A lawyer who previously worked with Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, was charged with – and has plead guilty to – lying to the FBI, marking another major development the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump election campaign and the Kremlin.
Alex van der Zwaan, who married the daughter of a Russian-Ukrainian oligarch last year, admitted making false statements in connection to work he did in Ukraine, as part of a plea agreement with the special prosecutor on the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller.
It is unclear how – if at all – the case against Van der Zwaan is connected to the broader question of whether or not the Trump campaign conspired with the Kremlin. But the indictment shows that one focus of the Mueller investigation is Manafort’s business dealings with pro-Russia figures in Ukraine prior to becoming Trump’s campaign manager in 2016.
According to court documents filed in Washington and made public on Tuesday, Van der Zwaan failed to disclose a series of contacts in September 2016 with Rick Yates, a business associate of Manafort, and person identified only as Person A, with whom Van der Zwaan spoke in Russia and who was described as a “longtime business associate of Manafort and Gates in Ukraine”.
That description appeared to match Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Russian army linguist whom federal prosecutors have “assessed to have ties” with Russian intelligence. Kilimnik ran Manafort’s office in Kiev after Manafort left Ukraine in 2014, and continued his work for pro-Russia interests in Ukraine.
The court documents allege that the undisclosed contacts in 2016 concerned work performed four years earlier by the US law firm Van der Zwaan worked for in London – Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom – on behalf of the former pro-Russia Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort hired Skadden to defend Yanukovych from western condemnation after the 2011 detention of an opposition leader.
Is Trump preparing to fire Mueller?
“No, I’m not,” the president said in mid-December. But in fact Trump had ordered special counsel Robert Mueller’s firing in June 2017, just one month after Mueller was appointed, the New York Times reported. Trump backed down when the White House Counsel, Donald McGahn, refused to convey the order to deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
Trump-aligned voices on Capitol Hill and in the media, meanwhile, prominently including Fox News, continue to call for Mueller’s head, and attacks on Mueller from inside the White House have proliferated.
According to the court documents, Gates told Van der Zwaan to contact Person A in September 2016 to discuss impending criminal charges in Ukraine against Manafort, a former Ukrainian minister of justice and “law firm A”, an apparent reference to Skadden.
In particular, Van der Zwaan failed to tell prosecutors or his law firm about an email in Russian, dated 12 September 2016, in which Person A asked Van der Zwaan to use an encrypted method to contact him. Prosecutors said the lawyer deleted that and other emails in an effort to cover up his contacts.
Skadden Arps released a statement on Tuesday saying it had fired van der Zwaan last year, but without explaining why, and noting it was cooperating with the authorities.
The latest development reflects the special counsel’s determination to prosecute anyone found lying or omitting the truth in the ongoing criminal investigation. Two campaign officials – Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos – have pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and are now cooperating with the investigation.
Manafort has pleaded not guilty to previous charges that he laundered money in connection to his Ukraine work. The alleged crimes pre-date his work for the Trump campaign. Gates also pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges but has reportedly decided to change his plea to guilty, and agreed to cooperate, in exchange for leniency.
The White House insisted Tuesday that Trump has never denied Russian interference in the 2016 election. Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images
Last year Van der Zwaan married Eva Khan, an art critic and daughter of German Khan, a Russian-Ukrainian billionaire. Khan is one of three people who sued the news website Buzzfeed for publishing a controversial dossier that made unproven claims about the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Khan, Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven filed a defamation suit against the media group as representatives of the financial institution Alfa Bank that the dossier alleged was connected to the unproven Trump/Kremlin conspiracy, but without providing any evidence.
There is no evidence however that the criminal charge against Van der Zwaan is related to his family ties.
Last November Trump told reporters that he took Vladimir Putin at his word when the Russian leader denied meddling in the election. “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that’, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” the US president said.
But on Tuesday Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, insisted that Trump has never denied Russian interference. She told reporters at the daily briefing: “One of the places where you guys seem to get very confused – and it seems to happen regularly – the president hasn’t said that Russian didn’t meddle. What he’s saying is it didn’t have an impact and it certainly wasn’t with help from the Trump campaign.”
She claimed that Trump has been “extremely tough” on Russia, citing his big spending on the US military, export of energy to eastern Europe, upholding of Barack Obama-era sanctions, closure of three Russian diplomatic properties in the US and arming of Ukrainians. “There are a number of places that Obama was too weak and refused to put pressure on Russia where this president has… He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama has been in eight years combined.”
The press secretary added cryptically: “Just last week there an incident that’ll be reported in the coming days and another way that this president was tough on Russia.”
Pressed on what Trump is doing about preventing attacks on future elections, Sanders said the homeland security department had been in talks with state and local officials and election vendors.
“Everyone wants to blame this on the Trump administration. Let’s not forget this happened under the Obama administration.”