A pair of new reports on the Russia investigation published Monday night suggest that Donald Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, is in very serious legal trouble indeed.
First, CNN’s Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz, and Pamela Brown report that federal investigators got secret court orders to wiretap Manafort — at first before the 2016 campaign because of an inquiry into his work in Ukraine, and later as part of the investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russia.
Second, the New York Times’s Sharon LaFraniere, Matt Apuzzo, and Adam Goldman report that this summer, special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors “told Mr. Manafort they planned to indict him.” They also add the detail that when federal agents searched Manafort’s home in July at the behest of Mueller’s team, they picked the lock rather than announcing their presence in advance.
Together, the reports of wiretaps and the threat of indictment make Manafort’s legal woes — which already looked troubling — appear even more serious.
Manafort is under investigative scrutiny both for matters that preceded his involvement in Trump’s campaign — specifically, whether he appropriately disclosed his foreign work and whether he was involved in illegal money laundering or other financial crimes — and for the central question of potential collusion with Russia during the campaign itself.
The CNN report further suggests that Manafort was being wiretapped this year, “including a period when Manafort was known to talk” to President Trump — thus raising the question of what, if anything, the president himself was taped saying to Manafort. (The authors write that "it's unclear whether Trump himself was picked up on the surveillance.”)
CNN reports that Manafort was wiretapped by the government
In Perez, Prokupecz, and Brown’s report that Manafort was wiretapped, there are several interesting details.
First, the original FISA court order to surveil Manafort was issued before he got involved with the Trump campaign, as part of an investigation into “work done by a group of Washington consulting firms for Ukraine's former ruling party.” But the surveillance produced little evidence and was ended.
Then, per CNN, there was a key gap in the surveillance involving, at the very least, the period in June 2016 when Donald Trump Jr. arranged a meeting with a Russian lawyer to get dirt on Hillary Clinton — a meeting Manafort attended.
At some point after that, the reporters write, a new FISA court order was issued for surveillance on Manafort. Importantly, this one was issued specifically to look for information about potential collusion with Russia. Here are two key paragraphs:
The FBI interest deepened last fall because of intercepted communications between Manafort and suspected Russian operatives, and among the Russians themselves, that reignited their interest in Manafort, the sources told CNN. ...
... Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign, according to three sources familiar with the investigation. Two of these sources, however, cautioned that the evidence is not conclusive.
Finally, the CNN team reports that this surveillance continued after Trump was sworn in as president, during a period when Manafort was known to be in contact with him. They write that it’s unclear whether the surveillance did record conversations with the president. But this obviously presents the possibility that President Trump is on tape with Manafort discussing the investigation, which could shed light on both the matter of potential collusion and potential obstruction of justice on Trump’s part.
The New York Times reports that Mueller’s team told Manafort to expect an indictment
The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, then followed the house search with a warning: His prosecutors told Mr. Manafort they planned to indict him, said two people close to the investigation.
It’s been obvious for some time that Manafort was potentially facing an indictment, but this is the first time we’ve heard such a specific claim of that coming from Mueller’s team (albeit secondhand).
Of course, threatening an indictment is not the same as actually issuing one. All this could be tough talk designed to intimidate and scare Manafort into making some sort of cooperation deal. We don’t really know what evidence Mueller has, so we can’t say.
It’s also unclear what, exactly, Manafort would be indicted for. It is possible he would be indicted for activities that entirely preceded the campaign, involving either disclosures of his Ukraine work or his finances. If that’s the case, President Trump could credibly claim that any of those allegations have nothing to do with him.
The other possibility, though, is that Manafort would be indicted on charges related in some form to collusion with Russia during the campaign. And if that transpires, that would truly send an earthquake through Washington.