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The screws are tightening.
After months of legal work, a jury trial, eight guilty verdicts and vehement opposition from the president of the United States, special counsel Robert Mueller has unlocked what he sees as the "key" to a potential conspiracy case against President Donald Trump, legal experts said.
The president's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was convicted last month on a range of felony charges by a jury in Virginia, has agreed to cooperate with investigators examining possible links between the president's 2016 campaign and the Kremlin ahead of a planned trial in Washington, D.C., on a host of other charges.
Sol Wisenberg, deputy to Kenneth Starr during the 1990s Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton, said that in the previous pleas that Mueller has obtained from top Trump associates, including former national security advisor Michael Flynn, there were few grounds on which to base a conspiracy case. With Manafort's cooperation, he said, that could change.
"Mueller sees Manafort as a key in that regard, or a final key," Wisenberg said.
To be sure, Mueller has not charged the president with any crime, and legal experts have raised doubts that a president can be prosecuted while in office. The White House said Friday that the Manafort agreement was "totally unrelated" to the president and his campaign.
"Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign," Trump's attorney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, said in a statement. "The reason: the President did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth."
Moments later, however, Jay Sekulow, another member of the president's legal team, issued what he called a "corrected" statement – which omitted the words "and Paul Manafort will tell the truth."
Wisenberg said that, with Manafort's cooperation, the claim that the case has nothing to do with Trump or his campaign will be tested.
"We will see what he has," Wisenberg said.
The president has sought to downplay Manafort's role in his campaign. In June, the president said Manafort "came into the campaign very late and was with us for a short period of time."
The president has also insisted that the charges brought against the former campaign boss were related to crimes alleged to have been committed before he was part of the campaign. That's not true: The crimes detailed in indictments obtained by the special counsel stretch through 2017.
But experts have still been left to wonder what Mueller's plan was for Manafort, and how the charges he brought against him related to Mueller's central mission to investigate the Trump campaign.
In May, a federal judge told Mueller's prosecutors that "what you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment."
Four months later, Mueller has obtained a cooperation agreement that experts think could may indeed mean trouble for Trump.
Joe Moreno, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner in Cadwalader's white collar defense and investigations group, said that the agreement to cooperate "could have serious implications for the president."
Moreno said the agreement means that the special counsel believes "Paul Manafort still had some value with respect to Mueller's mandate, which is to investigate coordination between the campaign and the Russian government."
David Weinstein, a partner at the law firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson, said in an email that "the special prosecutor has not entered into these negotiations blindly."
"They must have had some preliminary debriefings with Manafort and they likely are aware of exactly what information he has to offer," Weinstein said.
Manafort served the president as his campaign manager during an important time in the race, over the summer of 2016, including during the Republican National Convention.
A former consultant to pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, Manafort joined the president's campaign as its top strategist for no salary at a time when he was facing acute financial distress.
He was pushed off the campaign team after reports surfaced detailing millions of dollars of secret off-the-books payments Manafort allegedly received from Ukrainian politicians a decade ago. Manafort came under fire for a number of pro-Russia changes made to the Republican platform at the convention.
Throughout Manafort's legal troubles, the president has offered words of support, writing in a post on Twitter last month that he felt "very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family" after Manafort's conviction on eight criminal counts by a jury in Virginia. Last month, however, the former lobbyist's legal team argued that Trump was making things worse for their client as a second trial approached.
Trump's kind words for Manafort have raised the prospect that the former campaign chief could be considered for a presidential pardon. But the White House has denied talk of clemency. A pardon would not prevent Manafort from providing information to prosecutors.
Mueller was appointed in May 2017 to examine links between the president's top associates and Russia. The president and his supporters have repeatedly called on Mueller to end his investigation, with Trump blasting Mueller's team as biased and the inquiry as an "illegal witch hunt."
Mueller's office, which did not respond to a request for comment for this article, has offered no guidance as to how long the probe could continue, though the president's team has called for it to end as soon as possible.
The Department of Justice typically does not take public investigative steps within 60 days of an election, in order to avoid the appearance of election interference, suggesting the investigation could enter a quiet period ahead of the November midterms. But Friday's deal suggests that the probe may be in its final innings.
"While it's difficult to discern from these one-off developments what the big picture looks like, I do think it's heartening that one chapter of this whole endeavor might be coming to a close," Moreno said, shortly before news of the agreement broke. "Hopefully Robert Mueller might be coming to a final conclusion, whatever that might be."