Trump, aides get chilling warning from special prober
WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has sent a chilling warning to individuals in President Donald Trump’s orbit: If they lie about contacts between the latter’s campaign and Russians, they’ll end up on the wrong end of federal criminal charges.
With the disclosure of the first batch of criminal cases in his investigation, Mueller also showed that he will not hesitate to bring charges against people close to the campaign even if they don’t specifically pertain to Russian election interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Mueller announced charges on Monday against three advisers to the Trump campaign and laid out the most explicit evidence to date that his campaign was eager to coordinate with the Russian government to damage his rival, Hillary Clinton.
The former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, surrendered to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and pleaded not guilty to charges that he laundered millions of dollars through overseas shell companies — using the money to buy luxury cars, real estate, antique rugs and expensive clothes.
Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime associate as well as a Trump campaign adviser, was also charged and turned himself in. Gates also pleaded not guilty to charges that he and Manafort funneled payments through foreign companies and bank accounts as part of their political work in Ukraine.
The indictment naming Manafort and Gates lays out a total of 12 counts, which also included conspiracy against the United States, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, making false statements and failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts.
Most politically damaging
But information that could prove most politically damaging to Trump came an hour later, when Mueller announced that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was cooperating with investigators.
In court documents, federal investigators said they suspected that Russian intelligence services had used intermediaries to contact Papadopoulos to gain influence with the campaign, offering “dirt” on Clinton in April 2016 in the form of “thousands of e-mails.”
Papadopoulos, who secretly pleaded guilty weeks ago to lying to the FBI about those contacts, has been cooperating with Mueller’s prosecutors for months.
Papadopoulos is awaiting sentencing in the first criminal case that links the Trump election effort to the Kremlin. His lawyers hinted strongly in a statement on Monday that their client has more testimony to provide.
Manafort and Gates, who both pleaded not guilty in a court appearance on Monday, were placed under house arrest on multimillion-dollar bonds.
“There’s a large-scale, ongoing investigation of which this case is a small part,” Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, a prosecutor on Mueller’s team, said at Papadopoulos’ plea hearing this month. It was a hint at the possibility of more to come.
It is now clear, from Papadopoulos’ admission and e-mails related to a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016, that the Russian government offered help to Trump’s candidacy and campaign officials were willing to take it.
The United States has concluded that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin tried to tip the outcome of the 2016 election in favor of Trump.
As part of that effort, Russian operatives hacked Democratic accounts and released a trove of embarrassing e-mails related to Clinton’s campaign.
Mueller and his team are investigating whether anyone close to Trump participated in that effort.
The tax and money laundering case against Manafort describes a complicated scheme in which he lobbied for a pro-Russia party in Ukraine and its leader, Viktor F. Yanukovych, and hid proceeds in bank accounts in Cyprus, the Grenadines and elsewhere.
Prosecutors say he laundered more than $18 million, and spent the money extravagantly. A home improvement company in the Hamptons was paid nearly $5.5 million. More than $1.3 million more went to clothing stores in New York and Beverly Hills, California.
Manafort bought a $3-million brownstone in Brooklyn and a $2.8-million condominium in SoHo, prosecutors said.
“Manafort used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States without paying taxes on that income,” the indictment reads. He was also charged with failing to register as a foreign lobbyist.
The charges carry the potential for roughly 20 years in prison, putting pressure on Manafort to provide information on others in exchange for leniency. Among other things, Manafort could shed light on how widely in the campaign it was known that Russia had damaging information on Clinton.
No collusion, Trump tweets
While the indictment paints an unflattering picture of the man whom Trump tapped to run his campaign, the allegations long predate his involvement in the presidential race. Trump seized on that fact, declaring on Twitter that “there is NO COLLUSION!”
But as Trump typed out that message, Mueller’s team was unsealing documents related to Papadopoulos that directly undermined the president’s claim.
In March 2016, while traveling in Italy, Papadopoulos met Joseph Mifsud, a London-based professor of diplomacy who has deep ties to the Russian government. The professor took interest in Papadopoulos “because of his status with the campaign,” according to court documents.
Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to others, including someone with ties to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a woman who he believed was a relative of Putin. Papadopoulos repeatedly tried to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials.
“We are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” the woman, who was not identified, told Papadopoulos in an e-mail. It turned out later that the woman was not a relative of Putin.
Campaign officials knew that Papadopoulos was developing contacts in Russia, documents show. He repeatedly tried to arrange a formal meeting for Trump in Russia.
Ultimately, senior campaign officials said that Trump should not make the trip and leave it to “someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal,” according to an e-mail cited in court papers. No campaign official made a formal trip to Russia.
When FBI agents approached Papadopoulos on Jan. 27, he lied about his Russian contacts. That same day, Trump invited the FBI Director James B. Comey to dinner at the White House and asked him to pledge loyalty.
As the FBI scrutiny continued, Papadopoulos changed his phone number and deleted his Facebook account, which he had used to communicate with the Russians. The FBI has obtained e-mails, text messages, and the transcript of chats on Facebook and Skype records as part of its investigation.
FBI agents quietly arrested Papadopoulos at Dulles International Airport outside Washington on July 27, a day after agents raided Manafort’s Virginia home.
The justice department disclosed on Monday that Manafort had withheld evidence from Mueller that was discovered during that raid.
Manafort, 68, was fired as Trump’s campaign chair in August 2016 after word surfaced that he had orchestrated a covert lobbying operation on behalf of pro-Russian interests in Ukraine.
His indictment doesn’t reference the Trump campaign or make any allegations about coordination between Russia and campaign aides. But it does allege a criminal conspiracy was continuing through February of this year, after Trump had taken office.
With the filing of charges against Manafort, however, Mueller has taken a broad view of his mandate. He was tapped to investigate Russian election meddling, whether anyone around Trump was involved and other crimes that followed from that investigation. —REPORTS FROM NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE AND AP
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