Newly unsealed transcripts in the criminal case against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates offer a glimpse into how special counsel Robert Mueller’s office ramped up the pressure against the two men at the start of the year.
The transcripts reveal conversations that took place at the bench — out of earshot of members of the public and the press in the courtroom — between the lawyers and the judge during hearings on Jan. 16 and Feb. 14. They show that Manafort and Gates knew at least as far back as mid-January that more charges were coming, but they didn’t know exactly when that would happen.
That new set of charges, filed in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, wouldn’t become public until more than a month later.
The transcripts, which US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, DC, ordered unsealed this week, provide new perspective on Gates’ decision to plead guilty on Feb. 23. They show his lawyers had concerns about their ability to defend charges on multiple fronts. One of his lawyers at the time, Walter Mack, told the judge that, “for a lot of reasons, we feel we can only proceed in one.” He didn’t elaborate. They also show that prosecutors were negotiating with Gates as of Feb. 14.
There was no indication in the transcripts that Manafort was pursuing a deal, even after he learned about the new charges. Manafort is challenging the indictments returned by federal grand juries in Washington and Virginia — Jackson heard arguments on Manafort's motion to dismiss the DC indictment on Thursday — and he’s pursuing a separate, civil lawsuit challenging the validity of Mueller’s appointment in the hopes of blocking the special counsel’s office from indicting him again in the future.
A spokesperson for Manafort declined to comment. Lawyers for Gates, who agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s office as part of his plea deal, declined to comment or did not immediately return requests for comment on Friday.
During the nonpublic portion of the hearing before Jackson on Jan. 16, special counsel prosecutor Greg Andres told the judge that his office had told Manafort and Gates that they planned to file additional charges, and that it would happen in a different court; Andres didn’t say where at first, but another lawyer referred to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Gates agreed to waive the venue issue so that all of the charges could be handled in one place, but Manafort did not.
Mack then raised the issue of their concerns about defending charges in two courts, and told Jackson that they would move to transfer the charges back to DC once they were filed in Virginia.
Kevin Downing, Paul Manafort’s lead attorney, told Jackson that they were told what the new charges would be. The indictment in Virginia included charges of filing false income tax returns, failing to report foreign financial accounts, and bank fraud.
Andres said it would be about 30 days before the new charges were filed.
After the lawyers asked for a trial date in mid-September, Jackson predicted — correctly, as it would turn out — that the trial in Virginia might end up going first. The Eastern District of Virginia is known as the “rocket docket” for how quickly cases move through. The judge in Manafort’s case in Virginia, US District Judge TS Ellis III, scheduled the trial there to begin July 10.
During the Jan. 16 discussion, Jackson also admonished Downing for a letter that Manafort gave to the Pretrial Services Agency from his doctor, which hadn’t been filed on the docket — Jackson said the letter was basically asking for a change in Manafort’s conditions of release and should have been filed.
“You don't send me messages through other people in the building. If you want to communicate with the Court, you docket something,” Jackson said.
Later in the public portion of the hearing, the judge addressed the letter and said those sorts of requests needed to be filed on the docket. She hinted at what it was about, telling Downing, “I will note from the record that while he's subject to home confinement, he's not confined to his couch. And I believe he has plenty of opportunity to exercise.”
Jackson agreed to keep the discussion at the bench sealed until the charges in Virginia were filed, which the government said they expected to happen by the next court date set for Feb. 14.
But the Virginia indictment wasn’t publicly filed by the Feb. 14 hearing, which meant the lawyers were back up at the bench, to Jackson’s apparent disappointment. She told the lawyers she had hoped that if the Virginia charges weren’t filed yet, they would ask to postpone the hearing “so we wouldn't be doing this with everybody watching us, not talking to them. But here we are.”
This time, the special counsel’s office asked to speak to Jackson alone, which the judge allowed over objections from Manafort and Gates’s lawyers. Andres then revealed that the grand jury in Virginia had returned an indictment against Manafort the day before, and that his office was planning to return an updated indictment against Manafort in DC soon.
Andres told the judge that Gates was negotiating with the special counsel’s office, and that they hoped to resolve that in the next week to 10 days. If they didn’t reach an agreement, he said the government would get superseding indictments that added Gates as a codefendant. Manafort did not know at the time that he was the only person charged in Virginia, Andres said. CNN, which had noted in January that Gates's decision to bring on a new lawyer suggested he might be negotiating with prosecutors, reported the next day that Gates was nearing a plea deal and had been in talks with Mueller's office for about a month.
Eight days later, on Feb. 22, Mueller’s revealed in a public court filing that the Virginia grand jury had returned a superseding indictment against Gates and Manafort, suggesting that negotiations with Gates had broken down. But the next day, Gates pleaded guilty in the DC case, and the charges in Virginia were dropped.