Donald Trump’s former presidential campaign chairman will this week risk spending the rest of his life in prison, rather than help Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion with Russia.
Paul Manafort is due to stand trial in Virginia from Wednesday on charges of bank fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. Manafort, 69, faces prison sentences totalling up to 305 years if convicted on all counts. Then he is due to stand trial on separate charges in Washington.
Manafort denies all the charges. “I continue to maintain my innocence,” he said earlier this year in a now rare public statement.
The trial of the veteran conservative operator is the first major court challenge for the special counsel’s investigators who for 14 months have been looking into “links and/or coordination” between Russian government officials and Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Manafort came under scrutiny due to his work as an adviser to pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine and with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire aligned with the Kremlin. Manafort allegedly owed serious debts to Deripaska and others and asked a colleague in one 2016 email how he might use his new position “to get whole”.
But the charges against Manafort do not explicitly relate to Russia or its ****** on the US election. Mueller, who is empowered to pursue “any matters” arising from the Russia inquiry, is pursuing Manafort for alleged financial crimes beginning a decade before the 2016 vote.
He is charged with evading US taxes on more than $30m he received to work for Ukraine’s former pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, who in 2014 fled to Russia amid a popular uprising.
“The government does not intend to present at trial evidence or argument concerning collusion with the Russian government,” Mueller’s team said in a filing to court this month.
The prosecution has thus been widely viewed as an aggressive effort to squeeze Manafort into striking a deal to plead guilty to a lesser charge – and thus being able to see his grandchildren grow up – in return for assisting the Russia investigation.
Even the judge in his Virginia case, Thomas Ellis, has said so.
“You don’t really care about Mr Manafort’s bank fraud,” Ellis told prosecutors from Mueller’s team at a hearing in May. “What you really care about is what information Mr Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment.”
Rick Gates, a senior Trump campaign aide and Manafort business associate who was charged alongside Manafort, agreed in February to cooperate with Mueller and admit conspiracy and lying to the FBI, in return for Mueller dropping his more serious financial charges.
“I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence,” Manafort said of Gates. “For reasons yet to surface he chose to do otherwise.”
Plea deals have also been struck with Mueller by Michael Flynn, Trump’s former campaign aide and White House national security adviser, and George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser on the Trump campaign.
Yet Manafort, remarkably, has stood firm. He has repeatedly tried to have the charges against him dismissed, arguing unsuccessfully that Mueller was improperly given a “blank check” that the special counsel “has cashed, repeatedly”.
Manafort’s decision to take his chances in court has startled many observers. Speculation about whom Manafort may be protecting with his silence – and why – has steadily intensified.
Bradley Moss, a Washington-based attorney who specialises in national security issues, expressed dismay that Manafort was allowing his case to go this far.
“They have him nailed dead to rights,” said Moss. “He is going to spend the rest of his life in jail if convicted.”
In addition to the alleged tax evasion, Manafort is accused by Mueller’s team of lying to banks about his debts in order to obtain multi-million-dollar loans. He is preparing for the prosecution to subject him to an embarrassing dissection of his former lifestyle.
According to a list of about 500 exhibits that Mueller’s team filed to court, the prosecutors are prepared to wield photographs of a $21,000 wristwatch, bespoke suits and expensive homeware into which Manafort allegedly ploughed his money to hide it from the IRS.
One element of the case against Manafort in Virginia is “inextricably intertwined” with his role in the Trump campaign, according to prosecutors. But that too does not relate to Russia.
Manafort is accused of fraudulently obtaining $16m in loans from a bank with help from a senior bank executive who was given a role on the Trump campaign and later wanted a job in the Trump administration. The bank is not identified, but emails involving “S Calk” – likely Stephen Calk, the founder of Chicago’s Federal Savings Bank – are on the exhibit list.
After Manafort was loaned money by Federal Savings Bank, Calk was made a Trump campaign adviser. Democratic congressional investigators asked Calk if he entered into a “quid pro quo” with Manafort, following reports that Calk later contacted the Pentagon about a possible high-level role. Calk has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.
Still, opponents of Trump itching for Mueller to reveal what more he knows about connections between Moscow and the Trump campaign will just have to remain patient.
“The government does not intend to present at trial evidence or argument concerning collusion with the Russian government,” Mueller’s team said in a court filing this month.