Is the Manafort trial the first step towards Trump’s impeachment?

A loss by Mueller in court will be a huge boost to the Trump team’s drive to shut down the Russia investigation. However a win by the special envoy will not only mean the jailing of the first senior member of the president’s election campaign, but another step in his possible impeachment

Kim Sengupta
Tuesday 31 July 2018 15:06 BST
Ex-Trump Campaign Chair Manafort's Court Arrival

There must be no pictures shown of “a cocktail party with scantily clad women” at the trial of Paul Manafort starting this week: that is the firm direction of the judge in the case. In response prosecutor Greg Andrews has reassured that “there will be no pictures of scantily clad women, period”.

The stipulation by US District Judge TS Ellis III about the salacious photographs, if they exist, was an attempt to avoid the jury from forming a pejorative opinion about the billionaire political fixer from tales of his alleged lifestyle.

But it is the next sentence by Andrews – “I don’t anticipate that a government witness will utter the word ‘Russia’” – which may be confusing for those who thought that the trial of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager was intrinsically linked to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Kremlin interference in the US.

That, in fact, remains the case: Manafort is facing two separate prosecutions.

In the trial starting at Alexandria, Virginia, Manafort face charges of bank fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. He had failed, it is claimed, to pay taxes on the millions of dollars he earned working for President Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, an ally of Moscow, and then lied to get loans when the cash flow stopped.

The prosecutors will say in one of the charges that the chairman of a bank turned a blind eye to Manafort, filing inaccurate information for a loan in exchange for a role in the Republican campaign and a job with the Trump administration. The job, it should be noted, never materialised.

Manafort faces a second trial in which he is charged with acting as a foreign agent and lying about this to the federal authorities. His co-defendant in the case is Konstantin Kilimnik, who lives in Russia and, according to US authorities, has links to Russian intelligence. Manafort has been in jail for a month after a judge revoked his house arrest over allegations that there were attempts at witness tampering.

The Moscow connection will, however, be an underlying theme in the current case as well. Prosecutors are expected to chart Manafort’s extensive ties with Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians with Russian links who had stayed in touch with him when he became Trump’s campaign manager.

One of the oligarchs whose name is expected to emerge is that of Oleg Deripaska, an ally of Vladimir Putin, who is among those owed vast sums of money by Manafort. The prosecution claims that Manafort had asked a colleague in 2016, after becoming Trump’s campaign manager, how he could use his new position to help with his debt crisis and “get whole” again.

Deripaska’s company, Rusal, was sanctioned earlier this year by the US in connection with Russian interference in the US elections. In placing the sanctions the American authorities cited his alleged history of bribery, extortion and racketeering, links to organised crime, and an order he supposedly gave for a business rival to be murdered. Deripaska denies all the allegations.

However, following Trump’s summit with Putin in Helsinki, the US administration announced that the sanctions against Rusal may be eased. This, predictably, has raised more questions about the US president’s relationship with Moscow.

The links continue to develop between the Manafort prosecution and the Trump investigation.

A civil lawsuit by Manafort against the US Justice Department specifically naming Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as defendants was dropped on Monday. Manafort’s lawyers had claimed that Rosenstein had exceeded his authority in appointing Mueller as special counsel and that Mueller has exceeded his authority in bringing the charges against Manafort. Manafort’s legal action, albeit failed, chimes with the offensive Trump and his supporters had launched against the Mueller inquiry with Rosenstein a particular target.

In this week’s trial the prosecution has lined up 35 witnesses and around 500 pieces of evidence which they say will prove that Manafort earned $60m (£45m) from his Ukrainian work and concealed a “significant percentage” of that money from the tax authorities and then, while handling Trump’s campaign, obtained millions more in fraudulent bank loans.

Rick Gates, another Trump campaign aide, who also worked for Manafort extensively in Ukraine, is expected to be a key prosecution witness in both the Manafort trials after cutting a deal with Mueller’s team.

Of 32 people who have been charged by Mueller in his probe, 31 have either pleaded guilty or are Russians who are unlikely to be extradited and face an American court. The only one who has pleaded not guilty and elected for a trial is Manafort.

If convicted, Manafort faces spending the rest of his natural life behind bars: unless, of course, he is pardoned by Trump. This is not a hypothetical issue, but a possibility the US president’s team have raised openly. Asked about a pardon for Manafort, Rudy Giuliani, the latest White House lawyer, said “When it [Mueller inquiry] is over, hey, he’s the president of the United States, he retains his pardon power, nobody’s taking that away from him. I couldn’t and I don’t want to take any prerogatives away from him.”

So the question of whether Donald Trump was the Kremlin’s man for the White House looms over the trials of Paul Manafort. The stakes are high on both sides. A loss by Mueller in court will be a huge boost to the Trump team’s drive to shut down the Russia investigation. A win by the special envoy will not only mean the jailing of the first senior member of the Trump election campaign, but another step in the possible impeachment of Donald Trump.

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