Manafort back in Russia probe spotlight

WASHINGTON (AP) — The breakdown of a plea deal with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an explosive British news report about alleged contacts he may have had with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threw a new element of uncertainty into the Trump-Russia investigation.

On Tuesday, a day after prosecutors accused Manafort of repeatedly lying to them, trashing his agreement to tell all in return for a lighter sentence, he adamantly denied a report in the Guardian that he had met secretly with Assange around March 2016. That’s the same month Manafort joined the Trump campaign and Russian hackers began an effort to penetrate the email accounts of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The developments thrust Manafort back into the investigation spotlight, raising new questions about what he knows and what prosecutors say he might be attempting to conceal as they probe Russian election interference and possible coordination with Trump associates in the campaign.

All the while, Manafort’s lawyers have been briefing Trump’s attorneys on what their client has told investigators, an unusual arrangement that could give Trump ammunition in his feud against special counsel Robert Mueller.

“They share with me the things that pertain to our part of the case,” Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told The Associated Press.

Giuliani also said Trump, who has recently stepped up his attacks on Mueller, has been enraged by the treatment of Manafort.

Other figures entangled in the investigation, including Trump himself, have been scrambling to escalate attacks and allegations against prosecutors who have been working quietly behind the scenes.

Besides denying he’d ever met Assange, Manafort, who is currently in jail, said he’d told Mueller’s prosecutors the truth during questioning. And WikiLeaks said Manafort had never met with Assange, offering to bet London’s Guardian newspaper “a million dollars and its editor’s head.”

Assange, whose organization published thousands of emails stolen by Russian spies from Clinton’s campaign in 2016, is in Ecuador’s embassy in London under a claim of asylum.

It’s unclear what prosecutors contend Manafort lied about, though they’re expected to make a public filing that could offer answers.

Dissolution of the plea deal could be a devastating outcome for a defendant who suddenly admitted guilt last September after months of maintaining his innocence and who bet on his cooperation getting him a shorter sentence. But it’s also a potential setback for investigators, given that Manafort steered the campaign during a vital stretch of 2016, when prosecutors say Russian intelligence was working to sway the election in Trump’s favor.

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