Robert Mueller’s special counsel’s office hit former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort with two more criminal charges Friday and added his longtime business associate Konstantin Kilimnik as a second defendant in the case, after accusing them earlier in the week of attempting to convince witnesses to commit perjury.
The expanded criminal allegations ratchet up the pressure Manafort faces to cut a deal with the special counsel’s office as he awaits two criminal trials. If he is found guilty in both cases, 69-year-old Manafort could be sent to prison for the rest of his life.
The case now accuses both Manafort and Kilimnik, 48, of Moscow, of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, meaning they allegedly worked together to contact two possible witnesses in Manafort’s case since February.
Prosecutors already claimed that Manafort misled federal authorities for years about his lobbying work in the US for Ukrainian politicians before he joined the Trump campaign. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He is also fighting a handful of financial crime charges, including bank fraud, against him in Virginia federal court.
Kilimnik has long been a close business colleague of Manafort’s that prosecutors have said in previous filings has ties to Russian intelligence.
Manafort and Kilimnik’s allegedly criminal contact with the two witnesses who once worked with them doing public relations began on a day, February 23, when Manafort’s case became far tougher to overcome. Manafort deputy and co-defendant Rick Gates had pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and to a conspiracy charge.
That day was the first time prosecutors also revealed they knew about Manafort’s efforts to pay an influential group of European politicians, called the Hapsburg group, €2 million to help his Ukrainian lobbying clients.
In the days that followed and through April, Manafort and Kilimnik suggested the two witnesses who worked on the Hapsburg group project say the group focused on Europe and “never lobbied in the US,” according to an encrypted message between Kilimnik and one witness that prosecutors obtained.
Yet Manafort and the public relations people had brought the Hapsburg group to the US to speak with members of Congress about the interests of Viktor Yanukovych, a former Ukrainian president who had jailed a political rival, while posing as independent voices, prosecutors said earlier this week. One of the witnesses in touch with Manafort this year told prosecutors he believed Manafort wanted to “suborn perjury,” the previous filing said.
Because of the witness tampering allegations, prosecutors have asked the judge in DC to send Manafort to jail while he awaits his September trial. He is currently on house arrest at his condo in Alexandria, Virginia, and has a $10 million unsecured bail. His trial in Virginia is scheduled to begin in late July.
In a response to the accusations made earlier in the week, Manafort’s attorneys argued in a filing late Friday night that the special counsel allegations of witness tampering “conjures a sinister plot” to persuade associates to perjure themselves, but disputes that the evidence provided establishes any tampering.
In the filing, Manafort’s attorneys accused Mueller of bringing the charges on “the thinnest of evidence”: an 84-second phone call and text messages between Manafort and the two former business associates.
They argue the limited amount of communications “cannot be fairly read, either factually or legally, to reflect an intent to corruptly influence a trial witness.”
“From a scant record, the Special Counsel conjures a sinister plot to ‘corruptly persuade’ two of Mr. Manafort’s former business associates to perjure themselves at the upcoming trial in September,” their filing said. “However, exhibits attached to the Special Counsel’s filing support the defendant’s position that the mission and work of the so-called Hapsburg Group was European-focused and that the text messages cited by the Special Counsel do not establish any witness tampering.”
“Mr. Manafort’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by an impartial jury in this district may have been irreparably damaged by the Special Counsel’s latest, very public and very specious, filing of this motion,” the filing said.