The breakdown of a plea deal between US prosecutors and former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a report about alleged contacts he may have had with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have introduced a new element of uncertainty into the Trump-Russia investigation.
On Tuesday, a day after prosecutors accused Mr Manafort of repeatedly lying to them, destroying his agreement to tell all in return for a lighter sentence, he denied a report in The Guardian that he had met secretly with Mr Assange around March 2016.
That is the same month Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Trump’s associates in the 2016 US presidential campaign.
Meanwhile, Mr Manafort’s lawyers have been briefing the US president’s representatives on what their client has told investigators, an unusual arrangement that could give Mr Trump ammunition in his feud against special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation.
Mr Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said: “They share with me the things that pertain to our part of the case.”
Mr Giuliani also said the US leader, who has recently stepped up his attacks on Mr Mueller, has been enraged by the treatment of Mr Manafort.
BREAKING: @WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange has instructed his lawyers to sue the Guardian for libel over fabricated Manafort story and launched a legal fund to boost the action https://t.co/VaoMESN5RO— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) November 27, 2018
Other figures entangled in the investigation, including Mr Trump himself, have been scrambling to escalate attacks and allegations against prosecutors who have been working quietly behind the scenes.
Besides denying he has ever met Mr Assange, Mr Manafort, who is currently in jail, said he had told Mr Mueller’s prosecutors the truth during questioning.
WikiLeaks said Mr Manafort had never met with Mr Assange, and offered to bet The Guardian newspaper “a million dollars and its editor’s head”.
The paper’s report suggested a direct connection between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign.
Mr Manafort called the story “totally false and deliberately libellous,” saying in a statement that he had never met Mr Assange or anyone close to him.
The Guardian cited unidentified sources as saying Mr Manafort first met Mr Assange in 2013 at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
The newspaper said that Mr Manafort returned in 2015 and 2016 and that its sources had “tentatively dated” the final visit to March.
There was no detail on what might have been discussed.
Mr Assange, whose organisation published thousands of emails stolen by Russian spies from Mrs Clinton’s campaign in 2016, is claiming asylum at the embassy.
It is unclear what US prosecutors contend Mr Manafort lied about, though they are expected to make a public filing that could offer answers.
Dissolution of his 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 gaining a lighter sentence in return for his cooperation.
But it is also a potential setback for investigators, given that Mr Manafort steered the election campaign during a vital stretch of 2016, when prosecutors say Russian intelligence was working to sway the poll in Mr Trump’s favour.
The prosecutors’ filing underlined their exasperation not only with Manafort’s alleged deception but also over the loss of an important witness present for key moments under scrutiny, including a Trump Tower meeting at which Mr Trump’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr expected to receive “dirt” about Mrs Clinton from a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
Mr Trump continues to rage against the investigation, tweeting on Tuesday that Mr Mueller was doing “TREMENDOUS damage to our Criminal Justice system” and calling the investigation “a total disgrace”.