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Mueller’s heavily redacted new filing about Paul Manafort, decoded

There are references to shady payments, meetings with a Russian associate, mysterious work, and more.

Paul Manafort, after he was initially indicted in late 2017
Paul Manafort, after he was initially indicted in late 2017.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

What’s the evidence that Paul Manafort lied to investigators after agreeing to cooperate? Special counsel Robert Mueller attempted to answer that question in a new court filing this week. He submitted the full, unredacted version to the court under seal, but only a heavily redacted version was made public.

Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, has been under Mueller’s scrutiny in the Russia probe for some time. He was indicted for and eventually convicted of financial crimes related to his past work for the government of Ukraine, and struck a cooperation deal to avert a second trial on other charges in September. But Mueller has since claimed that Manafort failed to make good on his end of the bargain, by repeatedly lying to investigators.

That sea of redactions makes the public version of Mueller’s filing quite difficult to read and understand. But a close reading of it, when considered alongside existing reporting and previous filings in the case, gives us some insight into what Manafort is in trouble for purportedly lying about — topics involving his ties to a Russian associate, as well as financial matters and his contacts with the Trump administration.

The apparent allegations include:

  • Mention of a shady financial arrangement from a pro-Trump Super PAC that was later involved in helping pay a debt for Manafort
  • Lots involving Konstantin Kilimnik, including meetings, discussions of a pro-Russia “peace plan” for Ukraine, certain work Manafort did involving Kilimnik in 2018, and sharing of presidential campaign-related polling data in 2016
  • Something involving another Justice Department investigation, related partly to an event that took place before Manafort left the Trump campaign
  • Manafort saying he was using intermediaries, including one person in particular, to get Trump administration jobs for people

Mueller’s office has claimed Manafort lied to them or misled them about all these topics. Manafort’s own lawyers said some of these allegations are stretches, and that Manafort simply misremembered about others.

The $125,000 payment

The first section of the new filing is all about a mysterious $125,000 payment that Manafort was asked about and, the government claims, lied to them about. This filing, and a previous one from Mueller, gives these details:

  • The payment was made in June 2017 “to a firm working for Manafort” to settle “a debt” he had incurred.
  • The payment was made by a certain company that had gotten $19 million from an “entity” Manafort had helped set up.

Confusing, right? Well, the key piece of information that helps make sense of it is that, according to a report from the New York Times’s Adam Goldman and Sharon LaFraniere, the payment is tied to a pro-Trump Super PAC called Rebuilding America Now. The Super PAC was set up by friends of Manafort during the 2016 campaign. It appears to be the “entity” Mueller refers to. (It was headed by Laurance Gay, who is the godfather to one of Manafort’s daughters.)

The filings describe a curious arrangement between the head of the Super PAC and a firm it was doing work with. The Super PAC gave $19 million to this firm, and then the firm took a 6 percent commission on that money. However, half of that 6 percent commission would then be “held” for and eventually provided to the head of the Super PAC. (This last part of the deal was not in the written contract.)

To understand this, you have to understand how political ad placement companies work. Campaigns and Super PACs often pay these companies exorbitant amounts ($19 million in this case), but most of that money is then used to pay TV stations and cable companies to place ads. Yet some of the money — often a set percentage of the total buy, or a commission — is kept by the ad placement firm as payment.

So here, the government appears to be describing a rather shady-looking arrangement in which the firm retained by the Super PAC to place pro-Trump ads got a commission — but then kicked back half of that commission to the Super PAC’s head. (Campaign finance filings show the Super PAC only did about $19 million worth of business with one firm: Multi Media Services, a political ad buying firm based in Alexandria, Virginia.)

It gets shadier. In June 2017, Manafort suddenly needed to come up with $125,000, to pay a firm working for him. (References in this section to “Manafort’s counsel” and “Manafort’s legal defense” may suggest this was to pay legal bills from his former attorneys.) Yet it was the media company in question that paid Manafort’s $125,000 bill for him.

Why did it so generously do this for Manafort? Well, the head of the media company told investigators that it was the Super PAC chief who asked him to take the money for Manafort’s debt out of his 3 percent from the commission. And that raises more questions about just whose money that was, anyway.

The gist of this tangled tale is that a good deal of money appeared to start off as donations to a pro-Trump Super PAC, then got handed off to Manafort’s cronies as commissions — and that a chunk of it eventually may have been used to pay Manafort’s legal bills.

It should be noted that there is no allegation here that any of this is illegal. But the reason it’s come up is that when Manafort was asked about this $125,000 payment by Mueller’s team, he allegedly couldn’t give a consistent explanation about how and why it was made. Check out this piece by the Campaign Legal Center’s Brendan Fischer for more on the Super PAC in question.

Konstantin Kilimnik

About half of the new filing relates to Konstantin Kilimnik, the longtime Russian associate of Manafort’s whom Mueller has taken a keen interest in (and who the government claims has ties to Russian intelligence).

Again, a great deal of this is redacted. But due to Manafort’s lawyers’ botched attempts at redaction in a previous filing, we know some of what’s being alleged here.

1) A Ukraine peace plan: A major topic of discussion between Manafort and Kilimnik that caught the government’s interest was a supposed “peace plan” for Ukraine (according to Manafort’s filing last week). The idea here, it seems, was to try to settle the conflict between Russia and Ukraine on terms that would be favorable to Russia.

The new filing suggests that Manafort and Kilimnik were talking about a certain topic of importance — likely the peace plan — “beginning on August 2, 2016, and continuing until March 2018.” Manafort’s filing suggests he initially told the government that he only discussed such a peace plan on one occasion, but this now describes discussion over about a year and a half. There’s also reference to a certain email that is said to contradict a story Manafort initially gave to the government.

2) Two meetings with Kilimnik: There are two redacted sections of the new filing meetings, apparently between Manafort and Kilimnik. One of these, we can presume from Manafort’s filing last week, refers to a meeting in Madrid that Manafort initially said he could not recall.

3) Certain work Manafort did in 2018: Then there is a section in which the government says it asked Manafort about certain work he did in 2018 on ... something. This is redacted, but it’s part of the Kilimnik section, so it likely has something to do with Kilimnik.

4) Sharing polling data: Finally, Manafort’s filing revealed that the government was alleging he shared polling data related to the US presidential campaign with Kilimnik in 2016, so that’s probably in here somewhere.

Some other Justice Department investigation

The government also says some of Manafort’s lies relate to an investigation being pursued not by Mueller but by another office in the Justice Department.

The details of this remain unknown — the filing refers to a “call,” a “meeting,” and text messages — but one bit in this section of new filing suggests it refers at least partly to something that happened before Manafort left Trump’s campaign:

The government says that while Manafort was trying to get the government to agree to his plea deal, he told them an “incriminating” version of events about this incident. However, after the deal was struck, they say he reverted to an “anodyne” version of events, until his lawyers huddled with him and he then switched back to the incriminating version.

Manafort’s attorneys have claimed that whatever this is about, it “did not involve any potential crime known to” Manafort.

Trump administration contacts

Finally, the government has also said Manafort lied by claiming to them that he’d never tried to get in contact with any member of the Trump administration while they were serving in the administration — even indirectly.

This claim was always hard to believe — after helping elect a president of the United States, would a veteran influence peddler like Paul Manafort really never even speak to anyone from that new president’s administration?

Now the government has revealed that Rick Gates — Manafort’s longtime right-hand man, and now a cooperating witness — has said that Manafort told him “he was using intermediaries,” including one particular person whose name is redacted, “to get people appointed in the Administration.” Gates also said that Manafort claimed to be talking to a certain other person throughout 2017 and early 2018.

The filing also cites something Manafort was involved in in May 2018 that was in some way related to the Trump administration, and a document claiming Manafort would “find out” some information. Again, the details are redacted.

“This is not a complete listing of such contacts Manafort had with Administration officials,” the government writes. It also says it’s not relying on “communications that may have taken place, with Manafort’s consent, through his legal counsel.”

You can read the new filing below, or at this link.