Judge questions ‘highly unusual’ Manafort plea deal with Mueller

The federal judge in Virginia who oversaw Paul Manafort’s criminal trial earlier this summer threw a new obstacle Thursday into the former Trump campaign chairman’s plea deal by calling out as “highly unusual” a plan to seek the dismissal of deadlocked charges only after Manafort has finished cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller.

U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis II ordered Manafort, his lawyers and Mueller’s prosecutors back to his Alexandria courtroom for a hearing next Friday to resolve the situation and to set a sentencing date for the longtime GOP operative.

Ellis’ latest move doesn’t appear to jeopardize the overall deal with Manafort, but has the potential to remove one of several incentives for the former Trump campaign chairman to cooperate and could lead to details of Mueller’s investigative interests being made public sooner than the special counsel may like.

Under the plea agreement reached last month, avoided a second criminal trial in Washington D.C. by pleading guilty to conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiring to obstruct justice, along with a pledge to “cooperate fully and truthfully” with the special counsel’s probe into Russian election interference with the Trump campaign.

In exchange, Mueller’s team dropped charges against Manafort in Washington D.C. related to money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent for his work on behalf of Ukraine political parties.

Upon Manafort’s “successful cooperation” with the special counsel, the special counsel also agreed to seek the dismissal of 10 charges related to bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud where a Virginia jury in August failed to reach a verdict.

Manafort met with Mueller’s team last week at the special counsel’s Washington D.C. office as part of the cooperation agreement. The two sides have a Nov. 16 deadline to file their first joint status report on his sentencing with the federal judge in Washington D.C. overseeing that case.

But in a two-page order on Thursday, Ellis said he wants to discuss the plea agreement stipulation to defer sentencing and Mueller’s decision on whether to retry Manafort on the outstanding charges in the Virginia case until after his cooperation is over.

“This would be highly unusual,” Ellis wrote. “In this district, the government’s decision to re-try a defendant on deadlocked counts is always made in a timely manner and sentencing occurs within two to no more than four months from entry of a guilty plea or receipt of a jury verdict.”

If Manafort is cooperating with the government before sentencing and will continue to do so after his sentencing, Ellis said that Mueller must file motions explaining the extent of that cooperation, including whether the information being shared will help the special counsel investigate or prosecute someone else.

“This case appears to be no different than any other case in which defendant is cooperating and that cooperation is expected to extend beyond a scheduled sentencing date,” Ellis said.

Ellis added that he was setting the Oct. 19 hearing to help determine the “proper course of action” over the deadlocked counts , through either a retrial or dismissal, and to begin the process for Manafort’s sentencing.

Other aspects of Manafort’s plea deal appear to be proceeding at a relatively rapid clip.

On Wednesday, less than a month after his guilty pleas, the federal judge on the Washington case formally ordered the forfeiture of most of Manafort’s real estate, including his Trump Tower apartment, along with several bank accounts and a life insurance policy.

Prosecutors contend most of the assets were bought with tens of millions of dollars Manafort made by acting as an unregistered foreign lobbyist for Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych and his political backers.

Mueller’s office and the defense negotiated the forfeiture to minimize its impact on his family, particularly on a daughter who lives in an Arlington, Virginia, home spared under the arrangement.

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