WASHINGTON — Paul Manafort, the ostrich-jacket-wearing lobbyist and former campaign chairman for President Trump, took another hit in federal court on Wednesday.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson found that Manafort lied to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team on multiple topics, including his interactions with a former associate in Ukraine with reported ties to Russian intelligence. By doing so, the judge ruled, Manafort violated the terms of a plea agreement he signed last September in which he said he would cooperate extensively with Mueller. Manafort could now face a longer prison sentence.
Manafort is now the fourth former Trump aide to have lied about his contacts with Russia. Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to making false statements about his contacts with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign policy aide, admitted to lying about contacts he had with a “female Russian national” he believed has ties to the Russian government. And Michael Cohen, Trump’s ex-personal lawyer and fixer, acknowledged lying about his interactions with Russian officials in connection with the potential development of Trump Tower Moscow.
Mueller’s office accused Manafort of lying about five different subjects, and Judge Jackson found that the prosecution had sufficiently proven those lies in three of the five instances.
In her ruling, the judge said that Mueller’s team had failed to show that Manafort had allegedly lied about two subjects: Communications he had with the Trump administration well after he was first indicted, and statements he’d made about the role of a man named Konstantin Kilimnik — Manafort’s lieutenant during his work in Ukrainian politics — in obstructing justice.
However, Judge Jackson did conclude that Manafort had intentionally lied to Mueller, the FBI and the grand jury about a payment from his consulting firm to a law firm; that he intentionally lied to law enforcement about a separate DOJ investigation (it’s still unclear what this is about); and that he intentionally lied about “his interactions and communications” with Kilimnik, who is a Russian citizen.
It’s that final set of lies about Kilimnik that deserves the most scrutiny. According to a previous filing in the case, Manafort allegedly lied to the government about sharing 2016 presidential polling data with Kilimnik and about discussing a so-called Ukrainian peace plan with him during the 2016 campaign. The FBI has said that Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence, and news outlets have reported that Kilimnik has relationships with oligarchs and other powerful Russians who are close to President Vladimir Putin.
One of Mueller’s top prosecutors, Andrew Weissman, recently suggested that Kilimnik may play a far more central role in the special counsel’s investigation than previously known. According to a partially redacted transcript of a closed hearing in Manafort’s case, Judge Jackson questioned Weissman as to why Manafort’s lies about his interactions with Kilimnik were so important.
“This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think is the motive here,” Weissmann told the judge. “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”
The heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating. With those 10 words, Kilimnik’s place in the Mueller probe vaulted from obscure bit player to main character.
There are a couple of potential explanations here. Perhaps Manafort lied about his interactions with Kilimnik because he thought he wouldn’t get caught, or because lying so often seems to be the default setting for those within President Trump’s orbit.
Another theory is that Manafort intentionally misled the government about his interactions with Kilimnik over a supposed Ukraine peace plan because those conversations revealed something more damning about his — and potentially the Trump campaign’s — interactions with Kilimnik as the 2016 campaign was underway. That seems to be what Weissman was alluding to in his comments at the recent closed-door hearing.
Earlier this week, NBC News quoted Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee which has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, stating that there was “no factual evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.” That may, in the end, be the case. The Mueller investigation, the Senate’s inquiry and the rebooted House intelligence committee probe now led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), ultimately may not find any direct evidence of conspiracy (except, of course, the evidence hiding in plain sight).
But if we’ve learned one thing over the course of the special counsel’s investigation, it’s this: Mueller is usually a step (or three) ahead of everyone. Every new indictment of his has significantly advanced our understanding of what happened in 2016, who was involved and what their aims were. Weissman’s recent comment about the “heart” of the probe, combined with Manafort’s latest setback in court, suggests that there’s still much to learn.