U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s latest indictment is significant beyond the new charges, in that it links senior officials on President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to Russian intelligence in a criminal matter.
Mueller’s indictment released Friday against Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, adds witness-tampering charges to allegations that Manafort did illegal lobbying work for Ukraine and laundered millions of dollars in proceeds.
It also included an allegation that a fixer described by the FBI as a former Russian spy, Konstantin Kilimnik, helped Manafort obstruct justice.
"This is the first indictment we have where an American and a Russian are charged together," said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at the Thompson Coburn LLP law firm in Chicago.
"This is an alleged Russian spy committing crimes with the former campaign chairman for Trump," Mariotti said. "When people first thought of the Mueller investigation, this is what people thought would result from it."
To be sure, the indictment doesn’t relate to actions taken during the 2016 presidential election, or prove that Trump or his associates helped Russia interfere in the U.S. vote to his advantage. Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lead lawyers, declined to comment.
But Kilimnik directly communicated with another Trump campaign aide, Rick Gates, a month before the election in 2016, according to a legal filing by Mueller in March. The FBI assessed Kilimnik had active ties to Russia’s military intelligence service in 2016, according to the filing.
Kilimnik wasn’t identified by name in the March filing but Bloomberg has confirmed it referred to him.
Mueller’s new indictment comes as Trump and his allies, including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, increase their public attacks on Mueller’s investigation and pressure the special counsel to bring his work to a close.
The indictment serves a strategic purpose in raising public awareness about the connections that those who worked on Trump’s campaign had with Russians, and it serves a legal purpose by putting more pressure on Manafort to become a cooperating witness, said Katie Phang, a former prosecutor and partner at the Berger Singerman LLP law firm in Miami.
"This is a very provocative move by Mueller," Phang said. "Maybe the value of this indictment is what the American public thinks it is."
Manafort is currently on bail and awaiting trial. Mueller’s team is asking a judge to review his house arrest and to consider jailing him.
Manafort’s lawyers responded to the new allegations in a sharply worded filing late Friday, accusing Mueller of contriving "dubious allegations" of witness tampering and, in so doing, poisoning the jury pool ahead of his trials.
"The special counsel creates an argument based on the thinnest of evidence," wrote the defense team led by Washington attorney Kevin Downing. They said nothing governing the terms of their client’s pretrial release prevents him from having contact with anyone, that the encrypted-messaging apps Manafort used are commonplace and that he didn’t ask anyone to produce a false affidavit or false testimony at trial.
Manafort was exercising his freedom to disagree with the special counsel’s legal theories, the attorneys said. They accused Mueller of conjuring up a "sinister plot" and said the allegations were intended to generate widespread — and intensely negative — media coverage of Manafort.
Kilimnik, who isn’t in the U.S. and didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, has denied any links to Russian intelligence.
Manafort had used Kilimnik to try to resolve his ongoing dispute with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to President Vladimir Putin. Deripaska had agreed to invest $18.9 million in a private equity deal led by Manafort to buy a Ukrainian cable company in 2007. The deal was the subject of a long-running legal dispute, with Deripaska claiming Manafort had defrauded him.
In the summer of 2016, Manafort emailed Kilimnik and told him to offer private briefings on the U.S. presidential campaign to Deripaska in an effort to resolve the dispute, people close to the situation have said. No meeting took place, the people said, and Deripaska has said he had no communications or interactions with Manafort during or after the presidential campaign.
Phang said the new indictment might get Mueller closer to proving there was a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
"I’m going to say yes it does advance the ball but I can’t tell you how far it does because I don’t know how Kilimnik fits into the bigger conspiracy to influence the outcome of the 2016 election," Phang said. "We don’t know the full universe of the evidence that Mueller has. What we do know is that things we think are new to us, Mueller knew last year."
Mariotti, the former federal prosecutor, said it’s a matter of what other evidence Mueller has.
“It’s a statement of what he’s able to prove right now,” he said. “ But it suggests he has evidence that Americans and Russians are working together like this."