Former Trump Campaign Chair Paul Manafort Faces 12 Federal Charges

Paul Manafort walks in New York in 2016. Paul Manafort walks in New York in 2016. Mary Altaffer/AP file photo

Paul Manafort, the veteran GOP operative who chaired Donald Trump’s presidential campaign during the summer of 2016, along with his business partner Rick Gates, have been indicted by a federal grand jury for a variety of financial and lobbying crimes, charges arising from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

The indictment, which was unsealed on Monday, contains 12 counts, including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading statements under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.

Manafort walked into the FBI’s Washington Field Office, accompanied by his attorney, on Monday morning, and CNN reported Gates also turned himself in. The indictments represent the first cases to emerge from Mueller’s apparently wide-ranging investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to influence the outcome. Reports on Friday had indicated that the first charges were expected Monday.

There have been many signs that Manafort, 68, was a target of the Mueller investigation, including a no-knock, early-morning raid on an apartment that he owns in Alexandria, Virginia, in July. Among the possible areas of interest are millions that Manafort apparently received from the political party of deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a client of Vladimir Putin for whom Manafort worked; an agreement with Oleg Deripaska, another Putin ally with whom Manafort signed an eight-figure lobbying contract; and a series of suspicious wire transfers and cash movements that some experts say could indicate money laundering.

In June, Manafort retroactively filed disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for work between 2012 and 2014.

Gates, who is 45, is a junior partner and protégé of Manafort’s. Like Manafort, he joined the Trump campaign. He remained after Manafort left, but was forced out of a pro-Trump outside group in April amid the Russia probe.

Political Repercussions

The first charges in Mueller’s case come at a delicate time, and the way Washington reacts to them could set the stage for the next weeks, months, or even years in American politics.

In recent days, an increasing number of Republican officeholders and conservative pundits have suggested that Mueller’s investigation should be disbanded. A campaign among conservative journalists has sought to recirculate an old story about a uranium deal as new information, framing it as more pressing than potential Russian collusion with the Trump team.

Although it sometimes feels as though the Russia probe has been years in the making, Mueller was only appointed to his post in May, shortly after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. In comparison with other, similar investigations, like the Clinton-era Whitewater case, the first charges here come unusually soon. While Mueller, a respected former FBI director himself, has tended to shun politics, and his team has been unusually leak-resistant, bringing charges now could serve the purpose of justifying his investigation by showing results.

The president’s reaction to the charges is another X factor. At times in the past, Trump and his allies have issued threats to the Mueller team through the press, attempting to restrict the scope of the investigation by suggesting that Trump might fire Mueller. Sunday morning, Trump tweeted, “All of this ‘Russia’ talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT!”

Although Trump has been less eager to defend Manafort than some other former aides swept up in the investigation—former Press Secretary Sean Spicer once claimed Manafort “played a very limited role” on the campaign—the president could still attempt to force Mueller out. That would threaten a reprise of the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, in which President Richard Nixon, seeking to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, saw his attorney general and deputy attorney general resign. Solicitor General Robert Bork did fire the prosecutor, but the incident ultimately hastened the end of Nixon’s presidency.

Manafort’s Background

Although news of the pending indictment inspired fevered political oddsmaking over the weekend, Manafort should perhaps always have been the favorite for the first indictment. Although Mueller only assumed his role in May, he took over a preexisting investigation of Manafort when he began. Reports in September indicated that Manafort had been under FBI surveillance in his apartment at Trump Tower for at least two stretches, once starting in 2014 and ending before Manafort joined the Trump campaign, and again starting sometime in 2016. In an unusual move this summer, Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni was compelled to testify before a grand jury.

Manafort, a veteran Republican operative, joined the Trump campaign in March 2016. He was hired for his expertise in counting delegates at conventions, stemming from his work successfully defending President Gerald Ford against a challenge from Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Republican National Convention. Manafort was also a former business partner of Roger Stone, the flamboyant on-again, off-again Trump adviser who is also said to be under scrutiny in the current probe.

Shortly after Manafort joined the campaign, Trump locked up enough delegates to effectively clinch the nomination. But on a troubled campaign filled with inexperienced and often ineffective workers, Manafort soon rose through the ranks, becoming campaign chair in May. Previous campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was soon pushed out amid campaign struggles and a controversy over his grabbing and manhandling a journalist at a Florida campaign event.

In June 2016, Manafort was present at a meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and several Russians, in which, according to emails, the Trump team expected to receive damaging information about the Hillary Clinton campaign. Trump Jr. was also told in emails that the Kremlin backed his father’s campaign.

Although Manafort had made a name on that 1976 campaign, he spent much of the intervening time working abroad, including for some unsavory clients, including Ferdinand Marcos and Mobutu Sese Seko. Curiously, despite his hired-gun approach to political work, Manafort agreed to work for the Trump campaign for free.

More recently, Manafort had worked for Yanukovych, a notoriously corrupt Kremlin ally who fled the country amid a popular revolt in 2014. Among other accusations, Yanukovych is alleged to have embezzled money from the state. In August 2016, The New York Times reported on handwritten ledgers that appeared to record nearly $13 million in off-the-books payments from Yanukovych’s political party to Manafort.

Manafort also had done a variety of forms of business with Deripaska, many involving a series of offshore shell companies. In one case, Deripaska and Manafort were involved in an $18 million deal to buy Ukrainian cable TV assets. In the mid-2000s, Manafort had signed a $10 million per year deal with Deripaska, which documents obtained by the Associated Press indicated was to boost Putin’s profile overseas, though Manafort says the deal was simply a personal one with Deripaska. The two men apparently later had a falling out over a failed deal, with Deripaska filing a suit against Manafort in Cayman Islands court.

Recently, my colleagues Julia Ioffe and Frank Foer have reported on emails between Manafort and a Deripaska aide in which Manafort appears to be trying to use his position on the Trump campaign as leverage in his relationship with Deripaska, asking, “How do we use to get whole”? Manafort appears to have been in debt to Deripaska over the failed deals. (In October, Maloni asserted to NBC News that Manafort was not in debt to any former clients, then revised his statement to remove that claim.)

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