manafort, who is currently in jail after being convicted of financial crimes.
“Why would I take it off the table?” said Trump, who has repeatedly dismissed Mueller’s investigation as a witch hunt.
Mueller’s team has accused Manafort of repeatedly lying on a range of subjects related to their probe, which is investigating possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.
If Manafort expects a presidential pardon from Trump, there may be little motivation to work with Mueller, according to Paul Rosenzweig, who served as senior counsel in independent investigations into Bill Clinton, including Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky affair.
“In some ways he’s lost his star witness. Manafort cannot be called to testify now because the prosecutor has called him a liar in public. So that makes it an easy shot for the defendants to call him a liar,” Rosenzweig told CTV News.
A rapid-fire series of reports published this week offer new insights into the state of Mueller’s probe, and how Manafort fits in. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Manafort’s personal lawyer continually briefed Trump’s legal team about precisely which evidence Manafort was providing to the Mueller probe.
The same day, The Guardian released a bombshell report alleging that Manafort met with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange around March 2016 – the same month that Manafort joined Trump’s campaign. It’s also the same month that Russian hackers began working to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.
And then, on Wednesday, CNN reported that Trump told Mueller in writing that he was not told about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son, campaign officials and a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Trump also said that former campaign adviser Roger Stone did not tell him about WikiLeaks, according to the report.
Trump’s comments, if found to be false, could lead to criminal charges.
The WikiLeaks connection?
The developments open up deeper questions about Manafort’s role, Rosenzweig said.
“The interesting question is what was he lying about in the debriefing? Before the Guardian report, I might have assumed he was lying about the Trump Tower meeting or about his finances or about the involvement of his wife – any one of a half dozen things,” he said.
“Taking these two together – the Guardian report about the Assange-Manafort connection and the report from Mueller that Manafort has been untruthful – suggests that what may link these two events is precisely Manafort’s unwillingness to tell the truth about his connections to Julian Assange.”
Those sorts of connections are “highly speculative” at this point, Rosenzweig said. But he added that “the two coming together certainly suggest a linkage.”
“If Manafort, the Trump campaign manager, is talking to Assange … then we begin to see possibilities that that connection is really real, and that would actually be collusion,” he said.
If Mueller finds such a link, it would spark a host of questions.
“What did he say to Assange? Was he there on behalf of the Trump campaign? It would certainly be the first time that we’ve directly linked any of the Trump core employees in the campaign to Assange and thus to the Russians. And that would be a very significant bombshell if you will,” Rosenzweig said.
Mueller has remained secretive about the investigation, now in its 18th month, and there’s no way to tell how close he may be to wrapping up. It’s not uncommon for these sorts of probes to last several years, Rosenzweig said.
“You know, 18 months is actually pretty short for these things,” he said.
“I would say we’re likely closer to the end than to the beginning. But I don’t think that we’re going to see Mueller pack up and go home in February.”
Trump has repeatedly trashed Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” motivated by politics. Rosenzweig said that, as more charges pile up, he can see why Trump might be feeling nervous.
“I understand why the president is afraid of this, and I understand why he feels the need to discredit it. But I don’t think that any objective assessment of the Mueller investigation would suggest that it’s a witch hunt.”