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Trump's former campaign chairman faces federal trial with a hint of a presidential pardon

Trump's former campaign chairman faces federal trial with a hint of a presidential pardon
Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, goes to trial on Wednesday. (Alexandria Sheriff's Office)

When Paul Manafort, President 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, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, suggested Trump may pardon Manafort, a potential get-out-of-jail card that Trump already has given to several high-profile supporters.

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

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

Manafort is the first defendant from that probe to go on trial, first in Alexandria, Va., and then in Washington, D.C. The dozen charges center on his work as a highly paid advisor 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 network TV shows on 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 he was not suggesting a pardon might be forthcoming for Manafort, though he would not rule one out.

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

Despite that caveat, Giuliani’s comments sparked strong criticism from former federal prosecutors and legal scholars, with some suggesting 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.”

Reached for comment, Giuliani said his remarks were not “in any way improper.” In text messages to The Times, he said he did not believe Manafort could interpret his comments to discourage possible cooperation with Mueller’s team.

Trump has made no decision on a pardon for Manafort “and is far away from doing it as far as I know,” he said. He added, “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 when Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and another top campaign advisor conferred at Trump Tower in New York with a Russian lawyer after an intermediary promised “information that would incriminate” Hillary Clinton.

U.S. District Court 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.

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“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 B. Fiske Jr., who investigated then-President 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 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 criminal offenses.

Trump so far has granted seven clemencies: five pardons and two sentence commutations. All were granted to defendants whose cases drew Trump’s interest after pleas from conservative media or celebrities.

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

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