A curious thing happened this Labor Day weekend when one of Robert Mueller’s most recent cooperating witnesses may have burst into flames on national television – but no one seemed to notice. Former Republican lobbyist and Paul Manafort associate, Sam Patten, only pleaded guilty on Friday, but on Sunday a world leader leveled a serious allegation of criminal conduct committed after his plea bargain. Obviously, this is only one side and Patten could well deny either the email or its meaning. However, the implications of the allegations aired on national television are very serious not only for Patten but Mueller. Update: a complaint has now reportedly been made to the FBI.
In the continuing coverage of the John McCain funeral, former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili appeared on CNN to discuss his relationship with McCain. (His interview preceded my own on CNN). Before discussing McCain, Saakashvili started talking about Patten and his work in Georgia and the Ukraine. Suddenly, Saakashvili pulled out his cellphone in the interview and purportedly read from a text from Patten that he described as unmistakable Russian-style blackmail. The text was allegedly sent very day and after Patten became a Mueller witness. Mueller just charged Manafort for reaching out to witnesses before his trial. Now, one of his cooperating witnesses is allegedly threatening a former world leader to delete prior comments or he will destroy him in what Saakashvili says is a signature move of Russian intelligence.
Both sides accuse the other of some pretty corrupt dealings. For his part, Saakashvili has been accused by the Georgian government of criminal conduct and expelled from the country. Critics have linked him to ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Saakashvili said that he had worked briefly with Patten but that he returned in 2011-12 “as part of a Russian operation” to spread “propaganda” and “dirty news.” He recalled Manafort being involved and said that they worked directly against the interests of the United States.One could certainly discounted those allegations from an opponent, but then he pulled out his cell phone. He read from a text to his former chief of staff, purportedly from Patten. He said that Patten threatened to “start releasing things about Misha” if he did not continue to talk about his work for the Russians and that the chief of staff had better “call him off” or he would effectively destroy him. Saakashvili said that Patten wanted prior comments “erased” and that “Misha knows what I am talking about.”
That is all incredibly serious for a Mueller cooperating witness to be telling a potential witness to delete comments and change his story.
The prior Friday, and before the alleged text, Patten pleaded guilty to violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act in his unregistered work for a Ukrainian politician and a Ukrainian oligarch. He was charged by the US attorney’s office for the District of Columbia, but Patten’s plea agreement specifically says he must cooperate with the special counsel’s office and top Mueller aide, Andrew Weissmann, attended Patten’s hearing.
Here is the transcript from CNN:
CABRERA: Samuel Patten is writing to your former chief of staff.
SAAKASHVILI: Samuel Patten. Yes, and he just, you know, readdressed his text to me. And it says call off the trolls now, or I will start releasing things about Misha — that’s me. He’d prefer I didn’t like now and have them go back and erase their comments so that we don’t say a word that they were working against us. Misha knows what I am talking about, but frankly, I have bigger problems these days. Maybe you two are no longer as tight as you used to be. Actually, it’s a direct blackmail. You see with what —
CABRERA: You feel like he’s blackmailing you right now just because you’re talking about it?
SAAKASHVILI: This is a typical Russian type of blackmail. These people are closely tied to the Russians. By the way, I mean, this was prior to — I don’t want to get it politicized because it was prior to Donald Trump election campaign. These people are on their own. By the way, (inaudible) himself is anti-Trump. He is Republican, but anti- Trump, so I don’t want to speculate on — this is something else.
These guys are for hire. They are ready to do just any dirty tricks. They are ready to cheat, to go against American interests, to do all kinds of things, including the blackmail. Blackmailing, you know, former president or his chief of staff, blackmailing important regional leader like this really shows what they are up to.
What is striking about the call is that it would impact statements about work with Ukraine’s pro-Russian political faction. Moreover, Patten worked closely with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian national who Mueller indicted and tied to Manafort. Moreover, Patten worked with various members of Congress and government officials in advancing the interests of Russian backed Ukrainian figures. Patten is now accused of threatening someone who is speaking about such work.
Patten also admitted to funneling foreign money into the Trump inauguration committee from Kilimnik. That is the first direct criminal act linking a Trump election component with an illegal Russian contribution. That work could implicate others. What is most interesting is that, if the allegation is true, Patten may have pushed a relatively minor criminal violation into an alleged crime with a potential 20 year sentence.
18 U.S. Code § 1512, it is a federal crime to knowingly use intimidation or threats to influence a possible witness or get a person to withhold or destroy or alter or conceal information from an official proceeding. Mueller has shown that he reads that provision quite broadly.
Saakashvili could easily be a witness in the Mueller investigation, including a possible witness against Patten. Either Saakashvili just implicated Patten in a crime or he has committed per se defamation in alleging possible criminal conduct by Patten.
Most of us felt little sympathy for Manafort when he was charged for “repeatedly contacted” two anonymous people who might have been called as witnesses against him. Those people assisted lobbying and public relations efforts by Manafort masterminded in the US and Europe. Manafort allegedly told them to claim that the Ukrainian lobbying work was confined to Europe – undermining claims of unlawful lobbying in the United States.
Manafort was a certifiable moron to reach out to potential witnesses while on house arrest – and most certainly under surveillance by the FBI. If the allegations are true, Patten would rival the level of recklessness in the alleged text to the chief of state of Saakashvili.
So the question is how Mueller will respond to one of his cooperating witnesses — as opposed to a defendant like Manafort — influencing possible witnesses. Weissmann has been previously criticized for his heavy handed tactics as a prosecutor, particularly in leaning on witnesses in cooperation deals. However, now one of his own witnesses is being accused of the type of back channel communications that led to the charges against Manafort in the upcoming Washington trial. If Mueller confirms that Saakashvili is telling the truth and does nothing, it undermines the credibility of the charges against Manafort.
Worse yet, Saakashvili was alleging that Mueller’s witness is not only continuing to hide his Russian connections but actively seeking to stop others in discussing those connections. The alleged effort would effectively gut Patten’s value as a witness. Only recently, jurors in Virginia revealed that (while convicting Manafort on various crimes) they entirely discarded the testimony of star Mueller witness, former Manafort associated Rick Gates.
Patten may have just eviscerated his own value as a witness – just when he needs it most. He could face the same fate of George Papadopoulos who fell out of favor with Mueller for not producing valuable evidence against Trump or his associates. Patten has provided value evidence but then may have destroyed his own credibility within 48 hours of accepting the plea bargain.
The next move is Mueller’s and, if this is viewed as attempting to influence a potential witness, the cost to Patten might be measured in years.