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Tuesday 11 December 2018

Ex-Trump aide Paul Manafort denies conspiracy against US in Russia probe

Paul Manafort surrendered to federal authorities on Monday (AP)
Paul Manafort surrendered to federal authorities on Monday (AP)
Paul Manafort leaves his home in Alexandria, Virginia (AP) Newsdesk Newsdesk

Donald Trump's ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a former Manafort business associate, Rick Gates, have been indicted on felony charges including conspiracy against the US.

They have pleaded not guilty to all charges, which also include acting as an unregistered foreign agent and several financial counts involving tens of millions of dollars routed through offshore accounts.

And on a dramatic day in Washington, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians.

The president quickly tweeted about the allegations against Manafort, saying the alleged crimes were "years ago," and insisting there was "NO COLLUSION" between his campaign and Russia.

Manafort and Gates appeared in federal court in Washington and pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The first indictments arising from special counsel Robert Mueller's sprawling investigation into possible co-ordination between Russia and Mr Trump's 2016 election effort bring the probe into a new phase and pose the threat of a years-long prison sentence for the man who once led the president's campaign.

But the indictment does not reference the Trump campaign or make any allegations about co-ordination between the Kremlin and the president's aides to influence the outcome of the election in his favour.

It does allege that a criminal conspiracy was continuing until February this year.

Mr Trump tweeted: "Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????"

The indictment accused Manafort and Gates of funnelling tens of millions of dollars in payments through foreign companies and bank accounts as part of their political work in Ukraine.

It lays out 12 counts including conspiracy against the US, conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, making false statements and several charges related to failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts.

The indictment alleges that they moved money through hidden bank accounts in Cyprus, St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Seychelles. In total, more than 75 million dollars (£57 million) flowed through the offshore accounts.

Manafort is accused of laundering more than 18 million dollars (£13 million), according to the indictment.

The 68-year-old was fired as Mr Trump's campaign chairman in August last year after word surfaced that he had orchestrated a covert lobbying operation on behalf of pro-Russian interests in Ukraine.

The indictment accuses Manafort and Gates of orchestrating a nearly decade-long conspiracy to covertly work for Ukrainian interests and launder millions of dollars through offshore accounts.

Specifically, the indictment accuses Manafort of using "his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income".

That included using offshore accounts to purchase multimillion-dollar properties in the US, some of which the government is seeking to seize.

Mr Mueller was appointed as special counsel in May to lead the Justice Department's investigation into whether the Kremlin worked with associates of the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The appointment came a week after the firing of James Comey, who as FBI director led the investigation, and also followed the recusal months earlier of attorney general Jeff Sessions from the probe.

Investigators have focused on associates including Manafort, whose home was raided in July by agents searching for tax and international banking records.

They have also investigated ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign in February after White House officials said he had misled them about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US.

Manafort joined Mr Trump's campaign in March last year and oversaw the convention delegate strategy. Mr Trump pushed him out in August amid a stream of negative headlines about Manafort's foreign consulting work.

Mr Trump's middle son, Eric Trump, said in an interview at the time that his father was concerned that questions about Manafort's past were taking attention away from the billionaire's presidential bid.

Manafort has been a subject of a longstanding FBI investigation into his dealings in Ukraine and work for the country's former president, Viktor Yanukovych. That inquiry was incorporated into Mr Mueller's broader probe.

Previously, he denied any wrongdoing related to his Ukrainian work, saying through a spokesman that it "was totally open and appropriate".

Mr Mueller's investigation has also reached into the White House, as he examines the circumstances of Mr Comey's firing.

Investigators have requested extensive documents from the White House about key actions since Mr Trump took office and have interviewed multiple current and former officials.

Mr Mueller's grand jury has also heard evidence about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower attended by a Russian lawyer as well as Manafort, Donald Trump Jr, and the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Gates was Manafort's chief deputy and a key player from Mr Trump's campaign who survived Manafort's removal last summer.

Two weeks ago, he was still working for Tom Barrack, a Trump confidant, helping with the inauguration committee's campaign account.


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