U.S. judge sends ex-Trump campaign head Manafort to jail pre-trial

WASHINGTON,  (Reuters) – A judge yesterday sent longtime Republican political operator and businessman Paul Manafort to jail pending trial after a charge of witness tampering, the latest episode in a slow fall from grace of a man who was President Donald Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016.

Manafort, a target of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, has been indicted on mostly financial-related charges, including conspiring to launder money and defraud the United States. He has pleaded not guilty.

Manafort had been on home confinement in Virginia, and was required to wear an electronic monitoring device. Last week, Mueller charged him in a new indictment with witness tampering, which Manafort pleaded not guilty to yesterday.

But U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington revoked his bail, sending him to jail.

“I have no appetite for this,” she said. “But in the end, I cannot turn a blind eye.”

“You’ve abused the trust placed in you,” she said.

Manafort turned around briefly to wave to his wife before heading out a door at the back of the crowded courtroom, court witnesses said.

Manafort’s spokesman did not respond for comment on the decision.

Manafort’s legal defense fund asked in a Twitter post, “Why is he the target of a partisan investigation?” echoing a theme of Trump and his supporters that the Mueller inquiry is a political witch hunt.

Trump said it was unfair to send Manafort to jail.

“Wow, what a tough sentence for Paul Manafort,” Trump wrote on Twitter even though Manafort has not been sentenced – he has not been convicted on any of the charges. “Didn’t know Manafort was the head of the Mob,” Trump wrote. “Very unfair!”

Mueller, whose investigation has overshadowed Trump’s presidency, is looking into whether any Trump campaign associates coordinated with Russia and if Trump unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe.

Moscow denies U.S. intelligence agency allegations that it interfered in the election and Trump denies collusion.

Manafort is due to go on trial in Washington in September and faces another trial on related charges in Virginia in July.

None of Manafort’s charges refer to the allegations of Russian meddling and largely pre-date the two months he worked as Trump campaign head.

Manafort chaired the Republican’s presidential campaign during the period when Trump, a former reality TV star, won his party’s nomination.

Trump has the power to pardon his former aide of any federal crimes preemptively, as then-President Gerald Ford did for his predecessor Richard Nixon in 1974.

“When the whole thing is over, things might get cleaned up with some presidential pardons,” Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told the New York Daily News on Friday.

Manafort has ties to a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin.

The charges against him in Washington include failing to register as a foreign agent for the pro-Russia Ukrainian government under former President Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort resigned in August 2016 following a news report he had received possibly illegal payments from Yanukovych’s political party.

Legal experts say Mueller wants to keep applying pressure on Manafort to plead guilty and assist prosecutors with the probe.

“Either he can double down in his resolve to fight it or it’s the last straw and it breaks his will and he decides to work out a plea bargain,” Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor, told Reuters.

A June 8 indictment accused Manafort and an aide with tampering with witnesses about their past lobbying for Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government.

The indictment accused them of attempting to call, text and send encrypted messages starting in February to two people from a political discussion group – the so-called Hapsburg Group – that worked with Manafort to promote Ukraine’s interests in a bid to sway their testimony.

Manafort’s lawyers have argued that the evidence suggesting he tampered with witnesses is thin.

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