The Most Important Crime Paul Manafort Committed

Mueller’s Investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives is all over the news these days. One after another, those closest to the President have been indicted for a slew of serious crimes. Many key players have now pled guilty and received sentences for anything from money laundering to fraud to tax evasion to suborn perjury. 

Paul Manafort was the chairman of the Trump campaign for five critical months during the alleged conspiracy. He has already been found guilty of tax evasion and bank fraud, and he is now also guilty of illegal lobbying for Ukraine, which is a much worse offense. He has recently been sentenced to a total of 73 months by the District Court of D.C., and on the same day, he was indicted on 16 counts by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. With most of the investigation proceeding in secrecy, there is no way to tell exactly what else Mueller will be able to prove. However, information made public in the legal proceedings against Manafort, and the recent D.C. trial, show that Manafort has also acted as an agent of a hostile foreign power, in direct opposition to American foreign policy.

A Look Back…

In August of 2018, in the first trial resulting from the Mueller investigation, Manafort was charged in the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia with 18 counts of tax evasion, bank fraud and hiding foreign bank accounts. Prosecutors said Manafort collected $65 million in foreign bank accounts from 2010 to 2014 and spent more than $15 million on luxury purchases in the same period, including high-end clothing, real estate, landscaping, and other big-ticket items. In December, the jury found Manafort guilty of five tax fraud charges, one charge of hiding foreign bank accounts, and two counts of bank fraud. The jury reached no verdict on the ten remaining charges and the prosecution elected to retry Manafort on those at a later date.

It Gets Worse

Paul Manafort committed crimes far worse than tax evasion and fraud, and one of them was lying to federal authorities while under investigation. It is a federal offense to intentionally make false statements to Congress, the FBI, and other federal authorities. It is also a crime to encourage others to do so. In addition, it is a crime to engage in a conspiracy to lie to federal authorities. A conspiracy can involve a tacit or explicit agreement to commit criminal activity. During the investigation, Paul Manafort lied to federal authorities about his ties to Kremlin-linked Ukrainian political parties (starting Nov. 23, 2016, later dates include Feb. 10, 2017).  It’s often said that “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that gets you,” and Manafort faced a second set of criminal charges in the DC Circuit including conspiracy to defraud the United States, failing to register as a foreign agent, money laundering, witness tampering and making false statements.

Even More Lies

To avoid that second criminal trial in DC and any retrial on the 10 remaining charges in Virginia, on September 14, 2018, Manafort agreed to cooperate with investigators and pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering.  However, on November 26, 2018, prosecutors revoked Manafort’s plea agreement after concluding that even after making the deal he continued to lie to them, tamper with witnesses and cooperate secretly with the target of the investigation – the Trump administration. Manafort was found guilty of substantial crimes – tax evasion, money laundering, bank fraud, lying, conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering.  But there was other, even more significant criminal activity, to consider – unregistered lobbying for Ukraine and hiding the proceeds overseas. These crimes were addressed in the recent D.C. case (in March 2019), and this is why Judge Jackson added 43 months to the previous 47 month sentence. 

Besties with the Former President of Ukraine

To understand the significance of Manafort’s financial crimes, one must examine where the money he hid came from. For almost a decade, before running the Trump campaign, Manafort was a political consultant to and undeclared lobbyist for Viktor Yanukovych – the discredited and disgraced former president of Ukraine.  In 2012, according to Mueller’s indictment, Manafort solicited two D.C.-based firms to lobby in the U.S. on behalf of Yanukovych and his pro-Russian political party. In return, they secretly paid these firms $2.2 million through a newly-created nonprofit. According to Mueller, these firms did not register as required with the Department of Justice. On August 14, 2016, after the Ukranian Revolution overthrew the pro-Russian Yanokovych, and after Yanukovych fled to Russia, Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureau discovered a secret ledger which listed payments of $12.7 million from Yanukovych’s party to Manafort between 2007 and 2012.

The Crime that Actually Matters

It’s not entirely clear what this money bought, but it doesn’t really matter because all Mueller had to do was convict Manafort on tax evasion. After all, Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion because it was the easiest crime to prove. Manafort did not hide this money, lie about it, or fail to pay tax on it because it slipped his mind. And this tax evasion and money laundering were not just manifestations of greed or clerical errors. These crimes were part of the coverup of his deeper and more fundamental illegal activity – secretly lobbying for a foreign government.

Manafort didn’t fail to register his lobbying; he chose not to register as part of a larger effort to obscure his involvement. Why would he hide his involvement? The answer is simple. Manafort wasn’t lobbying for a friendly government, he was lobbying for Russia, and it is important to see these crimes in the geopolitical context of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.  

Russia Isn’t Our Friend, and Neither is Manafort

For the last 150 years, Russia and Ukraine have been locked in an on-again, off-again struggle that has resulted in open warfare, man-made famine, forced migration and resettlement, annexation, federation, and uneasy independence.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been nominally independent with its politics split between pro-EU, pro-NATO, Ukrainian-speaking, Western Ukrainians on the one hand and pro-Russia, Russian-speaking, Eastern Ukrainians on the other.  

In recent years, this conflict has erupted into open civil war with Russia annexing large parts of the country and the US sanctioning Russia for that. The US and Russia have lined up to support their proxies, with Russia supplying troops, weapons, and money to Eastern Ukrainian rebels and the US and NATO supporting the government in Kiev. We can easily draw the conclusion that Manafort kept his work secret because he was lobbying for Russia, whose positions famously contradict formally stated US foreign policy. 

The Bigger Picture, and Why You Should Care

Opponents of the Mueller investigation assert that Manafort’s crimes of tax evasion, money laundering, lying to Congress, and failure to register his lobbying were minor and not related to Russian “collusion.”  That ignores the entire point, which is that Manafort didn’t forget to file his tax returns; he hid the income he earned from other criminal activity. The failure to register his lobbying was not a technical violation, it was part of a concerted effort to hide who he was lobbying for. Manafort was not lobbying for an ally or a neutral country but rather for our opponent in the Ukrainian civil war. And finally, Manafort wasn’t lobbying on a random issue, he was trying to change US foreign policy on Ukraine and adopt the Russian version of that policy. Paul Manafort is a critical part of the Mueller investigation into Russian efforts to compromise our political process and he willingly acted as agent for a hostile foreign country – Russia.


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