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Manafort trial: Russia-probe origins, but a main focus on fraud

Why We Wrote This

Beginning tomorrow, Paul Manafort will become the first target of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation to stand trial. Here’s a look at what to expect.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives for arraignment on a third superseding indictment against him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on charges of witness tampering, at US District Court in Washington June 15, 2018.

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While jurors in the three-week trial of Paul Manafort will be shown substantial evidence of his taste for expensive items, prosecutors told US District Judge T.S. Ellis that they will not seek to admit evidence or make any argument at this trial concerning Russian collusion. Rather than facing election-meddling conspiracy charges, Mr. Manafort, a longtime political operative and former Trump campaign chairman, is standing trial on allegations of tax evasion, bank fraud, and money laundering. It is unclear whether investigators have discovered evidence of collusion involving Manafort and the Russians. Some analysts view the case as a tactic to exert pressure on Manafort to cooperate with prosecutors in the broader Trump-Russia investigation. To others, the absence of a Russian conspiracy in the impending case suggests that Robert Mueller’s team may have found no evidence of collusion. “The government is quite happy to make this a relatively simple case about fraud. He got money, he lied about it, didn’t tell the IRS, didn’t tell the banks, and got rich doing so,” says Paul Rosenzweig, a former prosecutor on the staff of independent counsel Ken Starr during the investigation of President Bill Clinton. “That is a simple story to tell. If they believe the evidence, jurors are not going to have trouble convicting Manafort.”

One year ago, on July 25, 2017, FBI agents working with special counsel Robert Mueller presented a thick stack of papers under seal to a federal magistrate in Alexandria, Va.

They were requesting authorization to search the condominium of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for evidence of tens of millions of dollars he allegedly concealed from US authorities.

Among the items they were looking for: a $21,000 Bijan black titanium wristwatch, multiple $10,000 custom-made suits, and two silk oriental rugs valued at $160,000.

But the search wasn’t just about cataloging various indicia of Mr. Manafort’s wealth. The warrant also sought bank records, wire transfers, emails, loan applications, and a slew of other documents, both paper and digital, related to virtually every aspect of the political consultant’s personal life, businesses, and finances.

In essence, the agents were working to “follow the money,” in an attempt to unearth evidence that President Trump’s former campaign chairman colluded with Russians to disrupt and undermine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

This week, the fruit of that July 2017 search will be on display in federal court. But rather than facing election meddling conspiracy charges, Manafort is standing trial on allegations of tax evasion, bank fraud, and money laundering.

It is unclear at this point whether investigators have discovered evidence of collusion involving Manafort and the Russians. Some analysts view the tax evasion and bank fraud case as a tactic to exert pressure on Manafort to cooperate with prosecutors in the broader Trump-Russia investigation. To others, the absence of a Russian conspiracy in Manafort’s impending case suggests that Mueller’s team may have found no evidence of collusion.

“The government is quite happy to make this a relatively simple case about fraud. He got money, he lied about it, didn’t tell the IRS, didn’t tell the banks, and got rich doing so,” says Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and a former prosecutor on the staff of independent counsel Ken Starr during the investigation of President Bill Clinton.

“That is a simple story to tell,” Mr. Rosenzweig says. “If they believe the evidence, jurors are not going to have trouble convicting Manafort.”

Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

A network of offshore accounts

Manafort is a longtime lobbyist and political consultant in Washington. Before Trump, he had worked for and advised the campaigns of many Republicans, including Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, and former Senate leader Bob Dole. His overseas clients have included controversial world leaders, including Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine; Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos; and Zaire leader Mobutu Sese Seko.

The Alexandria trial will focus on events during and after Manafort’s representation of Mr. Yanukovych. From 2006 to 2015, Manafort is alleged to have funneled more than $30 million through a network of offshore accounts in Cyprus and the Grenadines to accounts and vendors in the US.

Many of the transfers were structured as “loans” to avoid US income taxes, according to the 18-count indictment. In other instances, the funds were transferred directly to US-based merchants to pay for bespoke suits from Alan Couture, the Bijan watch, Range Rovers and Mercedes Benz automobiles, and multimillion dollar homes, the indictment says.

Wire transfers were also used to fund renovations and landscaping at Manafort’s homes, including a 10-bedroom, six-bath estate in the Hamptons on Long Island. The property features a pool, a pool house, tennis court, putting green, and a moat, according to federal documents and real estate records.

Manafort had an $18,500 karaoke machine installed in his Hamptons house. He paid the bill by wiring the money from a Cyprus account, according to court documents.

Later, after his political consulting contract in Ukraine ended, Manafort’s income fell, prosecutors say. To make up the difference, he allegedly applied for loans from American banks.

From 2015 to January 2017, Manafort used his US properties as collateral to borrow more than $20 million. Prosecutors say he inflated his income and understated his debts to qualify for the loans.

It was during this same period, in the spring and summer of 2016, that Manafort joined the Trump presidential campaign, serving as campaign chairman and later as campaign manager. He left the campaign in August, after media reports about suspicious payments he’d allegedly received while working on behalf of Yanukovych.

A backchannel for collusion?

Manafort will become the first target of Mueller’s investigation to stand trial. So far 32 individuals, including 26 Russians, have been indicted or charged in the Trump-Russia investigation. Five of them have pleaded guilty.

While jurors in the three-week trial will be shown substantial evidence of Manafort’s taste for expensive items, prosecutors told US District Judge T. S. Ellis in a hearing last week that they will not seek to admit evidence or make any argument at this trial concerning Russian collusion.

Instead, the case against Manafort looks to be a straight-forward prosecution on tax and bank fraud charges. 

Tax evasion and financial fraud can be an intriguing news story when the alleged perpetrator is connected to powerful politicians. But that’s not why Manafort’s trial this week is attracting substantial media attention.

Many legal and political analysts have speculated that Manafort – with his long history of working closely with pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine and directly with Russian oligarchs who are close to Russian President Putin – would have been well-positioned as Trump’s campaign chairman to provide a reliable and secret backchannel for possible Trump-Russia collusion during the election.

Manafort was present with Donald Trump Jr. and others at a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that had been billed as an opportunity for the Trump campaign to receive “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton from the Russian government. (It does not appear that any “dirt” was produced at the meeting.)

In addition, Manafort was identified by name in former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele’s controversial “dossier” in mid-2016. Mr. Steele was hired by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to assemble a political opposition research report to discredit then-candidate Donald Trump. Allegations contained in the Steele dossier helped give momentum to what became the special counsel’s Trump-Russia investigation.

The dossier quotes an unnamed “ethnic Russian,” who was said to be a close associate of Trump, as saying that there was a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between [the Trump camp] and the Russian leadership.”

The dossier adds: “This was managed on the TRUMP side by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was using foreign policy advisor, Carter Page, and others as intermediaries.”

The Justice Department and FBI appear to have taken these allegations seriously.  An August 2017 Justice Department memorandum identifies the anticipated scope of the Mueller investigation as it relates to Manafort.

It says the special counsel was authorized to investigate “allegations that Paul Manafort committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States.”

The status of that portion of Mueller’s investigation remains unclear, despite substantial speculation during the past year and a half about Trump campaign collusion with Russia.

Congressional Republicans have questioned the FBI’s heavy reliance on what they say are unverified allegations in the Steele dossier. Those questions have gained new urgency after the recent public release of redacted copies of top-secret surveillance applications to monitor the activities and communications of Mr. Page, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

Four such applications were approved in October 2016, and January, April, and June 2017. All four share the same notation: “The FBI believes that the Russian Government’s efforts to influence the 2016 US Presidential election were being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with [Trump’s] campaign.”

Page has denied working as a Russian agent. No charges have been filed against him.

'Part of a larger plan'

Aside from Russian collusion, the Justice Department’s August memo identifies a second area of investigation: whether Manafort “committed a crime or crimes arising out of payments he received from the Ukrainian government before and during the tenure of President Viktor Yanukovych.”

The Alexandria trial falls within this second area of investigation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean prosecutors have given up on trying to identify and prove collusion.

Many legal experts, including Judge Ellis, have suggested that Mr. Mueller’s tax and bank fraud indictment of Manafort is ultimately aimed at pressuring him to cooperate with prosecutors to help prove a broader collusion case involving Russians and perhaps even Mr. Trump.

“Even a blind person can see that the true target of the Special Counsel’s investigation is President Trump, not [Manafort], and that [Manafort’s] prosecution is part of a larger plan,” Ellis wrote in a footnote in a pre-trial decision issued in late June. “The charges against [Manafort] are intended to induce [Manafort] to cooperate with the Special Counsel by providing evidence against the President or other members of the campaign.”

The judge added: “Although these kinds of high-pressure prosecutorial tactics are neither uncommon nor illegal, they are distasteful.”

If convicted of the tax evasion and bank fraud charges, Manafort, who is in his late 60s, could spend the remaining years of his life in prison.

In addition to the 18-count indictment in Alexandria, Manafort is facing trial in September on a seven-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C. That indictment charges Manafort with conspiring against the United States by operating as an unregistered lobbyist on behalf of Yanukovych and various political parties in Ukraine. He is also charged with concealing overseas accounts, and attempting to obstruct justice.

Manafort’s former business partner, Richard Gates, agreed in February to plead guilty to charges related to the same Ukraine work and is now cooperating with prosecutors against his former boss. Mr. Gates will likely become the star witness against Manafort.

Hoping for a pardon?

Given the apparent strength of evidence against Manafort, Gates’ cooperation, and the prospect of spending his final years behind bars, many analysts say they are surprised that Manafort hasn’t reached his own plea deal with Mueller.

“There is reason to think that Mueller’s office would be open to a deal. Mueller has made deals with many of the other people he’s charged,” says David Sklansky, a professor at Stanford Law School and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

He adds: “It is possible there have been discussions and negotiations, but the two sides just haven’t been able to come to a meeting of the minds.”

Rosenzweig, the former federal prosecutor, says the lack of a plea deal may be stem from something more basic. Manafort may not have much, if anything, to offer prosecutors to justify a substantial sentence reduction as part of a plea deal.

“I and others would have expected Mr. Manafort to reach an agreement already,” he says. “If he is going to turn state’s evidence, so to speak, the time to do it is now before you take up three weeks of trial time and before you put the government to its proof.”

Experts say there is another possible explanation, however, behind Manafort’s apparent refusal to cooperate – that he may be hoping for a presidential pardon.

“This president has sent the kind of signals that someone like Manafort might interpret to mean, ‘If you stick with me, I’ll stick with you,’ ” Professor Sklansky says. He adds: “The very idea that someone like Manafort could think of relying on a pardon to get him out of the kind of money laundering charges he is facing is really troubling.”

Yet relying on a pardon seems like a long shot – and may hinge on what, if anything, Manafort actually knows. 

“If Manafort knows nothing and Trump is convinced that Manafort knows nothing, then the only reason to pardon him is pure Christian charity – and whatever else you might say about Mr. Trump, that doesn’t describe him to me,” Rosenzweig says.

Trump has expressed regret about the ongoing investigation of Manafort. He frequently denounces the special counsel’s Trump-Russia collusion investigation as a “phony witch hunt.” 

Recently, during an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump raised eyebrows by comparing Manafort’s case with the tax evasion conviction in 1931 of Chicago mobster Al Capone. “With Paul Manafort, who is clearly a nice man, look at what is going on with him,” Trump said, criticizing the Mueller probe. “It’s like Al Capone.”

In the case of Capone, of course, prosecutors could never assemble enough evidence to charge the mob boss with murder, running prostitution rings, or bootlegging. So, instead, they charged him with tax evasion.

The president appeared to be suggesting that Capone was defeated by a legal technicality – and that Mueller’s team was seeking to ensnare Manafort under similar circumstances.

But analysts note that allegedly laundering $30 million to avoid paying taxes is far from a legal technicality.

And the president seems to have overlooked a critical point. Capone went to prison and served eight years of an 11-year sentence, much of it in Alcatraz.

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