Attorneys for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort acknowledged Thursday that he edited an opinion piece for a Ukraine newspaper but did not publicly address allegations by special counsel prosecutors that he drafted it with a former colleague with ties to Russian intelligence.
Manafort’s defense argued in a court filing to a federal judge in Washington that Manafort’s work on the op-ed piece for an English-language newspaper in Kiev defending himself did not violate a court gag order because it would not likely bias potential jurors in any U.S. trial.
Manafort, 68, and his longtime deputy, Rick Gates, 45, have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges filed Oct. 30, the first in the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson had ordered Manafort to respond by Thursday to Monday’s allegation that he had violated the gag order. Prosecutors cited the purported violation as a reason for pulling out of a proposed joint bail deal that would release Manafort from home detention and GPS monitoring as he awaits trial on charges of money laundering, fraud and failing to register as a foreign agent when he worked as a consultant to a Ukrainian political party.
Prosecutors argued that Manafort defended his work advising a Russia-friendly political party in Ukraine in the opinion piece he ghostwrote with an unidentified person they say was a longtime Russian colleague assessed to have ties to a Russian intelligence service.
Manafort’s defense team said the piece, posted online Thursday by the Kyiv Post, was written by Oleg Voloshyn, a Ukrainian political commentator and former Foreign Ministry spokesman, as Voloshyn also told The Washington Post earlier this week.
In a six-page filing Thursday, Manafort attorneys Kevin Downing and Thomas Zehnle accused prosecutors of misreading the breadth of the court’s order barring potentially prejudicial public statements, and their client’s “alleged intention” to violate it.
“There is nothing in the draft [sic] op-ed that would ‘pose a substantial material likelihood of prejudice’ ” to jurors in the District of Columbia, the lawyers wrote, urging the judge to approve the bail deal.
“In the Special Counsel’s view,” Manafort’s lawyers said in court, “Mr. Manafort is apparently never allowed to set the factual record straight . . . nor is he allowed to openly maintain his innocence,” they wrote, adding, “Fortunately, the fundamental right of freedom of speech is not abrogated because a U.S. citizen is charged with a crime.”
Manafort is under home confinement pending a bail deal on an unsecured promise to pay $10 million if he fails to appear in court.
It is not clear how prosecutors learned that Manafort was working on the op-ed. The special counsel’s office filed a copy of the article and “related communications” to support its motion under seal to the court. It is also unclear whether Manafort’s defense addressed the allegation about the colleague’s intelligence association in any sealed response.
Voloshyn had told The Post that the idea for the piece had not come from Manafort, and that it was not clear any suggested changes came from him. However, Voloshyn confirmed that U.S. prosecutors were referring to Konstantin Kilimnik as Manafort’s longtime colleague. Voloshyn also said to The Post that he had emailed a copy of the piece to Kilimnik — who for a decade managed Manafort’s political consulting office in Kiev — for fact-checking and minor edits.
Voloshyn said he found prosecutors’ allegations of Kilimnik’s intelligence ties “shocking,” insisting the latter has always held pro-American political views.
Voloshyn also said he believed that the editorial, a draft version of which carried a headline stating Manafort was “falsely accused,” had been rejected.
Kilimnik did not respond to an email for comment earlier this week, but has previously denied intelligence ties, telling The Post in a statement in June that he has “no relation to the Russian or any other intelligence service.”
Earlier, prosecutor Andrew Weissmann had argued that Manafort’s work on the editorial “clearly was undertaken to influence the public’s opinion of defendant Manafort,” saying there would be no other reason for Manafort and the colleague to have it published under someone else’s name.
Kilimnik attended a Russian military foreign-language university in the late 1980s that experts have said was a training ground for Russian intelligence services. He served as an officer in the Russian military for several years.
Manafort and Kilimnik were in close contact during the months that Manafort ran Trump’s campaign. They met twice in person, including an August 2016 dinner in New York City where Kilimnik has said their conversation included discussion of the presidential campaign.
For a decade, Manafort and Kilimnik worked with then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was initially considered pro-Western but eventually became allied with Russian interests.
Voloshyn argued in the editorial that Manafort favored Ukraine’s integration with Europe and had opposed Russia’s interests.
Kilimnik also served as Manafort’s liaison to Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate and ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin who employed Manafort as an investment consultant.
According to emails described to The Post, Manafort directed Kilimnik to offer Deripaska “private briefings” about Trump’s campaign. A Deripaska spokeswoman has said he was never offered such briefings.