Manafort’s Trial Isn’t About Russia, but It Will Be in the Air

The trial of Paul Manafort, who was chairman of President Trump’s campaign, on 32 charges of bank and tax fraud is set to begin on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — When they present their evidence in the financial fraud trial of Paul Manafort beginning this week, federal prosecutors have promised the judge, no government witness will even utter the word Russia.

Russia inevitably looms over the entire proceeding anyway.

Mr. Manafort, who was chairman of President Trump’s campaign, faces 18 charges of bank and tax fraud, largely stemming from his work as a political consultant in Ukraine and predating the campaign. The trial, scheduled to get underway on Tuesday morning with jury selection in federal court in Alexandria, Va., will not be about collusion or Russian disinformation, even if a stray reference to the country inevitably creeps in.

But the subtext — whether Mr. Manafort knew about Russian efforts to influence the election, and whether the threat of conviction could lead him to cooperate with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III — weighs not just on the prosecution and defense, but on the White House as well.

Among the Americans charged so far by Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors, Mr. Manafort not only held the highest position in Mr. Trump’s campaign, but he also arguably has the deepest connections to Russia-aligned politicians and political forces.

Mr. Manafort has given no indication that he wants to help the government or has information that would do so; his friends say he believes he is innocent and will be acquitted.

But if he does know something of interest to Mr. Mueller and chooses to enter a plea agreement, his cooperation could help prosecutors put together a clearer picture of how Russian actors intervened in the presidential election and how the Trump campaign, wittingly or unwittingly, interacted with them.

A number of events and relationships that have come up in Mr. Mueller’s inquiry touch on Mr. Manafort’s association with the Trump campaign and help explain why he is still seen as a potentially pivotal figure in the Russia inquiry even if his trial is limited to charges unrelated to the president.

In June 2016, while campaign chairman, Mr. Manafort attended the now-well-documented meeting at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer. The meeting was set up through an intermediary with Donald Trump Jr., who was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. President Trump has denied knowing anything about the meeting, but it remains a focus of the Mueller inquiry.

Mr. Manafort had business dealings with Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who has close ties to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. By 2016, Mr. Deripaska was suing Mr. Manafort and his business partner, Rick Gates, for tens of millions of dollars he said they owed him. Mr. Manafort claimed that Mr. Deripaska was in fact in debt to him.

In July 2016, just before the Republican National Convention, Mr. Manafort sought to get a message to Mr. Deripaska offering “private briefings” about the presidential race.

Mr. Manafort tried to pass that message to Mr. Deripaska through Konstantin V. Kilimnik, a Russian citizen whose relationship with Mr. Manafort has figured repeatedly in court filings by Mr. Mueller’s team. Prosecutors have said Mr. Kilimnik had active ties to a Russian intelligence service — including during 2016, when he was in contact with both Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates.

For the previous decade, the three men had worked together promoting pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine and boosting the political fortunes of Viktor F. Yanukovych, who was elected president of Ukraine in 2010. In a filing Monday, the prosecutors said Mr. Manafort earned $60 million from that work.

In Kiev, Mr. Kilimnik was sometimes referred to as “Manafort’s Manafort.” He has denied that he was ever a Russian spy and said he quit working for Mr. Manafort in 2014 after Mr. Yanukovych was ousted as Ukraine’s leader and fled to Russia.

Mr. Manafort said he never knowingly communicated with a Russian intelligence officer but acknowledged that he and Mr. Kilimnik met in May and August 2016. The second meeting took place about two weeks before he was forced to resign as Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman because of his Ukraine work.

Prosecutors also stated in a court filing that Mr. Gates, Mr. Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, was in contact with Mr. Kilimnik in the two months before the election, even though he was aware of Mr. Kilimnik’s background in Russian military intelligence. Mr. Gates has pleaded guilty in the case, is cooperating with Mr. Mueller’s team and is scheduled to testify against Mr. Manafort.

Mr. Manafort was also indicted on charges of money laundering and failing to disclose his lobbying work for foreign interests in a separate case scheduled for trial in United States District Court in Washington, D.C., in September. In that case, prosecutors say, Mr. Kilimnik and Mr. Manafort worked together to influence the testimony of two witnesses in Mr. Manafort’s favor.

Mr. Kilimnik will almost certainly not be extradited from Russia to face the obstruction-of-justice allegations, but Mr. Manafort will now face those charges as well at the Washington trial.

Mr. Trump’s pro-Russia statements and openness to policy shifts regarding Moscow predated Mr. Manafort’s tenure on the campaign and continued after Mr. Manafort stepped down from the campaign in August 2016.

Mr. Manafort has long insisted he does not have any secrets to give up to Mr. Mueller’s team, even if he wanted to. “I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation,” he told The New York Times last year.

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Paul Manafort’s Trail of Scandals

President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has now been accused by the special counsel of violating his plea deal by repeatedly lying to federal prosecutors. But this wasn’t Mr. Manafort’s first scandal.

Paul Manafort was once President Trump’s campaign manager. By the fall of 2018, he was expected to face at least a decade in prison for 10 felony counts. Those counts included financial fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice. “Mr. Manafort is disappointed of not getting acquittals all the way through. He is evaluating all of his options at this point.” In the hopes of getting a more lenient punishment, Manafort agreed to fully cooperate with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Now, federal prosecutors are saying he violated his plea deal by repeatedly lying during their investigation. Manafort’s lawyer also allegedly passed information to President Trump’s legal team. But this isn’t Manafort’s first scandal. Controversy has trailed the veteran Republican adviser since his earliest work as an international lobbyist and consultant. In the 1980s, Manafort testified before Congress and admitted to using his political influence to win millions of dollars in contracts from federal low-income housing programs. “The technical term for what we do and what law firms, associations and professional groups do is lobbying. For purposes of today, I will admit that in a narrow sense some people might term it influence peddling.” That same decade, Manafort advised the Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, on improving his image in the U.S. Manafort allegedly received $10 million in cash from a Marcos confidante. It was apparently money intended for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. But the campaign said it never received that money. Foreign contributions to U.S. presidential elections are illegal. Also in the 1980s, Manafort was linked to the prime minister of the Bahamas at a time when the island nation had alleged ties to drug traffickers. Manafort’s company said that the goal of its work was to help the Bahamas obtain more U.S. aid to help curb the drug smuggling. Decades later, Manafort would run Trump’s presidential campaign. “We want America to understand who Donald Trump the man is. Not just Donald Trump the candidate. The composite of his career. Not just from a business standpoint or a political standpoint, from a human standpoint as well.” But he resigned five months into the job in August 2016, in the wake of reports that he received more than $12 million from Viktor Yanukovich, the former Ukrainian president and pro-Russia politician. Yanukovich and his political party relied on advice from Manafort and his firm, which helped them win several elections. The Times uncovered that Manafort and others close to Trump met with the Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer in June 2016. That lawyer claimed to have damaging political information about Hillary Clinton. As for this latest brush with controversy, Manafort’s lawyers insist that their client has been truthful. But they acknowledge that Manafort and Mueller’s team are at an impasse.

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President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has now been accused by the special counsel of violating his plea deal by repeatedly lying to federal prosecutors. But this wasn’t Mr. Manafort’s first scandal.CreditCredit...Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But veterans of such trials say that especially for someone like Mr. Manafort, accustomed to a backyard putting green, suits from a men’s boutique called the world’s most expensive and road trips in a Mercedes-Benz SL 550 convertible, the prospect of years in prison can play an outsize role in a decision to seek a plea deal if the trial does not seem to be going well.

Mr. Manafort, 69, already has a taste of what could await him if he is convicted.

His bail was revoked over the witness tampering allegations, and he is being held in the Alexandria city jail, where friends say he is permitted only two 30-minute visits a week with his wife, Kathleen. He can walk or exercise outside an hour a day. And unlike a rural Virginia jail where he was incarcerated earlier, which he said treated him like a “V.I.P.,” he is clad in a dark-green jumpsuit like any other inmate.

His once-flush bank accounts have been frozen, according to his friends, and they are soliciting online donations to his legal defense fund.

Mr. Manafort’s supporters insist that the suspicions about him are vastly overblown. They point out that despite the long list of criminal charges against him, prosecutors have not suggested that he was serving anyone’s interest but his own.

His dealings with Mr. Kilimnik and Mr. Deripaska, the Kremlin-connected oligarch, were strictly business-related; his offer to brief Mr. Deripaska on the Trump campaign was just an innocuous courtesy that was never even accepted, they say.

They portray him as the victim of a runaway special counsel supervised by a deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, who they say should be removed from office. Prosecutors have piled on charges, they say, because they have come up empty-handed in their search for evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to tip the election.

The website seeking funds for Mr. Manafort’s defense features headlines such as “Stopping Robert Mueller to protect us all” and “The mess Rod Rosenstein made.”

In the trial that begins Tuesday, prosecutors have told Judge T. S. Ellis III of United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia that they will carefully steer clear of any political inferences that could prejudice the jury. But they do plan to show that a group of Ukrainian oligarchs financed his work to help elect Mr. Yanukovych and promote pro-Russian political interests.

They named four Ukrainian oligarchs: Rinat Akhmetov, Andriy Klyuyev, Borys Kolesnikov and Sergei Lyovochkin. Mr. Yanukovych appointed two of them to top government posts when he was elected president.

Mr. Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign will be mentioned only in the limited context of a loan that Mr. Manafort obtained, prosecutors have said. One bank chairman knew Mr. Manafort’s application for a loan was based on false documents but approved it because he was promised — and received — a position on the Trump campaign, according to the prosecutors. The bank chairman also hoped for a job in the administration, they said, but it did not materialize.

Even so, the trial will also be a blunt reminder that while Mr. Trump dismisses the Mueller inquiry as a “witch hunt,” it has had very real consequences for its targets.

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