A redacted search warrant that was released in court filings this weekend suggests that federal investigators were already zeroing in on Paul Manafort’s Ukraine work soon after Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed. That timeline casts further doubt on the argument Manafort has tried to make that the financial crimes connected to his Ukraine work were not part of Mueller’s initial purview, and that the scope of Mueller’s investigation should be narrowed to just allegations linked specifically to Russian election meddling.
The Manafort filing in the federal case against him in Washington, D.C., seeks to exclude from trial evidence collected from a May 2017 search of a Manafort storage unit. On May 26, an FBI agent was allowed to enter the storage unit in Virginia and observed the labels on the boxes the investigator saw there, which the agent then used in an affidavit for a search warrant. Federal investigators were granted the warrant and searched the storage unit on May 27.
Manafort is now arguing the fruit of that search should be suppressed because the person who helped the FBI agent to unlock the storage unit and allowed the FBI agent enter it on May 26 was not authorized by Manafort to do so, even though that person (whose name is redacted in the filing) is listed on the unit’s lease. Manafort’s attorneys describe him as a former employee of Manafort’s, but the investigator’s affidavit says that he had left Manafort’s consulting firm to work for another business that Manafort operates.
Regardless of how the judge overseeing the case against Manafort comes down on that procedural argument, the details in the search warrant suggest that the probe into Manafort’s Ukraine work was up and running when Mueller took over the larger Russia investigation.
“They would have just picked up on it. There’s no way in 10 days they would have gotten a search warrant together without someone having done other investigation,” said Nick Akerman, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the Watergate investigation. “That would be literally impossible.”
Manafort, the former chairman of President Trump’s campaign, faces charges of an assortment of financial crimes related to the lobbying he did for the pro-Russia Ukrainian political party Party of Regions, as well as a failure to disclose that work under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorneys have argued that the Ukraine allegations are beyond the Russia inquiry the special counsel was appointed to investigate.
The May 2017 warrant seeks “Any and all correspondence, communication, memorandum, or record of any kind relating to the Party of Regions, Viktor Yanukovych, the European Centre for a Mordern Ukraine, or any other foreign principle of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, or any company associated with Paul Manafort or Richard Gates.”
Manafort worked for Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president, until he was ousted from the country in 2014. European Centre for a Modern Ukraine is an organization Manafort allegedly used as a front to lobby for Yanukovych in the U.S., which prosecutors now say he failed to properly register. Gates is Manafort’s longtime business partner and a former Trump campaign aide who pleaded guilty in February and now his cooperating with Mueller’s probe.
The warrant goes on to list documents investigators were seeking related to the lobbying work Manafort did for Ukraine, and it also names about a dozen entities, many of which would later pop up in a grand jury indictment alleging that Manafort used the entities to launder money from the Ukraine work.
The warrant also seeks records “related to, discussing, or documenting the Podesta Group.” The Podesta Group was one of the U.S. consulting firms Manafort allegedly partnered with to lobby for Ukraine, under the front of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. The firm has imploded under the scrutiny of Mueller’s investigation.
The warrant seeks “Computer and storage media used as a means to commit the Target Offenses.”
It had been reported, that even before Mueller took over the investigation, federal prosecutors had impaneled a grand jury in Virginia for the probe — though the reports from 2017 said the Virginia grand jury was being used for allegations against former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn (who has since entered a plea deal with Mueller). In June 2017, Mueller’s interest in Manafort’s Ukraine work — which the Justice Department initially began probing in 2014 — started surfacing in the press. By August 2017, a grand jury had also be impaneled in Washington D.C. for Mueller’s probe.
Manafort’s attorneys have argued in court filings that Mueller has departed “from the boundaries of the appointment authority” issued when he was named as special counsel on May 17, because his indictments have focused on Manafort’s Ukraine work, which predated the Trump campaign.
“The factual statement in the appointment order directs the Special Counsel to investigate a specific matter — alleged coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election,” Manafort said in a March court filing. “But the appointment order also purports to give the Special Counsel jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute anything else he might discover during the course of the original investigation. That further power is not merely tantamount to a blank check. It is a blank check that the Special Counsel has cashed, repeatedly.”
As part of its response, Mueller’s team filed in court last week an Aug. 2 memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein confirming that, at the time of Mueller’s appointment, allegations arising out of Ukraine’s work were within of the scope of the special counsel’s investigation. “The May 17, 2017 order was worded categorically in order to permit its public release without confirming specific investigations involving specific individuals,” Rosenstein said.
Manafort attorney Kevin Downing hinted at a hearing last week that he intended to make an issue out of the fact that the memo was written only after a number of search warrants were issued and Manafort’s home was raided. But the search warrant in his filing on Friday suggests that federal investigators were deeply interested in the Ukrainian allegations before Mueller took over the probe.