The Paul Manafort Indictment: Six Takeaways

Analysis: In spite of media hysteria, charges unrelated to Trump campaign, Russia

Paul Manafort / Getty Images
October 30, 2017

Indictments against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and business partner Richard Gates were unsealed Monday by special counsel Robert Mueller, the first charges in his investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election. (A third, against former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, was also unsealed.)

In the wake of the unsealing, media figures and public Democrats speculated wildly about the indictments, implying that they may point to much-proclaimed but little-evidenced collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump.

However, the Manafort indictment has little to do with any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It concerns Manafort and Gates's extensive lobbying on behalf of the Ukrainian government which, the indictment alleges, involved numerous violations of federal law, including extensive money laundering. Conspicuously absent from the indictment is any mention of the 2016 campaign or President Donald Trump himself.

Read the full indictment for yourself here. Here are six takeaways from it:

1. The Indictment is Mostly Concerned With Manafort’s Foreign Lobbying

In contravention of federal law, the indictment charges, Manafort and Gates spent eight years lobbying on behalf of the Ukrainian government, then-President Victor Yanukovych (who would eventually flee to Russia), and Yanukovych's party, the Party of Regions.

"from 2006 until 2014... MANAFORT and GATES engaged in a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign in the United States... without registering and providing the disclosures provided by law," the indictment reads.

Those lobbying activities were focused on shifting policymaker's perspective on Yanukovych's regime, as well as his jailing of political rival Yulia Tymoshenko.

Such lobbying activities are illegal unless (among other things) the lobbyist registers with the federal government under the terms of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires that lobbyists on behalf of foreign governments disclose for whom they are lobbying, what they are lobbying about, and how much they are paid for their lobbying.

Manafort registered as a foreign agent in June of this year. However, prior to that, he failed to disclose his lobbying activities, instead creating an elaborate scheme to obscure his lobbying from federal oversight.

2. Manafort's Money Laundering Via Offshores Accounts

Manafort's lobbying paid handsomely, but, because it was outside of the federal government's purview, those payments had to be hidden from sight. Manafort and Gates dealt with this issue, the indictment alleges, by funneling money through offshore bank accounts.

Because the money was held in offshore accounts, Manafort used wire transfers to purchase property and home improvements for his homes across three different states.

"In order to use the money in the offshore nominee accounts of the MANAFORT-GATES entities without paying taxes on it, MANAFORT and GATES caused millions of dollars in wire transfers from these accounts to be made for goods, services, and real estate," the indictment reads.

In total, Manafort wired over $12 million between 2008 and 2014. Said money was not disclosed, in contravention of the Bank Secrecy Act and IRS reporting obligations.

3. The Indictment Has Nothing to Do with Manafort's Involvement in the Trump Campaign

Manafort was hired as Trump's campaign chairman in March of 2016; he resigned in August, after information about the foreign lobbying—for which he now faces charges—surfaced. Importantly, none of the charges that Mueller and company have brought against Manafort pertain to his time as campaign chairman, instead concerning the period between when he was hired by Yanukovych and when Yanukovych fled Ukraine in 2014.

This is well within Mueller's purview. In the original letter appointing Mueller, Acting/Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein empowered him to investigate not only ties between the Russian government and Trump's campaign, but also "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." 

4. The Charges Are Not All That Surprising

Manafort's ties to the Ukrainian government have been public knowledge for some time. Manafort's resignation from the Trump campaign was prompted by the revelation that Yakunovych had paid him some $12.7 million in off-the-books, cash payments between 2007 and 2012.

Even earlier, in March of 2016, Tymoshenko brought suit against Manafort, among others, alleging that he had worked to target her in a revenge scheme for her impeding the business of Ukrainian gas tycoon Dmitry Firtash.

Furthermore, Mueller's interest in Manafort has been apparent for months. Back in August, the FBI raided Manafort's home under the auspices of a warrant issued in connection with Mueller's investigation.

In other words, the Manafort indictment does not tell us much that we did not already know, especially about to what extent—if any—the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

5. Conspiracy Against the United States Is Not What You Probably Think It Is

Manafort faces nine charges overall: one for false statements, two for his failure to register under FARA, five for money laundering and failure to disclose his accounts, and one charge, drawing a lot of attention, of "conspiracy against the United States." Out of context, this sounds like, well, conspiracy against the United States, a charge that to the naive reader sounds a lot like "treason."

The reality is far less dramatic. "Conspiracy against the United States" is a crime whereby "two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy."

The relevant portion of this section of the U.S. Code (18 U.S.C. § 371) is about conspiring to commit an offense against an agency of the United States. The first charge against Manafort and Gates alleges that they conspired to defraud the Department of Justice and of the Treasury—specifically, by laundering money and failing to register under FARA.

In other words, the charge of conspiracy is simply because the two men worked together; another charge to stack on top of the lengthy list brought by Mueller.

6. The Papadopoulos Problem

While the Manafort indictment is concerned with activities unrelated to the Trump campaign, the other indictment unsealed may be more problematic. George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, was arrested in July (his indictment was only unsealed on Monday), and has since pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI about his communications with a professor with ties to the Russian government.

Specifically, Papadopoulos admitted to coordinating with the professor to set up a meeting—which is not known to have happened—between Trump and Vladimir Putin, as well as being told by the professor that the Russians were in possession of emails from Hillary Clinton. (Papadopoulos had initially lied to the FBI about this relationship, which is the source of the charges.)

It is unclear as of yet what the larger significance of Papadopoulos's indictment is. However, it may point to other untoward connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, or toward problems for bigger targets of Mueller's investigation.

7. *Bonus* Paul Manafort Really Likes Fancy Rugs 

Enough to drop more than $900,000 on them.