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Former Trump campaign aides face criminal charges in Mueller probe

Times wires

WASHINGTON

Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia's role in the 2016 presidential race, announced criminal charges Monday against three former senior campaign aides to Donald Trump, including his former campaign manager, marking an explosive new phase in the FBI probe of the president's inner circle.

Paul Manafort, who was Trump's campaign manager, and Rick Gates, who was Manafort's top deputy and helped run Trump's inauguration, were separately accused of a total of 12 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering in a financial scheme that ran from 2006 to 2017.

In June 2016, Manafort joined Donald Trump Jr. in a meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer and lobbyist, after Trump Jr. was offered damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton.

In a court hearing Monday afternoon, Manafort and Gates both pleaded not guilty to the charges. Manafort was released on $10 million bail and Gates was released on $5 million bail. Both surrendered their passports and were ordered under house arrest.

Court papers also revealed Monday that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, had pleaded guilty in a closed-door court hearing Oct. 5 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with people who claimed to direct connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials.

Papadopoulos, 30, who court documents show repeatedly sought to arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and senior Russian officials in London or in Moscow, is cooperating with prosecutors led by Mueller, who is pursuing allegations that Trump's aides cooperated with Russian officials seeking to influence the U.S. election.

The indictment of Papadopoulos shifted the narrative Monday of the Trump campaign's interactions with Russia: Court documents revealed that Russian officials alerted the campaign, through an intermediary in April 2016, that they possessed thousands of Democratic emails and other "dirt" on Clinton.

That was two months before the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee was publicly revealed and the stolen emails began to appear online. The new court filings provided the first clear evidence that Trump campaign aides had early knowledge that Russia had stolen confidential documents on Clinton and the committee, a tempting trove in a close presidential contest.

By the time of the crucial meeting in June 2016, when Trump Jr. and other senior Trump campaign officials met with a Russian lawyer offering damaging information on Clinton, some may have known for weeks that Russia had material likely obtained by illegal hacking, the new documents suggested. The disclosures added to the evidence pointing to attempts at collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, but they appeared to fall short of proof that they conspired in the hacking or other illegal acts.

Papadopoulos repeatedly promoted the idea of a "history making" meeting between Trump and Putin. Senior campaign officials, however, said that Trump should not make the trip and leave it to someone "low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal," according to an email cited in court documents.

Papadopoulos then proposed that he himself, perhaps with another campaign official, travel to Moscow to meet with the Russians.

In March 2016, traveling in Italy, Papadopoulos encountered a London-based professor of international relations, Joseph Mifsud, who claimed to have "substantial connections with Russian government officials." (The court documents do not name Mifsud, but a Senate aide briefed on the case identified him as the professor in question.)

The two men met again in London on March 24, when the professor introduced Papadopoulos to a Russian woman he said was a relative of Putin with close ties to senior Russian officials.

On March 31, back in Washington, Papadopoulos met Trump for the first time at a gathering of his new foreign policy team at the candidate's Washington hotel. According to the former Trump adviser who was there, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending former colleagues, Papadopoulos spoke for a few minutes about his Russian contacts and the prospects for a meeting with the Russian president.

On April 26 came a crucial meeting. At breakfast at a London hotel, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that he had just returned from Moscow, where he had "learned that the Russians had obtained 'dirt' on then-candidate Clinton." Mifsud said he had been told the Russians had "thousands of emails."

On May 4, the Russian contact with ties to the foreign ministry wrote to Papadopoulos and Mifsud, saying ministry officials were "open for cooperation." Papadopoulos forwarded the message to a senior campaign official, asking whether the contacts were "something we want to move forward with."

The court documents describe in detail how Papadopoulos continued to report to senior campaign officials on his efforts to arrange meetings with Russian officials, which the Washington Post reported on in August. But the documents do not say explicitly whether, and to whom, he passed on his most explosive discovery — that the Russians had what they considered compromising emails on Trump's opponent.

The indictment against Manafort and Gates doesn't reference their work for the Trump campaign, a point Trump noted on Twitter.

"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?????" Trump wrote.

"Also, there is NO COLLUSION!" he said in another tweet.

The double-barreled approach signaled that Mueller, a former FBI director, and his team of veteran organized crime and white-collar prosecutors are willing to use a classic hardball approach — trying to pressure lower-level figures into cooperating and providing information — in their investigation of the Trump campaign.

According to the indictment, Manafort and Gates used offshore accounts and shell companies in Cyprus, the Seychelles and the Caribbean to hide $75 million, including payments for representing a pro-Kremlin political faction in Ukraine, to avoid paying U.S. taxes.

"Manafort used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income," the charges said.

The indictment says he laundered more than $18 million to pay for his expenses, including $5.4 million for renovations at his home on Long Island, N.Y.; $1.3 million for lighting and home entertainment at his home in Florida; $934,000 for antique rugs at his home in Virginia; and about $1.4 million at clothing stores in New York and Beverly Hills.

Manafort did not report the income to the government and denied to his tax preparer that he held any offshore accounts. The indictment also alleges that Manafort "defrauded" banks by making false statements to obtain cheaper mortgages,.

Manafort also was charged with filing false reports to conceal the fact that he was acting as an unregistered foreign agent. The charges state that Manafort and Gates were agents for former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich and his pro-Russian Party of Regions.

The indictment alleges that Gates moved $3 million from the offshore accounts to pay his mortgage, children's tuition and interior decorating.

In a statement, Manafort's lawyer, Kevin Downing, called the indictment "ridiculous" and said there is "no evidence" that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian government.

Information from the Tribune Washington Bureau and the New York Times was used in this report.

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