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Donald Trump

Ex-chief of Trump campaign Paul Manafort pleads not guilty after Russia probe leads to first indictments

The charges against Manafort include conspiracy against the US, conspiracy to launder money, false statements and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 8:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 4:15am

Former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and an ex-business associate, Rick Gates, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy against the United States, money laundering and several other financial charges. Separately, Trump’s former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians, special counsel Robert Mueller said on Monday.

The charges were the first stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. The indictment filed in federal court in Washington accused both Manafort and Gates of funnelling tens of millions of dollars in payments through foreign companies and bank accounts.

The guilty plea by Trump’s former campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos marked the first criminal count that cites interactions between Trump campaign associates and Russian intermediaries during the campaign. The developments ushered Mueller’s sprawling investigation into a new phase with felony charges and possible prison sentences for key members of the Trump team.

Court papers also revealed that Papadopoulos was told about the Russians possessing “dirt” on Democrat Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” on April 26, 2016, well before it became public that the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails had been hacked.

Papadopoulos has been cooperating with investigators, according to court papers, a potentially ominous sign for others in the Trump orbit who might be implicated by his statements.

During the daily press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders downplayed Papadopoulos’ role in the campaign, saying it was “extremely limited.”

“He was not paid by the campaign,” Sanders said, adding later: “Any actions that he took would have been on his own.”

She said the White House has had “indications” that Mueller’s investigation would conclude “soon.”

The indictment lays out 12 counts including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered foreign agent and several charges related to failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts. The indictment claims that they moved money through hidden bank accounts in Cyprus, St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Seychelles. In total, more than US$75 million flowed through the offshore accounts. Manafort is accused of laundering more than US$18 million, according to the indictment.

Manafort, 68, was fired as Trump’s campaign chairman in August after word surfaced that he had orchestrated a covert lobbying operation on behalf of pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. Associated Press reported that Manafort also represented a Russian billionaire a decade ago with the goal of advancing the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Despite the indictment, Trump insisted the charges related to activities long before Manafort joined his campaign.

“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” he tweeted, “....Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”

An AP Fact Check finds that Trump misrepresented the breadth of the charges against Paul Manafort.

The charges deal with alleged criminal behaviour from 2006 to February of this year.

That covers the full period when Manafort worked for Trump, and beyond. The charges do not refer to Manafort’s activities with the campaign but rather accuse him and associate Rick Gates of laundering money and conspiratorial acts before, during and after he had that job.

Mueller was appointed as special counsel in May to lead the Justice Department’s investigation into whether the Kremlin worked with associates of the Trump campaign to tip the 2016 presidential election.

The appointment came one week after the firing James Comey, who as FBI director led the investigation, and also followed the recusal months earlier of Attorney General Jeff Sessions from the probe.

Investigators have focused on associates including Manafort, whose home was raided in July by agents searching for tax and international banking records, and ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign in February after White House officials said he had misled them about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Manafort joined Trump’s campaign in March 2016 and oversaw the convention delegate strategy. Trump pushed him out in August amid a steady stream of negative headlines about Manafort’s foreign consulting work.

Trump’s middle son, Eric Trump, said in an interview at the time that his father was concerned that questions about Manafort’s past were taking attention away from the billionaire’s presidential bid.

Manafort has been a subject of a long-standing FBI investigation into his dealings in Ukraine and work for the country’s former president Viktor Yanukovych. That investigation was incorporated into Mueller’s broader probe.

Previously, he denied any wrongdoing related to his Ukrainian work, saying through a spokesman that it “was totally open and appropriate”.

Manafort also recently registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for parts of Ukrainian work that occurred in Washington. The filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act came retroactively, a tacit acknowledgement that he operated in Washington in violation of the federal transparency law.

Mueller’s investigation has also reached into the White House, as he examines the circumstances of Comey’s firing. Investigators have requested extensive documents from the White House about key actions since Trump took office and have interviewed multiple current and former officials.

Mueller’s grand jury has also heard testimony about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower attended by a Russian lawyer as well as Manafort, Donald Trump Jnr, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

In Gates, Mueller brings in not just Manafort’s chief deputy, but a key player from Trump’s campaign who survived past Manafort’s ousting last summer. As of two weeks ago, Gates was still working for Tom Barrack, a Trump confidant, helping to close the inauguration committee’s campaign account.