“Mueller wants to get a conviction, but I do think this is a trial aimed at cooperation,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. Sandick noted that a conviction could be a powerful incentive for Manafort to strike a deal with prosecutors to reduce his prison sentence. “Even after someone has been convicted, they can apply for a sentencing reduction based on cooperation,” Sandick said.
Not everyone thinks that’s likely. Daniel Goldman, also a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, said that while it’s “possible to do it that way,” it is “very rare” that someone goes to trial and then cooperates. “I do not believe that Manafort will cooperate, or that the prosecution is trying to squeeze him in order to cooperate, and once this trial begins, any chance of cooperating all but goes out the window,” Goldman said.
Both Sandick and Goldman agreed, however, that Manafort has little chance of acquittal in this case. Manafort’s legal team wants to block jurors from seeing the nearly 500 pages of exhibits compiled by prosecutors documenting Manafort’s work in Ukraine, but Mueller has argued that the documents “establish the breadth of the work that Manafort performed, including commissioning television ads, writing speeches, and carrying on campaign-related activities. There is nothing prejudicial about documents setting forth how the ads were made, how consultants were paid, and who approved their work.” Prosecutors are also expected to delve into the sources of Manafort’s income, court filings show, which include “oligarchs who instituted the practice of paying Manafort via foreign accounts.”
Trump and his allies have sought to downplay the trial, claiming that it has nothing to do with either the president or a conspiracy with Russia to win the election. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN on Monday that because Manafort was only with Trump “for four months,” he had no special insight that would incriminate the president. Manafort was forced to step down as Trump’s campaign chairman in August 2016 after reports surfaced that he was allocated millions in off-the-books payments by Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions, but his work with Trump did not end there: He continued to give Trump “pointers” on how to handle the WikiLeaks dump of the Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, according to Politico, and his deputy, Rick Gates, stayed and worked on Trump’s transition team. Manafort “insinuated himself” into the transition through Gates, CNN reported at the time.
Manafort and Gates were indicted in October 2017 on charges including conspiracy to launder money and failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts. Gates struck a deal with Mueller earlier this year and is now cooperating with investigators—in a twist worthy of a TV courtroom drama, Gates is expected to testify against Manafort during the Virginia trial. But Manafort, who is the only American charged by Mueller who chose to go to trial rather than cooperate, could face the rest of his life in prison if convicted. Manafort will also stand trial in Washington, D.C., in September—Manafort’s team effectively forced Mueller to take the charges to two separate courts earlier this year—on charges including being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal and making false and misleading statements about his work as a foreign agent.