The procedural defense put forward by Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager facing down Robert Mueller, may be fatally flawed. Lawyers for Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty to more than a dozen charges including conspiracy, tax fraud, and lying to the F.B.I., have argued that the allegations are unrelated to the question of collusion, and thus represent an act of overreach by the special counsel. But that defense crumbled on Tuesday, when it was revealed in a court filing that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had authorized Mueller to probe whether Manafort “committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials,” according to a previously undisclosed memo.
That document, filed with the D.C. district court on Monday, suggests that Mueller has been seeking to connect Manafort’s work in Ukraine to the Trump campaign all along. Included in the filing is an August 2017 memo from Rosenstein, which says that the scope of the ongoing Justice Department probe included allegations that Manafort “committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for president of the United States,” and “Committed a crime or crimes arising out of payments he received from the Ukrainian government before and during the tenure of President Viktor Yanukovych.”
The existence of the Rosenstein memo raises several questions about Mueller’s investigation, and how Manafort might fit into the larger issue of Russian collusion. The filing explicitly states that the special prosecutor’s mandate “would naturally cover ties that a former Trump campaign manager had to Russian associated political operatives, Russian-backed politicians, and Russian oligarchs.” That mandate should cover Yanukovych, who tried to align Kiev with Moscow before fleeing to Russia. It also presumably includes Manafort’s ties to Oleg Deripaska, the Kremlin-connected billionaire with whom Manafort is reported to have had $60 million in business dealings over the past decade. (During the campaign, Manafort exchanged a series of e-mails with his longtime employee, Konstantin Kilimnik, in which he offered to give Deripaska “private briefings” on the race. Kilimnik is alleged The Rosenstein memo also gives the special prosecutor the power to “look into any interactions they may have had before and during the campaign to plumb motives and opportunities to coordinate and to expose possible channels for surreptitious communications.” If Mueller “would naturally follow the money trail from Manafort’s Ukrainian consulting activities,” than any prosecution stemming from that investigation would be “authorized,” too, the filing argues. (Manafort has repeatedly denied colluding with Russians in the 2016 election.)
Manafort, of course, has not been charged with any crimes related to any election-related conspiracy—a fact that the White House quietly celebrated when Mueller brought the indictment last fall. Still, the revelation that Mueller’s team is interested in whether Manafort’s work in Ukraine is connected to the time he spent on the Trump campaign, during which he worked for free, suggests that the Manafort-Deripaska relationship may yet prove significant in the collusion inquiry. It may also shed light on what information Mueller hoped to extract from Rick Gates, who was charged alongside Manafort. Gates, a former Trump campaign and transition official who previously worked as Manafort’s deputy, has pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy and lying to the F.B.I. in exchange for leniency. As CNN reported last week, Mueller appears to be more interested in what Gates could share about the Trump-Russia relationship than strengthening the case against Manafort. (Gates was reportedly aware in September and October 2016, while he was working on the campaign, that Kilimnik was a Russian agent.) A court document released last week alleges that Gates had repeated contacts with an individual with ties to Russian intelligence between September and October 2016, which Mueller characterized as “pertinent to the investigation.”
If Mueller is preparing to bring more charges connected to Manafort, he’s keeping his cards close to his vest. The timing of the Rosenstein memo, however, suggests that Mueller learned something new that caused the Justice Department to clarify his mandate. The date on the memo—August 2—is six days after George Papadopoulos was arrested by the F.B.I. at Dulles International Airport, and seven days before F.B.I. agents raided Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, in search of documents related to the probe. Papadopoulos later turned state’s evidence, making a plea deal with Mueller in which he acknowledged lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Russians.