- Alleged attempts by Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign, to tamper with witness testimony may indicate Manafort was trying to evade a separate charge accusing him of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
- Experts say witness tampering, particularly by someone in Manafort’s position, is highly unusual and risky.
- Manafort’s alleged activities suggest he is resorting to any methods available to try and avoid pleading guilty to other charges brought against him.
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In court papers filed on Monday, the special counsel Robert MuelleraccusedPaul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign, of attempting to tamper with potential witnesses in the Russia investigation. The allegation suggests Manafort may be running out of options to combat a major charge Mueller filed against him last year.
The charge accuses Manafort of violating theForeign Agents Registration Act (FARA)by failing to register as a foreign agent acting on behalf of the Ukrainian government and allegedly misleading US authorities about his ties to the country.
Manafort’s longtime associate, Rick Gates, was charged with the same crime as part of the first indictment Mueller brought against the two men in October. Gates struck a plea deal with Mueller’s office in February and is now cooperating with prosecutors.
According to Mueller’s filing this week, Manafort’s alleged attempts to tamper with witness testimony took place over several days in February, after Gates’ cooperation deal was announced. Court documents say Manafort and an associate, identified as “Person A,” reached out to two witnesses, identified as “Person D1” and “Person D2.”
Both witnesses were part of the Hapsburg Group, a collection of former European leaders paid by Manafort to lobby on behalf of Ukraine in the European Union and in the US.
In one communication, Manafort sent Person D1 a message with a link to aBusiness Insider articleabout the group’s activities. The article said, among other things, that the Hapsburg Group worked in the US and in Europe. One minute after sending the article, Manafort sent Person D1 a message saying he had “made clear that [the Hapsburg Group] only worked in Europe.”
Person D1 subsequently contacted Mueller’s office and said they believed Manafort’s messages were part of an effort to “suborn perjury,” or coax them into giving false testimony, because they knew the group worked in both Europe and the US.
Legal experts say Manafort’s alleged efforts to convince witnesses to assert that the Hapsburg Group had only been active in Europe would have allowed Manafort to argue he had not violated FARA.
“That’s what this is all about,” the former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told Business Insider. “What he’s trying to do is to get witnesses to say that he believed the group was only doing business in Europe rather than the United States, but the witness knew the group was doing business in the United States.”
Grasping at straws
Another potential problem for Manafort is that the two witnesses whose testimony he and Person A were allegedly trying to tamper with are not the only individuals who know about the Hapsburg Group’s lobbying campaign. For that reason, it’s unlikely he would have been able to dodge the FARA charge even if the witnesses had agreed to alter their testimony.
As Mueller’s team mentioned in asuperseding indictmentfiled against Manafort in February, Gates was also complicit in Manafort’s efforts to mislead US authorities about the nature of their lobbying efforts, and has since been cooperating with the special counsel.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who is the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee which recentlyconcludedits own controversial Russia investigation, said Manafort’s actions show he is running out of options.
“It’s a big development and a sign Manafort is willing to try anything, do anything, and he’s facing some serious time,” Schifftold CNNon Monday.
Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law expert who once served as a federal special counsel, echoed Schiff’s conclusion.
“Manafort might be feeling considerable pressure, since he seems to be in considerable trouble, maybe the most of anyone Mueller’s team is investigating,” he told Business Insider, “and therefore he might be frantically looking for some way out of his dilemma.”
Mariotti also highlighted how unusual it was for a defendant like Manafort, who is being monitored and is facing federal charges, to make such a risky move while awaiting trial.
“I was a federal prosecutor for almost a decade … I’ve never had someone try to influence the witnesses in the case before trial,” he said.
In addition to the FARA charge, Manafortstands accusedof tax fraud, bank fraud, and conspiracy against the United States. He is set to appear in federal court on June 15 for a hearing on whether his pretrial release will be revised or revoked,Reutersreported.
A witness-tampering charge could prove to be a major factor in Mueller’s effort get Manafort to cooperate with his probe.
“This could obviously put additional pressure on Manafort that could lead him to flip,” Mariotti said. “But he could always get a pardon, so all bets are off.”