Revelations that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking for evidence of possible crimes committed as far back as January 2006 as part of his investigation into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort shed new light on Mueller's objectives.
CNN reported on Tuesday that when FBI agents conducted a predawn raid of Manafort's home in July, their warrant said the investigation was focusing on criminal conduct that could have happened more than a decade ago.
Mueller's investigation into Manafort focuses primarily on his business dealings and his work for Ukraine's pro-Russia Party of Regions. Manafort is connected to the party through his time serving as a top consultant for Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, whom he started working for in 2004.
Manafort is widely credited with helping Yanukovych win the presidency in 2010. After being ousted in 2014 following widespread protests against his Russia-friendly positions, Yanukovych fled Ukraine and is now living under the protection of the Kremlin.
Last August, it emerged that the Party of Regions reportedly designated Manafort $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments. Manafort's firm belatedly disclosed in a June filing that it had received about $17 million from the group between 2012 and 2014. Manafort's ties to the Party of Regions are what first prompted the FBI's interest in him.
The special counsel's particular inquiry into Manafort not only confirms that he is a key focus in the Russia investigation, but also highlights the likelihood that Mueller is digging for criminal conduct in an effort to "flip" Manafort as a witness against Trump and other campaign associates.
On Monday, CNN reported that US investigators obtained a warrant to wiretap Manafort before and after the election. Some information gleaned from the surveillance prompted concerns that Manafort had encouraged Russians to "help with the campaign," according to CNN.
News of the wiretap came on the heels of a New York Times report which found that after obtaining a "no-knock" warrant and conducting the July raid on Manafort's home, investigators told him they planned to indict him.
The unusual pace and aggression with which Mueller is pursuing Manafort is a classic sign that the special counsel wants to coerce Manafort's cooperation in the Russia probe, wrote former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti.
"The tactic that Mueller is using — telling Manafort that he will be charged — is generally used when prosecutors are trying to get a defendant to 'flip,'" said Mariotti. The best way to do that, he added, is to assemble enough evidence to make it likely that the individual, if charged, would be convicted and sentenced to jail time.
'There's a lot Mueller could unpack'
It's hard to tell what Mueller has on Manafort, "but they absolutely have something because they got a search warrant," said Joseph Pelcher, a former FBI counterintelligence agent who was stationed in Russia and specialized in organized crime. "You need probable cause to get a search warrant, so there is something there, without question."
"If I were investigating the case, the first thing I would do is sit Manafort down and get him to cooperate, because he's not the big fish here," Pelcher added.
It's unclear whether Manafort has any incriminating information on Trump, who is a focus in at least one thread of Mueller's investigation.
The special counsel is reportedly building an obstruction-of-justice case against the president in the wake of his decision to fire former FBI director James Comey in May. At the time, Comey was spearheading the FBI's investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
Though the White House initially said Comey was fired because of his handling of the Clinton email investigation, Trump later told NBC's Lester Holt that "this Russia thing" had been a factor in his decision.
Mueller is also scrutinizing Trump's role in crafting a misleading statement his son, Donald Trump Jr., issued in response to revelations that he met with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton at Trump Tower last June. Manafort was present at the meeting, as was Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
If Mueller believes Trump did something wrong, his laser focus on Manafort is likely an attempt to "bargain for whatever information he might have," said Pelcher.
The special counsel's efforts will likely be bolstered by certain members of his team, like Andrew Weissman, a veteran federal prosecutor who specializes in persuading witnesses to flip on friends, family, and colleagues. Mueller also recently added Kyle Freeny, a DOJ prosecutor with an expertise in financial crimes, to his investigative team.
Even if the former campaign chairman doesn't have incriminating evidence against Trump, Manafort could still possess a trove of other valuable information.
If Manafort was in touch with the Russians during the campaign, Mueller can press him for information about how they operated, who they were in contact with, what channels they used, and more. "There's a lot Mueller could unpack there, even from an intelligence angle," Pelcher said.
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