Former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort’s deal agreeing to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller poses a new danger to President Trump and his inner circle by providing prosecutors with additional inside information they previously would not have had, legal experts reacting to the news told The Hill.
Even voices that have been deeply critical of Mueller’s actions said it is definitely a big win for the special counsel to have secured cooperation from Manafort, though they cautioned that is remains unclear exactly what Manafort has.
“Potentially, [Manafort’s guilty plea] opens up lots of doors that probably haven’t been opened before,” Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has frequently defended Trump over Mueller’s probe, said during a Friday appearance on MSNBC.
“I think from the point of view of Mueller, this is a big win, this is a big gain because he gets access to somebody,” added Dershowitz, who is a contributor to The Hill.
Manafort pled guilty to two charges on Friday as part of his deal.
The White House and Trump’s attorneys have asserted that Manafort’s convictions and guilty plea have nothing to do with the president or his 2016 bid; Trump himself has tweeted that Manafort worked for him for only a short period of time.
Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told The Hill that if Manafort had incriminating evidence on Trump, Mueller’s team “would have had him plead to a conspiracy that would encompass the president.”
Still, Manafort’s cooperation agreement with Mueller means that he will interview with the special counsel, testify in any upcoming cases and hand over documents related to the investigation, putting a new body of evidence at Mueller’s disposal.
Manafort also waived his right to have an attorney present at any interviews with federal investigators, and the deal itself makes no mention of the Trump campaign – meaning the topic is on the table for those interviews.
“[The implications for Trump] could be huge,” said former federal prosecutor Elie Honig of Manafort’s deal with Mueller.
While he only led the Trump campaign for three months, Manafort did so during a period of time that has come under heavy scrutiny by Mueller: He was one of several Trump campaign officials at a July 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer, who was offering political dirt on Hillary Clinton.
The president confirmed in a tweet earlier this year that his son, Donald Trump Jr., agreed to the meeting to try and obtain the damaging information on his political rival. Manafort also attended the meeting, as did White House aide Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
Honig said that if he were asking Manafort questions, he would immediately focus on the Trump Tower meeting.
“I’d have a million questions,” he said, “and the people who could get hurt by his answers, I think, run the gambit from Donald Trump to Trump Jr. to Kushner, on down the line.”
Jonathan Turley, a legal expert and law professor at the George Washington University, said that while he doesn’t believe that Manafort’s agreement with Mueller puts Trump directly in danger, it could implicate figures like Kushner and Trump Jr.
Kushner and Trump Jr. have interviewed with congressional investigators about the meeting, which has come under intense scrutiny since it was first publicly revealed by The New York Times last year.
Turley said that Trump – who has been protective of his family – could “destroy himself by his own hand” if he reacted impulsively to the indictment of someone like Kushner or Trump Jr., and could even trigger impeachment proceedings.
“An effort to go after a collateral figure like Kusher or Donald Trump Jr. could set in motion a series of cascading events that could well endanger the presidency,” Turley said. “But those events would largely occur because of the response of President Trump to any indictment of a close aide or family member.”
The law professor also said that Trump’s team is likely concerned that the special counsel now has another cooperating witness on its side, saying that any information provided by Manafort could be placed alongside that offered by any of the other witnesses, like former national security adviser Michael Flynn, to further the investigation.
But Turley noted that the plea deal meant the Trump administration would be spared from the negative news cycles stemming from Manafort’s D.C. trial, which would have taken place just blocks from the White House.
Former federal prosecutor Kendall Coffey said that federal prosecutors wouldn’t have offered a deal to Manafort, a high-profile target, unless they believed he could provide them with valuable assistance.
“And you know that every detail of anything and everything the Manafort heard in respect to the Trump campaign is being carefully drawn out and examined by the government,” Coffey said. “They may not have anything, but Manafort cannot hold anything back if there’s to be a hope of providing substantial assistance” as part of the agreement.
Coffey also highlighted Manafort’s attendance at the Trump Tower meeting as a likely line of questioning for federal prosecutors. Mueller’s team has reportedly flagged the meeting as an area of interest in their probe.
“If there was any wrongdoing whatsoever in connection to the Trump Tower meeting, whether it’s circumstances surrounding the meeting itself or statements given after the fact about the meeting – any wrongdoing whatsoever is under a microscope right now,” he said. “And Manafort would be an important witness.”
Former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said that Trump is likely concerned that his former campaign head is now talking to investigators who are focused on his campaign and possible collusion with Russia.
She said that Manafort will be able to provide Mueller with a first-hand account of the Trump Tower meeting, as well as insider information on the inner workings of the Trump campaign.
McQuade added that whatever information Manafort provides to investigators will be fully verified, and that the entire deal could be scrapped if the businessman is found to have lied.
“Soon Robert Mueller will know whatever Paul Manafort knows,” McQuade said.