By Jessica Hysong
The Virginia trial of Paul Manafort for charges including bank fraud and tax evasion begins this
week. Many observers may be wondering exactly what these charges are, why they were
brought, and how this all relates to the Trump campaign.
Manafort is alleged to have committed these crimes to hide tens of millions of dollars he
earned advising pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine from 2006 through 2017. He is also accused
of fraudulently obtaining millions in loans from financial institutions, this includes the time period that he worked for the Trump campaign. In a separate case filed in Washington DC, Manafort also faces charges of money-laundering, conspiracy, making false statements, and acting as an unregistered
foreign agent for Ukrainian interests.
Both of these cases have come under heavy fire from the President in his effort to undermine
the investigation of Robert Mueller into any ties between his campaign and Russian election
interference. Objections to the charges against Manafort have been raised on several grounds,
but the most popular lines seem to be that the charges are either “outside the scope” of
Mueller’s investigation, or that they are “unrelated to the campaign”.
In raising the first of these objections, Manafort, his lawyers, and the President have repeatedly
seized on the fact that none of the charges relate to allegations of Russian election interference
and possible coordination with Trump associates, the main thrust of Mueller’s mandate as
established by the DOJ authorization setting forth his investigative scope. That document
instructs Mueller to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian
government and individuals associated with the campaign and any matters that arose or
may arise directly from the investigation”.
Fortunately, this question of investigative scope and authority has recently been decided by TS
Ellis, the judge in the Virginia case, who issued a 31 page ruling concluding that “no interpretive
gymnastics are necessary to determine that the investigation at issue here falls within this
category of allegations”.
So yes, Mueller is well within his established scope and authority to bring these charges.
The notion that these charges are “unrelated to the campaign” is much less clear and will be
further illuminated as the proceedings move forward. However, there are some points and
inferences to be drawn from established facts.
The charges against Manafort intersect with charges brought against his long time associate
Rick Gates, who has pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the US of the millions he and Manafort
earned while working for a Ukrainian political party and to lying to the FBI. Gates is now
cooperating with investigators. Mueller has also charged in absentia another Manafort
associate, Konstantin Kilimnik. Born in Eastern Ukraine, Kilimnik took Russian citizenship after
the fall of the Soviet Union and, after training at an academy sponsored by the Russian military,
ultimately obtained work as an interpreter and facilitator for Manafort in his Ukrainian lobbying
work. In other words, Kilimnik provides a direct link between Manafort and the GRU, several
officers of which were also indicted by Mueller this month.
The central premise Mueller is establishing with all of these charges against Manafort and his
associates Rick Gates and Konstantin Kilimnik is the financial piece of the links between the
Trump campaign and Russian operatives. He is setting out a very sweeping case to prove that
during the Trump campaign and with the active cooperation of both foreign and domestic
associates, its “chairman was actively running an ongoing criminal conspiracy” (Adam Davidson,
New Yorker). And if the campaign chairman was actively laundering dirty money, had links to
Russian military intelligence, and failed to register as a foreign agent, and there were also
multiple other campaign staffers with illicit ties to Russia…it becomes increasingly difficult to
take seriously any contention that these facts are mere coincidence.
However it is Manafort’s ties to Ukraine and pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians that may prove to
be of most interest.
Manafort organized and directed the 2016 Republican National Convention during his time as
Trump campaign chair. During this convention, the party typically revises its platforms on major
current issues. And during the 2016 convention, the Trump campaign lobbied with force to
soften the party stance on Russian involvement in Ukraine. Specifically, Trump campaign
associates pushed the party that had held Russia to be the United States’ “number one
geopolitical foe” under Romney’s 2012 campaign, to cease active support for the Ukrainian
resistance to Russian occupation of Crimea.
Speculation that this platform shift, driven by the Trump campaign, at the convention organized
and directed by Manafort, could be evidence of a quid pro quo delivered to Russia in exchange
for election interference seems warranted, and may prove to be the intersection point at which
these charges are very related to the campaign. If a sudden GOP switch to pro-Russian stances
in Ukraine meet a presidential campaign chair who spent years advocating for pro-Russian
interests in Ukraine and has a clear history of hiding the resulting illicit revenue…was he paid
for this change of heart by the Republican party? If so, did Donald Trump know? Did any other
prominent Republicans? Perhaps any of those who are among the 44 Republican politicians
retiring this year, midway through what they could otherwise assume to be their party’s first
Donald Trump’s favorite refrain regarding the Mueller investigation seems to be “no collusion”.
And that may well be the case. The proliferation of individuals associated with Russian
intelligence and criminal activity within his campaign may be purely coincidental. But the
questions raised by Manafort’s actions and connections, taken in conjunction with a high level
view of facts in evidence, certainly raises questions. We await answers as the trial unfolds.
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