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Mueller says Manafort broke his plea deal. Here’s why that’s ‘extremely unusual’

Paul Manafort is in legal hot water once again, as prosecutors for special counsel Robert Mueller have accused him of breaking his plea agreement and lying both to them and to the FBI “on a variety of subject matters.” What does this new accusation mean for Manafort--and for Mueller’s Russia probe? Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti joins Judy Woodruff to interpret the news.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump's former campaign chairman is in legal hot water again.

    In a court filing late Monday, prosecutors for special counsel Robert Mueller accused Paul Manafort of lying to them and to the FBI on a variety of subject matters. Manafort said in that same filing that he has provided truthful information. He was previously convicted on a number of criminal charges brought by Mueller. And, in September, he pleaded guilty to other crimes.

    In doing so, Manafort also agreed to cooperate with the special counsel's team.

    Here now to help us digest this newest accusation is Renato Mariotti. He worked previously as a federal prosecutor focusing on white-collar crimes. He is now a defense attorney in private practice.

    Renato Mariotti, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, tell us, how unusual is this for a special counsel in a situation like this to have worked out a plea deal, but then to turn around and say, the defendant, the person we're working with, has lied, and we think the plea deal is worthless now?

  • Renato Mariotti:

    It is extremely unusual, Judy.

    In my almost decade as a former federal prosecutor, when I was in that job, I had never gone to the step of having a cooperation deal fall apart and having to go to the judge and make a statement like this.

    And I will tell you, I worked in a very large office in Chicago with well over 100 other prosecutors. And I don't recall that ever happening during the almost decade that I was doing it. So it's very, very unusual situation, because, typically, coordinators want to be on the government's team. That's why they sign the deal.

    There are huge incentives for them to be truthful, to tell the government everything that they know. That is what they are instructed by the prosecutors and by the FBI agents.

    And, on the other side, the prosecutors are trying to work with the cooperator. They want their testimony. They want their information. So, typically, there is not this sort of falling apart to this level. It's something that is really hard to get your head around.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as we said, Paul Manafort is saying what he has said was truthful. We have got two completely opposite versions of what happened here.

    But, in doing so, if what Robert Mueller is saying is correct, what Paul Manafort has done is open himself up to a longer prison sentence.

  • Renato Mariotti:

    That's exactly right, Judy. And the judge will ultimately make that decision.

    So Paul Manafort can have whatever position he wants. Ultimately, Bob Mueller's going to present evidence and reasons and an explanation to the judge. And it will be up to the judge to decide, not beyond a reasonable doubt, but by essentially a 51 percent standard, as to whether or not Paul Manafort did these things.

    And if she believes that he did, in fact, lie to the FBI, she must, under law, consider all of his behavior, including that, when she fashions his sentence. And you better believe that if the judge decides that he did lie to the FBI and he lied to Mr. Mueller and his team, she is going to give him a much higher sentence. It is not going to go very well for him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it appears that whatever the exchanges were that the special counsel believes is not truthful, not factual, that's going to come out later in the statement they issued last night.

    They said that they were going to put forward the details of the defendant's crimes. So does that tell us anything, that Robert Mueller is prepared to lay out exactly what Manafort did?

  • Renato Mariotti:

    Well, it certainly means, Judy, first of all, he is asking the judge to consider this at sentencing. This means that he wants the judge to take this into account. As I mentioned a moment ago, that's the judge's duty to do.

    And what it also tells us is at least some portions of this, so there's enough there that he feels it's not too sensitive to disclose. In other words, if Paul Manafort was lying about very sensitive classified matters, you can imagine that being something that was all done under seal.

    But here, at least I think we can expect some portions of this will ultimately play themselves out in the sentencing process, and we will hear at least about some or a good portion of what Mr. Mueller is alleging Manafort did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, there's so much we don't know. We know Robert Mueller is looking at any possible connection between the Trump presidential campaign, Russian officials.

    We do know that this filing by the special counsel comes out three days, just a matter of a few days after President Trump answered questions that Robert Mueller's office had put to him. And we have a statement today from the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, telling reporters that maybe the prosecutor in his zeal to get the president may have gone too far.

  • Renato Mariotti:

    I see no evidence to indicate that that is the case. And what we have seen, frankly, in the process of the interview process that you refer, to Judy, is extraordinary deference being shown to the president.

    I will tell you, when I represent clients, the government doesn't let me clients represent — you know, make their answers in writing. The process usually doesn't take a year long. So I think they have been deferential.

    As to Mr. Manafort, the facts are going to play out through the process we just discussed a moment ago. If Mr. Mueller is able to prove that Mr. Manafort lied to the FBI, that is going to be very bad news for Mr. Manafort, and I don't think anyone could say that he was treated unfairly in that circumstance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly, I want to also say there was a report in the British newspaper The Guardian today that Paul Manafort met with the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, on three different occasions, including in the spring of 2016, just exactly around the time he went to work for the Trump campaign.

    Now, Manafort is denying this, but, if it were true, it seems to me that could have a lot of significance here.

  • Renato Mariotti:

    There's no question.

    I mean, WikiLeaks was the operation that distributed the hacked e-mails from Democrats in the United States. Hacking a server in the United States is a federal crime. Anyone who participated in that would — a conspiracy to do that or aided that would be guilty of a crime.

    Obviously, knowing about that or having discussions about that doesn't necessarily constitute a crime, but it would certainly lead — potentially could lead Mueller down that direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Renato Mariotti, thank you very much.

  • Renato Mariotti:

    Thank you.

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