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Manafort faces federal trial with a hint of a presidential pardon

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 7/21/2018 By David Willman, Los Angeles Times

a man wearing a suit and tie: Paul Manafort on July 19, 2016, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. © Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Zuma Press/TNS Paul Manafort on July 19, 2016, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. WASHINGTON — When Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, goes on trial Wednesday in Virginia on charges of money laundering, tax fraud and other crimes, he may have reason to hope he can avoid prison if he is convicted.

Last month, Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, suggested that Trump may pardon Manafort.

Trump has already pardoned several high-profile supporters.

Giuliani's framing of terms for pardoning Manafort sparked instant political and legal controversy. Critics said Manafort could see Giuliani's comments as a signal that Trump will continue to resist cooperation with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who brought the charges.

Mueller's investigation has led to criminal charges against 32 people, including 25 Russians, as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign, whether Trump or anyone else committed obstruction of justice and other crimes.

Manafort is the first defendant from that investigation to go on trial, first in Alexandria, Va., and then in Washington. The dozen charges center on his work as an adviser to the Russian-backed government in Ukraine, but the conspiracy continued through the Trump campaign, prosecutors allege.

Giuliani first raised the prospect of a presidential pardon the day U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is hearing the Washington case, revoked Manafort's $10 million bail for what prosecutors said was witness tampering, and ordered him to jail until his trial.

"When the whole thing is over, things might get cleaned up with some presidential pardons," Giuliani told the New York Daily News on June 15.

Giuliani elaborated on TV shows June 17, saying Trump's criteria for issuing a pardon would be whether a defendant had been "treated unfairly." Two days earlier, Trump had called Manafort's jailing "very unfair."

Giuliani told CNN that he was not suggesting Manafort would be pardoned, though he would not rule it out.

"You are not going to get a pardon just because you are involved in this investigation," Giuliani said. "But you are certainly not excluded from it, if in fact the president and his advisers — not me — come to the conclusion that you have been treated unfairly."

Despite that caveat, Giuliani's comments were criticized by former federal prosecutors and legal scholars, with some suggesting that the former New York mayor was complicit in obstructing justice.

"I think there's no other way to look at that than an invitation or exhortation to Manafort to keep quiet and stay the course and hope for the get-out-of-jail card," said Harry Litman, a former federal prosecutor in San Francisco. "He has no business trying to telegraph to Manafort anything about pardon prospects."

Giuliani said his comments were not "in any way improper." In text messages to the Los Angeles Times, he said he did not believe that Manafort could interpret his comments to discourage possible cooperation with Mueller's team.

Trump has not decided on a pardon for Manafort "and is far away from doing it as far as I know," he said. "I am confident that no matter what, Mr. Manafort has not an iota of information concerning the president."

Mueller has focused, in part, on a June 9, 2016, meeting at which Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and another top campaign adviser met at Trump Tower in New York with a Russian lawyer after an intermediary promised "information that would incriminate" Hillary Clinton.

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who is presiding over the Virginia case, said at a May hearing that he believed Mueller is prosecuting Manafort to get him "to sing" against Trump. But Ellis later ruled that the case should proceed to trial, and Litman said the evidence appears strong.

"If he doesn't cooperate or get a pardon, he's going to die in prison," Litman said. "These indictments were hard to put together — but they're going to be straightforward to prove."

Georgetown law professor Julie O'Sullivan, a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked on the staff of special prosecutor Robert Fiske Jr., who investigated President Bill Clinton's financial past in 1994, called Giuliani's language "shocking."

"If (Giuliani) shares the president's intention to derail the investigation, and acts to communicate this information by getting on the news, basically telling Manafort, 'If you behave yourself, you'll get a pardon,' he's complicit in obstruction of justice."

Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace University law school and a former prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney's office, said Giuliani's comments crossed an ethical line.

"The signal that Giuliani is giving ... is: 'Don't cooperate. Just understand the president stands behind you and will do the right thing in order to protect your interest,' " Gershman said. "I think this could be considered another factor in a large amalgam of facts that are all being assembled with the critical issue being obstruction of justice."

Margaret Love, a former Justice Department lawyer who served as the U.S. pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997, noted that Giuliani, who served as associate attorney general in the 1980s, had formally advised President Ronald Reagan whether or not to issue certain pardons.

"Oh God — Rudy used to do this," Love said. "He knows better."

Under the Constitution, the president is empowered to grant executive clemency for federal crimes.

Trump so far has granted five pardons and commuted two sentences. All were granted to defendants whose cases drew Trump's interest after pleas from conservative media or celebrities.

A lawyer for Manafort, Kevin Downing, declined to comment.

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