With Mueller Closing In, Manafort’s Allies Abandon Him

Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, is awaiting trial on charges of violating financial, tax and federal lobbying disclosure laws.CreditYuri Gripas/Reuters

 

WASHINGTON — The special counsel’s accusation this week that Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, tried to tamper with potential witnesses originated with two veteran journalists who turned on Mr. Manafort after working closely with him to prop up the former Russia-aligned president of Ukraine, interviews and documents show. The two journalists, who helped lead a project to which prosecutors say Mr. Manafort funneled more than $2 million from overseas accounts, are the latest in a series of onetime Manafort business partners who have provided damaging evidence to Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Their cooperation with the government has increasingly isolated Mr. Manafort as he awaits trial on charges of violating financial, tax and federal lobbying disclosure laws. Mr. Manafort’s associates say he feels betrayed by the former business partners, to whom he collectively steered millions of dollars over the years for consulting, lobbying and legal work intended to bolster the reputation of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine. Mr. Manafort has told associates that he believes Mr. Mueller’s team is using the business partners to pressure him to flip on Mr. Trump in a manner similar to the one used to prosecute the energy giant Enron in the early 2000s by a Justice Department task force that included some lawyers now serving on Mr. Mueller’s team. “Anybody who is a student of the Enron prosecution sees a very close parallel,” said Michael R. Caputo, a former Trump campaign operative, who has known Mr. Manafort for three decades and spoke with him on Wednesday. Another associate said Mr. Manafort and some of his close allies were reading a book by the conservative lawyer and commentator Sidney Powell that claims misconduct in the Enron prosecution. And Mr. Caputo, who was interviewed by Mr. Mueller’s team last month, said that “when Paul decided to fight, he knew the lay of the land.” Prosecutors assert that Mr. Manafort’s fight included trying to shape the accounts that former business partners offered prosecutors. In court filings this week, they said that starting in late February, Mr. Manafort repeatedly tried to reach the two journalists — with whom he had fallen out of contact until recently — to coordinate their accounts about their work to tamp down international criticism of Mr. Yanukovych for corruption, persecuting rivals and pivoting toward Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin. The prosecutors did not name the journalists, but three people familiar with the project identified them as Alan Friedman and Eckart Sager. Both men fended off the overtures, which included phone calls and encrypted text messages from Mr. Manafort and a longtime associate, whom prosecutors have not named but was identified by people close to Mr. Manafort as Konstantin V. Kilimnik, a former Russian Army linguist who prosecutors claim has ties to Russian intelligence. Instead of engaging, Mr. Friedman and Mr. Sager informed Mr. Mueller’s team of the efforts to reach them, according to prosecutors.  The prosecutors are arguing that because of these allegations, a federal judge should revise the terms of Mr. Manafort’s bail or even send him to jail while he awaits trial. Mr. Manafort, who posted a $10 million bond and has been confined to his home since October, has until Friday at midnight to respond to the prosecutors’ accusations. His spokesman brushed aside prosecutors’ allegations of witness tampering, but declined to comment on Mr. Manafort’s relationship with Mr. Friedman and Mr. Sager.  Mr. Manafort. His associates say he was most stung by the decision of his longtime business partner, Rick Gates, who served as Mr. Trump’s former deputy presidential campaign manager, to cooperate as part of a deal in which he pleaded guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators.