WASHINGTON (CN) - Pointing to an editorial that ran last week in a Ukrainian newspaper, a federal judge warned Paul Manafort, the president’s indicted former campaign manager, on Monday to stop communicating with the media.
"Mr. Manafort, that order applies to you and not just your attorney," U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said.
Jackson issued the warning this morning in response to filings by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Friday about an op-ed that appeared a day earlier in the English-language Ukrainian Kyiv Post Thursday.
Though the piece ran under the name of former Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshyn, a draft submitted by Mueller’s team shows Manafort had conducted a line-by-line edit of the piece before it was published.
Manafort is charged here in connection to his lobbying on behalf of a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party, and Thursday’s editorial sheds light on the work Manafort performed as an unregistered foreign agent. It also criticizes American media coverage of Manafort.
While prosecutors say Manafort helped write the piece to improve his public image, in violation of a court gag order, Manafort’s attorney Kevin Downing focused on the editorial’s niche audience. Downing said the foreign publication where the editorial ran has a small circulation, making it unlikely that the piece would reach U.S. readers.
For Jackson, however, the gag order is necessary both to avoid tainting the jury pool in Washington and to have the issues debated in the courtroom, not in the media.
On Dec. 5, the judge issued an order to show cause why Manafort had not violated the order. Though she vacated that order this morning, she cautioned that future allegations in this vein will not be treated lightly.
Downing thanked Jackson for the guidance, saying it has been difficult for Manafort to sit back and watch the "torrent of negative press" that follows his client.
"It's not going away for Mr. Manafort, so any advice would be appreciated," Downing said.
Jackson declined to offer any advice, reminding Downing that neither party objected when she imposed the order. She also noted that the issue is not specific to Manafort.
"There's a lot of negative press going on right now about the prosecution," Jackson said.
Jackson also noted that it would be Downing defending the gag order if it was Special Counsel Mueller's team that was trying setting the record straight in public. "And you'd be right," she added.
While sympathetic to Manafort’s concern about his reputation, Jackson said she is committed to keeping his prosecution "scrupulously fair.”
Jackson also pressed Downing on Monday to better document the actual value of several properties Manafort has put up to satisfy his $10 million bail package.
Considered a flight risk by prosecutors, Manafort has been under home confinement and GPS monitoring since Oct. 30. Any attempt by him to flee would forfeit his bail to the court, but Downing is still working to secure assets and properties owned by Manafort that would satisfy the bail package.
Manafort was indicted on Oct. 30 alongside his longtime business associate Rick Gates on 12 charges, including money laundering and conspiracy. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Seeking to travel freely in the U.S., particularly between his residences in Florida, Virginia and New York, Manafort has contested the terms of his home confinement.
Andrew Weissmann with the Special Counsel’s office at the Department of Justice told Jackson that Manafort’s participation in the op-ed raises trust issues for the government.
Experts say this kind of perception is what makes it unwise for Manafort to flirt with gag-order violations.
"It doesn't seem like a good way to spend your chits in the courtroom," said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor now at Loyola University Law School. "The judge has a lot of discretionary calls she'll have to make in this case, and if she feels she can't trust you or loses respect for you - even if you’re not in technical violation of the order - it can end up hurting you."
Discussing the case in a phone interview, Levenson said Manafort should try to stay on Judge Jackson’s good side since it will be her court judging him in the end, not the court of public opinion.
Downing on Monday tried to allay concerns about Manafort traveling domestically, noting that Manafort's wife and daughter co-own the four properties he has posted for bail.
Were Manafort surrender those properties by fleeing, “his family would be financially devastated," Downing said.
Manafort informed the court Monday morning that, although he has a home in Alexandria, Va., he would prefer to maintain his primary residence in Florida.
Jackson said she would take Manafort's motion to modify his bail conditions under consideration, but did not indicate when she would issue a ruling on the matter.
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