As Paul Manafortâ€™s first trial begins in Alexandria, Virginia, a flotilla of criminal charges will greet him. President Donald Trumpâ€™s former campaign manager will hear of money laundering, bank fraud and tax fraud, as well as tales of multi-million dollar payments funneled through overseas bank accounts that allowed for lavish spending on clothing, antiques, houses, luxury automobiles and jewelry.
If the courtroom drama follows a script that Special Counsel Robert Mueller outlined in a 37-page, 32-count federal indictment, Manafort will also hear about the constellation of shell companies he used to both sanitize and process $75 million in payments from Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs.
What Manafort is not likely to hear mentioned very much - if at all - is the name â€śTrump.â€ť Manafort - and the jurors in Alexandria - are also unlikely to hear about charges facing him in a separate trial slated to begin in September in Washington. That case centers on charges of failing to register as an agent of the Ukrainian government, obstructing justice, participating in a conspiracy â€śto defraud the United States,â€ť as well as money laundering.
Manafortâ€™s work for the Trump campaign wasnâ€™t mentioned in either indictment and Muellerâ€™s team has signaled that issues involving possible collusion with the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential campaign wonâ€™t be raised during the trial in Alexandria. The judge overseeing the case in Alexandria has also warned Muellerâ€™s team not to mention Russia, collusion or other political issues that he believes might prejudice jurors.
Itâ€™s possible, however, that Muellerâ€™s prosecutors wonâ€™t be able to avoid mentioning the campaign entirely.
According to court filings, Manafort secured $16 million in loans from a U.S. bank with the help of a senior executive at the bank who also sought - and later received - a position with the Trump campaign. Prior to the executiveâ€™s intervention, the bank looked askance at Manafortâ€™s loan application, raising the possibility of a quid pro quo.
None of this puts the president of the United States in any obvious or immediate legal peril, however. The fraud charges Manafort faces donâ€™t appear to involve Trump or members of his family. The parade of bankers and accountants that Muellerâ€™s team will march through the Alexandria courtroom will be talking about Manafortâ€™s malfeasance, not Trumpâ€™s.
Mueller, of course, is also playing a longer and more complex legal game than the Manafort prosecution alone reveals or that anyone outside of his team of investigators understands at this point. But he wouldnâ€™t have brought the Manafort case to trial unless he was confident he could win.
For his part, Manafort must be well aware that thereâ€™s a preponderance of evidence stacked up against him, but has decided not to strike a plea agreement with Mueller for his own reasons. Perhaps heâ€™s planning on Trump pardoning him or is concerned about retribution from some of his rougher clients. If Manafort, who is 69, is convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
So Mueller may be counting on a conviction to focus Manafortâ€™s mind and finally convince him to cooperate in exchange for a more lenient sentence. And what would Mueller want from Manafort that he has yet to receive?
Manafort was a senior political operative for Trumpâ€™s campaign from March to June 2016, and then served as the campaign manager until the middle of August that year. In June, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. met in Trump Tower with a group of Russians promising to deliver compromising information on Hillary Clinton. Manafort attended that meeting, along with Jared Kushner. Two days before the meeting, Donald Trump announced plans to deliver a major speech on scandals involving Clinton.
During another speech, on July 27, 2016, Trump invited Russian hackers to take a run at Clintonâ€™s emails. Russian military hackers launched their first assault on Clintonâ€™s e-mail servers that same day, according to Muellerâ€™s investigation.
Should Mueller get Manafort to provide him with details about all of these events in the summer of 2016, it might help Mueller substantiate charges that Trump (or members of his family or presidential campaign team): 1) conspired to break federal campaign laws (which prohibit foreign nationals from contributing any â€śthing of valueâ€ť - like compromising information on an opponent - to a U.S. electoral campaign) or 2) aided, abetted or advised Russians who staged illegal Watergate-style break-ins of Clinton and the Democratsâ€™ email servers.
Trump and surrogates like Rudy Giuliani routinely label this portion of Muellerâ€™s investigation as a â€ścollusionâ€ť probe.
They then note that collusion isnâ€™t a federal crime, and that Trump had nothing to do with it anyway. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman notes, collusion certainly is not a crime, but things like aiding and abetting illegal activities certainly are.
Timothy L. Oâ€™Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion.