(Bloomberg) -- Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed to lawyers for Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, that they obtained a search warrant for information about five telephone numbers, suggesting the sprawling investigation may be headed in a new direction.
Prosecutors disclosed Thursday they got the warrant on March 9, or two weeks after Manafort was indicted for a second time amid Mueller’s investigation into links between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign in the 2016 election. The warrant also was signed about two weeks after Manafort’s former right-hand man, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators.
The warrant involved a search of “information associated with’’ five AT&T telephone numbers, according to a filing by prosecutors in federal court in Washington. Mueller declined to provide information about the search to defense lawyers because it involves “ongoing investigations that are not the subject of current prosecutions involving Manafort,’’ according to the filing.
Mueller has charged 19 people, including 13 Russians. Five have pleaded guilty. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to indictments charging him with laundering profits from the tens of millions of dollars he made as an unregistered lobbyist for Ukraine’s former president and other politicians. He also is accused of bank and tax fraud. None of the charges involved Manafort’s work on the Trump campaign.
The specter of additional charges against Manafort loomed over a hearing this week in which prosecutors urged a judge to dismiss a civil lawsuit challenging Mueller’s authority to investigate the case further.
“The government has said they have a continuing investigation,’’ Manafort attorney Kevin Downing said at the hearing.
But it’s not clear from the filing on Thursday whether the new warrant was designed to gather evidence against Manafort or others. Mueller made the filing in response to a request from Downing for more information in the pre-trial exchange of evidence. That includes various warrants the prosecutors have executed against Manafort, starting with a search of his house in Alexandria, Virginia, last year.
Mueller’s prosecutors may have several purposes in mind by subpoenaing information on the phone numbers, said Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia University Law School.
They may be seeking “historical cell site information,” which helps investigators determine when people were near each other at a particular time, said Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor. They may have subpoenaed phone service providers to obtain the contents of a phone, such as emails and texts, she said.
“It could be normal preparation for the trial,” Rodgers said. “You would certainly want to get what you can about what he’s doing on his phone, or where he is.”
Prosecutors also could be opening a different piece of the investigation, she said.
In the filing, prosecutors said the judge should let them continue to withhold information from Manafort about warrants relating to a residence in Alexandria; a storage locker in Alexandria; a Manafort email account; and the five AT&T phone numbers. They said Manafort should receive all the information about the search in Washington of a hard drive, two email accounts, and three bank accounts.
Mueller’s team sought redactions for affidavits related to the names of informants and ongoing investigations. This week, prosecutors gave Manafort a redacted affidavit about the March 9 search, according to the filing.
In an April 2 filing, Mueller’s prosecutors revealed some of the reasons they initially pursued Manafort, citing business ties between him and the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. They said an investigation of links between Russia and Trump’s campaign “would naturally cover ties that a former Trump campaign manager had to Russian-associated political operatives, Russian-backed politicians, and Russian oligarchs.”
Deripaska, the billionaire founder and majority shareholder of En+ Group Plc, was among a group of Russian tycoons, companies and key allies of President Vladimir Putin hit Friday by U.S. sanctions.
Prosecutors “would also naturally look into any interactions they may have had before and during the campaign to plumb motives and opportunities to coordinate and to expose possible channels for surreptitious communications,” they wrote. “And prosecutors would naturally follow the money trail from Manafort’s Ukrainian consulting activities.”
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