Judge gives Manafort mild rebuke over op-ed
A federal judge gave former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort a relatively mild dressing down Monday over his involvement in publication of an op-ed defending his work in Ukraine.
Prosecutors urged U.S. District Court Judge Amy Jackson to consider holding Manafort in contempt of a gag order she issued last month, but the judge opted instead to give the international political consultant and lobbyist another lecture about not trying to shape public opinion as he and business partner Rick Gates await trial on charges of money laundering and failing to register as foreign lobbyists.
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“Mr. Manafort, that order applies to you and it applies to your lawyer,” Jackson said during an hour-long hearing Monday on various issues related to the case. “The point of the order was to have the merits of this case, for everyone’s benefit….debated by the parties” in the courtroom, the judge said.
Manafort’s lawyers had argued the op-ed was not intended to influence jurors or others in Washington because it was published in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, but Jackson didn’t think much of that distinction, citing what she called “the power of retweeting,”
“I don’t think [it’s] consistent with global electronic communication in today’s world to say that’s just in Kiev,” the judge said. “If you can tell a reporter what to put in the newspaper in Kiev, then it’s on a website that’s equally available here.”
The op-ed, entitled “Paul Manafort, European integration’s unknown soldier for Ukraine,” was published last Thursday in the English-language Kyiv Post, under the byline of Oleg Voloshin, a former spokesman for Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
However, prosecutors from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office—apparently flagged by the FBI or U.S. intelligence to the planned op-ed—alerted Jackson to Manafort’s role in preparing the opinion piece. Mueller’s team also told the judge that Manafort’s actions represented such a breach of trust that they were withdrawing support for a painstakingly negotiated bail deal to lift the former Trump’s campaign chair’s house arrest.
Jackson ultimately gave Manafort what amounted to a warning that she wouldn’t look favorably on him doing something similar again.
“I’m inclined to view such conduct in the future to be an effort to circumvent and evade the requirements of my order as it’s been clarified this morning,” the judge said.
Manafort lawyer Kevin Downing complained that Manafort is facing an onslaught of unfriendly press coverage. The defense attorney didn’t say precisely what he wants done about that, but suggested it was not surprising that Manafort would seek to rebut some of it.
“There is a torrent of negative press coverage about Mr. Manafort….Articles that are clearly biased keep rolling out day after day,” Downing said, noting that the Washington Post has much wider circulation than the small Kiev newspaper. “There is this ongoing issue that is not going away that is very difficult for someone in Mr. Manafort position to [see] his reputation being besmirched.”
However, Jackson noted that neither Manafort nor anyone else objected when she solicited input about the gag order before she imposed it. She also said the critical media attention isn’t directed solely at the former Trump campaign official. “There’s a lot of negative press going on at the moment about the prosecution,” the judge said, also noting that there are sometimes articles about the court that she considers inaccurate.
Jackson said she’d consider any motion to modify the gag order or make some statement, but remains skeptical of out-of-court statements. “I don’t think the answer is necessarily by making public commentary at this time while this case is pending,” she said.
Court records made public last week showed that Manafort appeared to have proposed a series of edits to the op-ed and a former Manafort colleague, Konstantin Kilimnik, acted as a go-between with Voloshin. In an email made public Monday by the court, Manafort told Kilimnik that some of the changes were aimed at removing things Manafort didn’t want highlighted.
“I have attached a framework for the op ed in the Kyiv Post for Oleg. It keeps his approach but takes out pieces that would not be good to mention,” Manafort wrote on Nov. 29. “You will note that I left several areas where you need to insert points.”
Prosecutors told Jackson Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence. In the papers unsealed Monday, an FBI agent said without elaboration that the U.S. government obtained the emails through “court-ordered process.”