Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s legal team is discussing a possible plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office in a bid to avoid a second criminal trial scheduled to begin next week in Washington, according to people familiar with the matter.
The potential terms under discussion couldn’t be determined, but are unlikely to include an explicit obligation for Mr. Manafort to cooperate in Mr. Mueller’s continuing investigation into possible collusion of Trump associates with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, the people said.
In another sign possibly pointing to those discussions, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson delayed without explanation a pretrial conference scheduled for Wednesday to discuss evidence to be presented at trial. That hearing is now rescheduled for Friday morning.
Representatives for Messrs. Mueller and Manafort declined to comment.
If talks break down and the trial does go forward, it would likely provide a rare window into secret foreign lobbying work that went on for years and involved high-profile K Street lobby shops.
Mr. Manafort has already been convicted in Virginia on eight tax and bank fraud counts relating to his work for pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine. He was found guilty last month of not reporting more than $16 million he made in the early 2010s from that work, and faces a sentence of roughly eight to 10 years in prison. The 69-year-old has been in jail since June after he was accused of trying to influence the testimony of a potential witness against him. The jury didn’t return a verdict on 10 of the 18 charges leveled at Mr. Manafort.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month the two sides held plea talks during jury deliberations in Virginia but didn’t reach a deal. Bloomberg reported last week that Mr. Manafort’s team and prosecutors had renewed the talks.
In the second trial, Mr. Manafort faces charges of conspiring against the U.S., conspiring to launder money, failing to register his foreign lobbying work, misleading the government about that work, and obstruction of justice.
An agreement to plead guilty to some of those counts could provide Mr. Manafort with some certainty on his ultimate sentence. For the prosecution, a deal would mean avoiding the costs and uncertain outcome of a jury trial. With Mr. Manafort already set for years of incarceration, the outcome of the Washington case would likely only marginally affect Mr. Manafort’s sentence.
Mr. Manafort also could be pushing to have the case transferred to Virginia and request to be sentenced by the judge who oversaw the earlier case, T.S. Ellis, who expressed sympathy at times to Mr. Manafort’s positions.
The possibility that President Trump would pardon Mr. Manafort has long hovered in the background of the Manafort prosecution. Mr. Trump, who has pardoned other political figures, praised his former campaign chairman and expressed sorrow at his conviction in Virginia. A plea deal wouldn’t foreclose the option of a pardon, particularly if it doesn’t include a cooperation agreement.
A plea agreement would likely signal the end of Mr. Mueller’s dealings with Mr. Manafort, one of his highest-profile targets and the only one to face a trial so far. The special counsel is expected to limit further public actions until after the November midterm elections, though he has continued to call witnesses before the grand jury and is talking with Mr. Trump’s legal team about whether the president will be interviewed.
The Manafort cases emerged from Mr. Mueller’s probe but are tangential to the Trump campaign, centering instead on Mr. Manafort’s lobbying work in the early 2010s. Mr. Trump has denied collusion and obstruction, and Moscow has denied election interference.
Judge Jackson has ordered prosecutors not to mention the Russia investigation during the Washington trial. If the plea talks collapse and the trial proceeds, it would keep the Mueller probe in the news less than two months before the congressional elections.
It also would reveal rarely aired details about the lucrative world of foreign influence peddling in Washington. During his campaign, Mr. Trump identified foreign lobbyists as part of the “swamp” he promised to drain.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires anyone doing lobbying or public-relations work for a foreign entity to register and file periodic updates with the Justice Department, a rule aimed at preventing secret foreign efforts to influence U.S. policy. Violations are rarely exposed; between 1966 and 2016, the Justice Department brought seven cases, according to a departmental report in September 2016.
“This case has an outsized profile because it’s so politically charged, but it’s properly seen as part of a larger effort by the Justice Department over the past few years to step up enforcement of the act,” said David Laufman, who served as chief of the Justice Department’s division overseeing the FARA unit. He retired in February 2018 after more than three years in the post.
Starting in 2006, Mr. Manafort worked for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted and fled to Russia in 2014. The work included shaping U.S. perception of Mr. Yanukovych and his political party, prosecutors say. But Mr. Manafort didn’t register as an agent until June 2017, after he had already misled federal investigators about the nature of his work, the prosecutors say.
Mr. Manafort’s firm hired two well-known D.C. lobbying shops, the Democratic-led Podesta Group and Republican-led Mercury Public Affairs, as well as the powerful law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, to help with the Ukraine project.
A former Skadden associate admitted to lying to investigators for Mr. Mueller’s office and served a one-month sentence in jail. No Podesta or Mercury associates have been publicly charged.