Robert Mueller moves closer to Kremlin as he charges Paul Manafort and Russian associate with obstruction
Posted On July 22, 2020
Robert Mueller, the US special counsel investigating election meddling, filed charges on Friday against a political operative with alleged ties to Russian intelligence, bringing his probe into possible collusion by the Trump presidential campaign a step closer to the Kremlin’s door.
The indictment, filed by Mr Mueller in District of Columbia federal court, included new counts against Mr Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort and the operative, Konstantin Kilimnik, for tampering with witnesses about their lobbying for Ukraine.
It was the third time Mr Mueller had added to charges against Mr Manafort since he was indicted in October. Mr Manafort has pleaded not guilty to a raft of charges, from money-laundering, to failing to register as a foreign agent, to bank and tax fraud.
The additional charges could add to pressure on Manafort to cut a deal and cooperate with the probe, legal experts said. Mr Manafort has longstanding ties to a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin.
But more significantly Friday’s indictment marked the first time that Mr Kilimnik, who in previous court filings was referred to only as "Person A", was named. Mr Mueller has said Mr Kilimnik has links to Russian spy agencies, an allegation Mr Kilimnik denies.
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Mr Kilimnik did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr Manafort and his lawyers have disputed the charges against him.
The disclosure could alter the way the public perceives the investigation, said former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. Trump has repeatedly denounced the probe as a "witch hunt" and denied any collusion took place.
"This indictment could be very important from a political perspective," said Mr Mariotti, a Democrat who is running for Illinois attorney general. "You now have the former chairman of the Trump campaign charged with conspiring with a suspected Russian intelligence operative. That’s quite astounding."
In a court filing earlier this week, Mr Mueller asked the judge overseeing the case in the District of Columbia to revoke or revise an order releasing Mr Manafort ahead of trial due to the allegations of witness tampering. Mr Manafort’s lawyers had been given a deadline of Friday to respond to those charges.
Mr Mueller has accused Manafort of attempting to call, text and send encrypted messages in February to two people from "The Hapsburg Group," a political discussion group he allegedly worked with to promote the interests of Ukraine, in an effort to influence their testimony or conceal evidence in the case.
The special counsel’s office said the government had "developed substantial evidence showing that the Hapsburg group performed a variety of lobbying tasks in the United States," which included disseminating ghostwritten articles in the American media and arranging meetings with US officials and politicians.
Two US intelligence officials on Friday said that Kilimnik, who was educated in part as a linguist and served in the Russian army as a translator, is believed to have at least informal ties to Russian intelligence.
They said Mr Kilimnik may have reported to Russian intelligence officers in Moscow or Kiev or both on his work at the International Republican Institute office in Moscow where he was employed for a decade to 2005 and later on his work for Mr Manafort in Ukraine.
In addition, one of the officials said, Mr Kilimnik’s reported trips to the US in May and August 2016 during Mr Trump’s campaign have "attracted attention" as to whether Mr Manafort and Mr Kilimnik tried to capitalise on Mr Manafort’s campaign role by offering Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska private briefings.
Mr Deripaska has denied accepting the offer or receiving any such briefings.