Prosecutors Defend Manafort Warrants Following Challenges Over Evidence

May 23, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 4:31 pm

Government lawyers defended the way they obtained the search warrants used to seize evidence from Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort in a lengthy court hearing on Wednesday in Washington.

Manafort's attorneys had told Judge Amy Berman Jackson they believed the warrants were invalid — in one case, for example, lawyers argued that a person listed on the lease of a storage unit didn't have permission to permit FBI special agents to peek inside.

"I just went to my daughter's graduation a week and a half ago," said Manafort lawyer Thomas Zehnle. "I left the key with the pet sitter." But, Zehnle said, he had not given that sitter permission to let someone in and "take pictures of my documents."

Manafort's lawyers also said the FBI went overboard when it searched his condominium in Alexandria, Va., just outside the capital. Investigators took cameras and music players, which Manafort lawyers said are irrelevant to his case, as well as old papers with a questionable connection to the tax and foreign agent charges he is facing.

The Justice Department's prosecutors told Berman Jackson that the warrants had been proper. Government lawyer Scott Meisler pointed out the person who allowed the FBI into the storage unit was not only listed on a lease but also had the key and had previously accessed that unit as part of his job.

Even if there had been mistakes, Meisler argued, none of them were serious enough to bar the office of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller from using the material recovered by the FBI as evidence in court.

Separately, Berman Jackson said during the nearly three-hour hearing that both Manafort and prosecutors are close to an agreement on Manafort's bond conditions.

"Maybe we're closer than we've ever been," the judge said, but she said she needed more information to make a final decision.

The government and Manafort have disputed how much property and other collateral must be put up as part of a bail agreement.

Manafort was indicted last year on charges connected to alleged tax evasion, money laundering and the work he did on behalf of Ukraine's government without properly registering as a foreign agent.

Manafort has pleaded not guilty in his Washington, D.C., case and a related case brought against him in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia. His Virginia case is set to go to trial next month, and then his Washington, D.C., case is scheduled for trial later in the year.

Manafort's camp points out that even though Mueller was appointed to investigate whether any Americans conspired with the Russian attack on the 2016 presidential campaign, prosecutors haven't filed any charges against Manafort connected to alleged election interference.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's been a significant development today in Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. A source tells NPR that the president's son-in-law, presidential aide Jared Kushner, sat for a second interview with the special counsel team last month, one that lasted seven or eight hours. Word came on the same day the White House said Kushner had regained his security clearance. NPR's Carrie Johnson is following these developments and joins us to talk more about them. Hi again, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What more can you tell us about that session between the president's son-in-law and the Russia investigators?

JOHNSON: This meeting happened in mid-April. They kept it a secret until now. And that interview, as you said, lasted seven or eight hours. I'm told it covered a bunch of topics, from the campaign to the transition and things after the inauguration, things like the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey. But the interview did not cover Jared Kushner's business interests or financial dealings. Of course, those could be under investigation by different prosecutors in New York.

Still, word of this came the same day that Kushner regained his security clearance. And to national security experts, that's kind of significant. I reached out to lawyer Mark Zaid. He told me if he were Kushner, he'd be sleeping easier tonight because if there were really significant problems, he thinks Robert Mueller's team would have alerted the intelligence community and Kushner would not have got the security clearance.

SHAPIRO: And before you started chasing this big story, you were chasing (laughter) another big story, which was the appearance of former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in court. Manafort's asking a judge to throw out evidence that the special counsel collected. What are his odds?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Manafort, remember, is fighting conspiracy and tax charges and accusations he served as an unregistered foreign agent. Prosecutors used materials from searches of his apartment in Alexandria and a storage unit there to build this case against him. And Manafort's lawyers were in court today arguing that the search warrants were way too broad, that they swept in a whole bunch of materials that were none of the government's business. The judge praised both sides for the argument. She's going to think about them. But I came away thinking Manafort faces a steep hill to climb here to win.

SHAPIRO: OK. So Kushner, Manafort and a third name from the Russia probe resurfaced today, George Papadopoulos. He was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. He's been pretty quiet since he pleaded guilty. What's he up to?

JOHNSON: Papadopoulos quietly pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Authorities say he lied about when he found out the Russians were offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump's campaign opponent in 2016.

Today, lawyers for George Papadopoulos and the special counsel said they're getting ready for George's judgment day, his sentencing, maybe sometime later this summer. Papadopoulos has been cooperating with the government. We don't know yet exactly what he gave them, but we'll know a lot more when it comes time for his sentencing.

SHAPIRO: And I want you to end by looking forward to tomorrow, when there's this big meeting of Republican members of Congress who've been demanding answers about FBI tactics deployed against the Trump campaign. Those members of Congress are going to sit down with people from the DOJ and the FBI. What do you expect there?

JOHNSON: Yeah. So far, we know that the FBI director Chris Wray, the top DOJ official Ed O'Callaghan and the director of national intelligence Dan Coats are going to be there. That all makes sense. Two Republican chairmen in the House are also going to be there, Trey Gowdy and Devin Nunes.

Democrats in Congress have been complaining because they're not invited, at least not so far. And they say that that looks bad. It looks like an effort to politicize intelligence. And we don't want that happening in, of all things, the Russia investigation, which centers in part on President Trump's campaign. As for President Trump, he told reporters today he just wants some transparency. He says he's not undercutting this Russia probe, as Democrats claim. He said this was a terrible situation. What we're doing is we're cleaning everything up.

SHAPIRO: And do you expect that this meeting will clear things up?

JOHNSON: Hasn't happened yet.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: Can't predict. But with everything related to Russia in this investigation, things seem to get less clear over time, not more clear.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks as always.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.