With a double-barreled blast, Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed Monday that he has won the cooperation of a former foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign who says he served as a go-between with the Kremlin in the spring of 2016.
And Mueller heaped a 31-page indictment on former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and his partner Rick Gates that contains the weight of conspiracy, money laundering and tax related charges in connection with an alleged scheme to launder millions of dollars through scores of offshore accounts. The charges seem designed to pressure them to cooperate, as well.
It was a powerful public salvo after months of silence since Mueller took over the investigation of Russia’s election-meddling, a subject that has consumed the nation’s capital and haunted Trump’s presidency. The charges offer the clearest signal to date that Mueller has made inroads in tracing possible collusion between the Kremlin and Trump’s campaign -- an allegation that Trump has repeatedly dismissed as a “hoax.”
Manafort and Gates both pleaded not guilty in federal court Monday.
The development ramps up pressure on at least two other figures in Trump’s campaign, described in court documents only as a “senior policy adviser” and a “high-ranking official,” to consider cooperating to avoid criminal charges.
“[T]here will be intense pressure on any person from the Trump presidential campaign who may have had contacts with Russian operatives," said Washington lawyer Ross Delston, a money-laundering expert, emphasizing that “every possible avenue that federal law enforcement can bring to bear will be used against them.”
Trump has more than once taken steps that could be perceived as attempts to derail the inquiry. Last May, he fired FBI Director James Comey, who initially oversaw the investigation, leading Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller. The president also has inquired about his sweeping authority to grant pardons.
However, New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also is investigating possible financial crimes by some of the players and could, if necessary, bring parallel charges that would not be nullified by a presidential pardon.
“In case they think that they ultimately will be saved by a presidential pardon,” Delston said of other Trump associates facing scrutiny, “the New York attorney general may beg to disagree."
Mueller’s complex investigation has proceeded on multiple tracks:
--First, to complete an FBI counterintelligence investigation tracing the full nature of Russia’s massive cyber offensive, including email hacks and spreading fake news about Clinton, that U.S. intelligence agencies say was aimed at undercutting Americans’ confidence in democracy and putting Trump in the White House.
--Second, to ferret out any collusion between the Russians and Trump’s campaign or his associates.
--Third, to determine whether Trump himself obstructed justice last year by allegedly pressing Comey to drop an inquiry into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s connections to Russia and Turkey and then by firing Comey.
--Fourth, to investigate whether Trump aides or associates, including Manafort, committed financial crimes discovered during the broader inquiry – information that might be used to gain their cooperation in return for leniency.
From the outset, Mueller faced a tall hurdle in investigating possible collusion. While evidence has surfaced about meetings between Russians and Trump aides and associates, Russian attendees were unlikely to help him to know what occurred at the meetings.
Nikolay Lakhonin, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington, did not respond to a request for comment about the charges.
Manafort headed the Trump campaign for about three months, resigning on Aug. 19, 2016 amid disclosures about alleged off-the-books payments to him while he worked for a pro-Russian Ukrainian president. A dossier of opposition research about Trump, compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, quotes Russian sources as describing Manafort as an “intermediary” between Russia and the campaign with regard to Russia’s cyber meddling.
The Washington Post reported that Manafort had offered, in a July 7, 2016 email, to provide “private briefings” on the Trump campaign to Russian Oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who had paid Manafort’s companies at least $20 million for consulting work in Ukraine and other countries. The Post said there was no evidence that Deripaska ever received the offer, which was sent to a longtime Manafort aide in Ukraine, or that any briefings took place.
Jill Wine-Banks, a former Watergate prosecutor in the early 1970s, said she believes that even without Manafort’s help, Mueller has “a lot of opportunities” for pursuing possible collusion.
She noted that Flynn, who was forced to resign after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, also could face criminal charges about his private consulting work, if he hasn’t already quietly cut a deal to cooperate. Flynn’s son has also fallen under Mueller’s gaze, which could be a tactic Mueller is using to pressure the elder Flynn to talk.
Mueller’s team of seasoned investigators also has been methodically interviewing current and former senior White House officials, including ex-chief of staff Reince Priebus, about whether Trump obstructed justice by seeking to kill the inquiry of Flynn and later by dismissing Comey. Trump later said in an interview with NBC television anchor Lester Holt that he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he fired Comey.
Wine-Banks said she believes, from what’s on the public record, that Mueller already has “a strong obstruction of justice case.”
Less clear in legal precedents is whether Mueller could criminally prosecute a sitting president, however. And to begin an impeachment proceeding would require cooperation from a Republican-dominated Congress.
The depth of the charges against Manafort left legal experts somewhat gap-jawed, although reports in recent months as the government subpoenaed his records and raided his suburban home have made clear that Mueller has used all of the raw power his position affords to try to compel Manafort’s cooperation.
Jonathan Winer, who was top money-laundering man at the State Department during the Clinton administration, said that the money-laundering and tax charges are the "low hanging fruit,"and that even more charges could be coming.
For example, he said, charges that Manafort and Gates failed to report foreign bank accounts, which must be disclosed annually with all taxes paid, could be expanded significantly.
"You can bring one count for each bank account for each year which would be multiples of what they actually charged," he said.
In describing a tangle of dealings by Manafort and Gates, the indictment cites a Jesand Investment Corp., which was shorthand for his two daughters, Jessica and Andrea.
Winer said that "any criminal defendant with a family is inevitably going to look to the risks from an indictment to those closest to him" and the reference “could be intentionally raising the specter.”
The seemingly mundane charge related to foreign bank accounts is actually one that will almost assuredly stick, said Jack Blum, a prominent Washington attorney specializing in international tax and financial secrecy laws.
“They would have to know about the requirement, that’s the thing that really kills them,” said Blum, noting that the two men, when doing their taxes every year, must check a box that they did or did not have control over foreign bank accounts during the tax year.
The indictment says Manafort and Gates “represented falsely” from at least 2008 to 2014 that they had no interests in foreign accounts. Manafort even answered “no” when asked via email his by his tax preparer in 2010 and 2016, according to the indictment.
In a statement Monday, Kevin Downing, Manafort’s lawyer, said that “Today, you see an indictment...that is using a very novel theory to prosecute Mr. Manafort regarding a FARA filing. The United States government has only used that offense six times since 1966 and only resulted in one conviction.”
“The second thing about this indictment that I, myself, find most ridiculous,” Downing continued, “is a claim that maintaining offshore accounts to bring all your funds into the United States, as a scheme to conceal from the United States government, is ridiculous.”
But many in the legal community didn’t seem to find the indictment as “ridiculous” as Downing did. And in court Monday, prosecutor Greg Andres said that if he were convicted of the most serious charges, the 68-year-old Manafort could receive up to 15 years in prison under current sentencing guidelines.
"The government could be aiming for a shock-and-awe approach, in which charges come in quick succession from multiple sides, creating an overwhelming law enforcement presence against the target," said Jaimie Nawaday, a former federal prosecutor in New York.
Kate Irby contributed
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent