Mueller Affirms the Investigation of Manafort as a Back Channel to Russia

Donald Trump and his surrogates have often claimed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments against associates like Paul Manafort were for crimes they were alleged to have committed outside of their involvement in the 2016 campaign and that means there was “no collusion.”

That is basically the argument Manafort’s lawyers took up before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson to argue that the charges against their client for fraud and money-laundering in his work for the pro-Russian government in Ukraine should be dropped.

Manafort’s lawyers say those alleged crimes have nothing to do with Mueller’s central mission — to determine whether anyone in the Trump campaign had links to the Russian government.

That prompted an important statement from the Mueller team.

Justice Department attorney Michael Dreeben said prosecutors were justified in investigating Manafort because he had served as Trump’s campaign chairman. “He had long-standing ties to Russia-backed politicians,” Dreeben told Jackson. “Did they provide back channels to Russia? Investigators will naturally look at those things.”

Dreeben didn’t exactly give away the store with that argument. He simply said that of course prosecutors would investigate whether Manafort’s ties to Russian politicians provided the Trump campaign with a back channel to coordinate activities with Moscow.

Since the one piece of publicly available evidence that might answer that question is the Steele dossier, let’s take a look at what it says about Manafort’s role.

There is also the fact that one of the first things Manafort did when he got the job with the Trump campaign was to reach out to his pal Oleg Deripaska through an intermediary. He happened to owe the Russian oligarch millions of dollars and wanted to know if Deripaska had seen the news about his new job. When that was affirmed, Manafort asked, “How do we use to get whole?”

None of this is news to those of us who have been paying attention. But in a public court appearance, the Mueller team just destroyed one of Trump’s favorite talking points by affirming that their investigation of Manafort goes well beyond the charges for which he has been indicted. They have been looking into evidence that suggests the president’s former campaign manager was the “back channel” for a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation” between the Trump campaign and Russian leadership.

I’m sure that tweets from the president correcting the record are being crafted as we speak and that Sean Hannity will lead with a clarification on all of this tonight. But just in case, I won’t be holding my breath.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.