Mueller Hands Down New Charges Against Manafort

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s D.C. grand jury on Friday issued a new superseding indictment against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, incorporating new charges that Manafort obstructed justice by attempting to persuade potential witnesses in his trial not to testify against him. The new indictment also includes Mueller’s first charges against Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Manafort aide with ties to Russian intelligence who has appeared pseudonymously in previous indictments against Manafort.

Between February and April of this year, the new indictment charges, the defendants “knowingly and intentionally attempted to corruptly persuade another person… with intent to influence, delay, and prevent the testimony of any person in an official proceeding.”

The new charges come four days after Mueller first asserted publicly that he had uncovered evidence that Manafort had attempted to tamper with potential witnesses. In a court filing Monday, prosecutors said that the two witnesses, who are cooperating with the FBI, had turned over encrypted text messages from Manafort to investigators and said that Manafort was trying to “suborn perjury.”

The latest charges will only intensify Manafort’s legal woes, as he was already facing charges for conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, failure to register as an agent of a foreign power, and making false statements to the FBI—a slate of charges backed up by an apparent heap of physical evidence and the testimony of his longtime business partner, Richard Gates. The charges are the result of consulting work Manafort did for nearly a decade in Ukraine prior to his joining the Trump campaign: Prosecutors allege that he failed to disclose the nature of his relationship with the Ukrainian government to U.S. officials, then conspired to launder the profits of that work—about $30 million—to avoid paying U.S. taxes on those profits. Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort, said in a statement that “Mr. Manafort is innocent and nothing about this latest allegation changes our defense. We will do our talking in court.”

Legal analysts have disagreed on what the latest charges of witness tampering signify. Writing at Lawfare, Paul Rosenzweig assessed the allegation as shaky: “Direct evidence against Manafort is almost nonexistent,” he writes. “Saying ‘we should talk’ and ‘I want to give you an update’ or a ‘heads-up’ is hardly the stuff that true witness-tampering charges are made of. And more to the point, if the entire conversation in which Manafort participated lasted for less than a minute and a half, he’d have to be a very, very fast talker to have accomplished tampering.”

But Harvard Law professor Alex Whiting and former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti took issue with Rosenzweig’s analysis, arguing at Just Security that “when all the evidence is considered together, rather than piecemeal, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Manafort sought to persuade witnesses in his case to testify falsely.”

“As Mueller explains in his filing to the court, he need only show ‘probable cause to believe’ that Manafort has committed the crime of witness tampering while on bail, the lowest possible standard of proof,” the pair writes. “Such a showing then triggers a rebuttable presumption that Manafort should be detained pending trial, meaning that he will be detained unless his lawyers can persuade the judge that there exist conditions of release that will ensure that he will not continue to commit crimes in the future, including the crime of witness tampering… The notion that Manafort and Person A coincidentally peddled the same cover story at the same time without coordination is hard to believe. A probable cause standard is plainly satisfied here.”

Additional charges of witness tampering might seem small potatoes when compared to the impressive array of charges already levied against Manafort prior to this week. But they may have a serious impact on Manafort’s trial: prosecutors have argued that the latest charges should justify more stringent restrictions on Manafort, who is already on house arrest, pending his trial. Should their petition be successful, Manafort could be jailed at once. For a man already facing the potential of living the rest of his life in prison, this is no small matter.

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