WASHINGTON (AP) — Money laundering, tax evasion, acting as a foreign agent, now witness tampering. Special counsel Robert Mueller has turned up the heat on Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, threatening new criminal charges and asking a judge to put him in jail while he awaits trial.
The latest twist in Mueller’s probe doesn’t appear to have anything to do with Russia’s election meddling. Or does it? Here’s what to know:
WHERE THE RUSSIA PROBE STANDS
The Justice Department appointed Mueller a year ago to investigate Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 election and find out whether any of Trump’s associates tried to help. He also was given authority to prosecute anyone who tried to obstruct his investigation or intimidate witnesses.
So far, 19 people and three Russian companies have either been indicted or pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Among them is Manafort, who is awaiting trial in Virginia and the District of Columbia. His spokesman says Manafort is innocent.
Prosecutors say Manafort acted as an unregistered foreign agent for pro-Russian Ukrainian interests and funneled millions of dollars from the work into offshore accounts to fund lavish lifestyles. Facing numerous charges of tax and bank fraud, Manafort was confined to house arrest and could spend the rest of his life in jail if convicted.
WHAT’S RUSSIA GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Before becoming Trump’s campaign chairman, Manafort was a well-connected Republican strategist and lobbyist who established political contacts in former Soviet states, particularly Ukraine.
Among those he worked for was Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Early on in the relationship, Manafort pitched Deripaska on a political influence plan that Manafort said would benefit the Putin government. Deripaska also invested in an ultimately failed purchase of a Ukrainian cable company that led to the Russian billionaire suing Manafort and accusing him of fraud.
Fast forward to 2016 when Manafort joined Trump’s presidential campaign. Manafort reached out to a longtime associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, who prosecutors say is tied to Russian intelligence. (It’s a connection Kilimnik denies.) Manafort said he was willing to provide “private briefings” to Deripaska and, according to The Washington Post , referred to positive news coverage of his new job with Trump and asked: “How do we use to get whole?”
Manafort’s spokesman said no briefings occurred.
SO WHAT’S NEW?
In a court filing released late Monday, prosecutors accused Manafort of witness tampering and asked a federal judge to consider putting him in jail while he awaits trial.
According to the affidavit, Manafort tried to call and even tried using an encrypted messaging application to contact witnesses. “We should talk,” one message said, according to the affidavit.
Worth noting is that Manafort had help from an associate referred to in court documents as simply Person A. In earlier filings, Person A has referred to Kilimnik, the same associate Manafort reportedly reached out to with the offer of “private briefings” while working as Trump’s campaign chairman.
WHAT IT MEANS
Manafort’s lawyers are arguing that many of the charges against him are outside the bounds of Mueller’s authority. But they haven’t had much success, with two rulings already in Mueller’s favor.
Last month, a federal judge, T.S Ellis III, did ask whether prosecutors’ true motive was to get Manafort to “sing” against the president.
The judge noted that such strong-arm tactics are a “time-honored practice” for prosecutors and not necessarily illegal. But Ellis went on to say that defense lawyers are naturally concerned that defendants in that situation will not only sing but “compose” — meaning they’ll make up facts.
Government lawyers insist the special counsel’s mandate is broad and they are merely following the money trail.
Associated Press writer Chad Day contributed to this report.