Manafort case shows Mueller fo­cus on for­eign con­tacts

The Mercury News - - News - By Ros­alind S. Hel­der­man and Tom Ham­burger

New rev­e­la­tions about Paul Manafort’s in­ter­ac­tions with a Rus­sian as­so­ciate while he was lead­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign pro­vide a win­dow into how ex­ten­sively the spe­cial coun­sel has mapped in­ter­ac­tions be­tween Trump as­so­ciates and Rus­sians in his 20-month in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

When Manafort pleaded guilty in Sep­tem­ber to fed­eral crimes re­lated to his work ad­vis­ing Ukrainian politi­cians, Trump said the ad­mis­sions by his for­mer cam­paign chair­man had “noth­ing to do” with the spe­cial coun­sel’s main mis­sion, which Trump de­scribed as “look­ing for Rus­sians in­volved in our cam­paign.” But new de­tails in­ad­ver­tently re­vealed in a court fil­ing last week — in­clud­ing the fact that Manafort shared polling data about the 2016 race with an as­so­ciate who al­legedly has ties to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence — in­di­cate that spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller has also been scru­ti­niz­ing in­ter­ac­tions be­tween Rus­sians and Manafort while he helmed Trump’s pres­i­den­tial bid.

Manafort is among at least 14 Trump as­so­ciates who in­ter­acted with Rus­sians dur­ing the cam­paign and tran­si­tion, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic records and in­ter­views.

The new ex­am­ples of Manafort’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions serve as a re­minder that much about Mueller’s find­ings re­mains un­known in what are widely be­lieved to be the clos­ing weeks of his probe.

Ad­vis­ers to Trump are brac­ing for a fi­nal re­port by the spe­cial coun­sel, a con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ment sum­ma­riz­ing his find­ings that they be­lieve could be turned over to se­nior Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials next month.

What Mueller will con­clude — and even the full scope of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion — re­mains closely held by the spe­cial coun­sel.

Mueller’s ap­point­ment was pre­cip­i­tated by Trump’s fir­ing of FBI Direc­tor James Comey in May 2017 — a move that also led the FBI to open an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the pres­i­dent to de­ter­mine whether he ob­structed jus­tice and whether he sought to aid Rus­sia, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity. That in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which has both a crim­i­nal and a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence com­po­nent, was con­tin­ued by Mueller.

The new in­for­ma­tion about Manafort in­di­cates that Mueller has been ex­plor­ing what he may have com­mu­ni­cated to Rus­sians while work­ing for Trump. And it serves as a stark re­minder that as Trump was of­fer­ing Rus­sia-friendly rhetoric on the cam­paign trail, his White House bid was led for a time by a man with long-stand­ing ties to pow­er­ful Rus­sian fig­ures.

Manafort, an in­ter­na­tional lob­by­ist and po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, was em­broiled in a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar fi­nan­cial dis­pute with Rus­sian busi­ness­man Oleg Deri­paska, who is close to Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings.

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