Washington (AFP) – Donald Trump’s former campaign chief was sent to jail Friday pending trial on a series of federal charges, as the US president ramped up efforts to discredit the wider probe into possible collusion between his campaign team and Moscow.
Paul Manafort, who is facing money laundering and tax evasion charges among others, was the first former Trump campaign aide to be jailed in the sprawling probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller since May 2017.
The revocation of Manafort’s bail was a fresh sign of the looming collision course between Mueller and Trump, with the White House increasingly worried that the president could face obstruction of justice charges and an impeachment effort in Congress.
Manafort, 69, had been under house arrest while awaiting trial in both the US capital and Virginia. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him, which also include obstruction of justice.
Trump condemned the treatment of Manafort, a veteran Washington political consultant, as he sought to paint Mueller’s team as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation — which Mueller once ran — as deeply biased and illegitimate.
“Wow, what a tough sentence for Paul Manafort, who has represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other top political people and campaigns,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
“Didn’t know Manafort was the head of the Mob,” he said. “Very unfair!”
Earlier, Trump lashed out at the entire investigation, labelling it a “ridiculous witch hunt” after a Justice Department watchdog report revealed that several FBI investigators had sent anti-Trump text messages during the 2016 campaign.
“There was no collusion, there was no obstruction, and if you read the report… what you’ll really see is bias against me,” Trump said.
– Witness tampering –
Manafort, who is facing trial later this year on money laundering charges involving his work for Ukraine that predated the 2016 presidential election, saw his bail revoked by Judge Amy Berman Jackson over claims he was trying to influence witnesses in his case.
He is one of 20 people and three companies already indicted by Mueller, who is investigating whether members of the campaign colluded with Russia during and after the election.
Mueller’s team has been seeking to interview Trump as well, and questions they have submitted to the White House indicate that they are also investigating whether Trump has illegally interfered with the probe.
On Friday, Trump sought to make use of the Justice Department inspector general’s report on the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state to erode confidence in Mueller’s operation.
While the IG report made almost no mention of Mueller or any alleged wrongdoing by Trump, the president claimed it “exonerates” him, while his lawyer Rudy Giuliani said Mueller and his team themselves should be investigated.
“The report yesterday may be more important than anything. It totally exonerates me,” Trump told journalists in front of the White House.
– Undermining Mueller –
The report faulted the FBI and its former director James Comey, whom Trump fired in May 2017, over the handling of the Clinton email probe.
It said Comey, who cleared Clinton of allegations of mishandling classified materials, was insubordinate and guilty of bad judgment.
It also showed several agents involved in both that investigation and the subsequent Russia meddling probe repeatedly expressing anti-Trump bias in private text messages.
“That is probably the tip of the iceberg,” Trump said. “There was total bias, I mean total bias.”
He referred to Comey and other senior FBI officials as “the scum at the top” of the bureau and as “total thieves.”
The investigation led by Mueller “has massive conflicts,” Trump said.
“I think that the Mueller investigation has been totally discredited,” Trump said.
Trump’s lawyers see that convincing the public ahead of November’s congressional elections that the Mueller probe is illegitimate could be crucial to his political fate.
If Mueller finds evidence of obstruction of justice, the president could face impeachment in the House of Representatives.
Currently the House is in Republican hands, and would be unlikely to support an impeachment motion. But if Democrats capture control of the chamber in November, that vote could shift.