Why Mueller’s Manafort Case Isn’t About Trump

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Paul Manafort’s first trial begins Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia, a flotilla of criminal charges will greet him. President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager will hear of money laundering, bank fraud and tax fraud, as well as tales of multi-million dollar payments funneled through overseas bank accounts that allowed for lavish spending on clothing, antiques, houses, luxury automobiles and jewelry.

If the courtroom drama follows a script that Special Counsel Robert Mueller outlined in a 37-page, 32-count federal indictment, Manafort will also hear about the constellation of shell companies he used to both sanitize and process $75 million in payments from Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs.

What Manafort is not likely to hear mentioned very much — if at all — is the name “Trump.” Manafort — and the jurors in Alexandria — are also unlikely to hear about charges facing him in a separate trial slated to begin in September in Washington. That case centers on charges of failing to register as an agent of the Ukrainian government, obstructing justice, participating in a conspiracy “to defraud the United States,” as well as money laundering.

Manafort’s work for the Trump campaign wasn’t mentioned in either indictment, and Mueller’s team has signaled that issues involving possible collusion with the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential campaign won’t be raised during the trial in Alexandria. The judge overseeing the case in Alexandria has also warned Mueller’s team not to mention Russia, collusion or other political issues that he believes might prejudice jurors.

It’s possible, however, that Mueller’s prosecutors won’t be able to avoid mentioning the campaign entirely. According to court filings, Manafort secured $16 million in loans from a U.S. bank with the help of a senior executive at the bank who also sought — and later received — a position with the Trump campaign. Prior to the executive’s intervention, the bank looked askance at Manafort’s loan application, raising the possibility of a quid pro quo.

None of this puts the president of the United States in any obvious or immediate legal peril, however. The fraud charges Manafort faces don't appear to involve Trump or members of his family. The parade of bankers and accountants that Mueller’s team will march through the Alexandria courtroom will be talking about Manafort’s malfeasance, not Trump’s.

Mueller, of course, is also playing a longer and more complex legal game than the Manafort prosecution alone reveals or that anyone outside of his team of investigators understands at this point. But he wouldn’t have brought the Manafort case to trial unless he was confident he could win.

For his part, Manafort must be well aware that there’s a preponderance of evidence stacked up against him, but has decided not to strike a plea agreement with Mueller for his own reasons. Perhaps he’s planning on Trump pardoning him or is concerned about retribution from some of his rougher clients. If Manafort, who is 69, is convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

So Mueller may be counting on a conviction to focus Manafort’s mind and finally convince him to cooperate in exchange for a more lenient sentence. And what would Mueller want from Manafort that he has yet to receive?

Manafort was a senior political operative for Trump’s campaign from March to June 2016, and then served as the campaign manager until the middle of August that year. In June, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. met in Trump Tower with a group of Russians promising to deliver compromising information on Hillary Clinton. Manafort attended that meeting, along with Jared Kushner. Two days before the meeting, Donald Trump announced plans to deliver a major speech on scandals involving Clinton.

During another speech, on July 27, 2016, Trump invited Russian hackers to take a run at Clinton’s emails. Russian military hackers launched their first assault on Clinton’s e-mail servers that same day, according to Mueller’s investigation.

Should Mueller get Manafort to provide him with details about all of these events in the summer of 2016, it might help Mueller substantiate charges that Trump (or members of his family or presidential campaign team): 1) conspired to break federal campaign laws (which prohibit foreign nationals from contributing any “thing of value” — like compromising information on an opponent — to a U.S. electoral campaign) or 2) aided, abetted or advised Russians who staged illegal Watergate-style break-ins of Clinton and the Democrats’ email servers.

Manafort was also deeply enmeshed in Ukraine and its politics, and some of his work involved clients like Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch, who were Kremlin allies. If Mueller is examining what might have motivated any policy shifts that the Trump campaign or the Trump administration considered toward Russia – involving Ukraine, for example – Manafort’s detailed discussion of his work in Eastern Europe may also be valuable to the special counsel. (After Trump’s recent meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Putin told Russian diplomats that he and Trump privately discussed a shift in U.S. policy toward Ukraine, part of which Russia annexed after a military invasion.)

Trump and surrogates like Rudy Giuliani routinely label this portion of Mueller’s investigation as a “collusion” probe. They then note that collusion isn't a federal crime, and that Trump had nothing to do with it anyway. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman notes, collusion certainly is not a crime, but things like aiding and abetting illegal activities certainly are.

Neither the trial starting Tuesday in Alexandria, nor its companion in Washington in September, should worry the president in the near-term. But to the extent that Mueller is pursuing a more wide-ranging investigation, it’s not the near-term that matters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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