Former Trump aide Paul Manafort found guilty of lying to investigators in Russia probe

Decision raises prospect of lengthy jail term for businessman caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe

FILE PHOTO: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives for arraignment on a third superseding indictment against him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on charges of witness tampering, at U.S. District Court in Washington, June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst//File Photo/File Photo

President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort intentionally lied to US investigators and a federal grand jury in the special counsel's Russia probe, a judge has ruled.

US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson's decision was another loss for Mr Manafort, a once-wealthy political consultant who rose to lead Mr Trump's 2016 campaign and now faces years in prison in two criminal cases arising from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

The four-page ruling hurts Mr Manafort's chance of receiving a reduced sentence, although Ms Jackson said she would decide the exact impact during his sentencing next month. It also resolves a dispute that had provided new insight into how Mr Mueller views Mr Manafort's actions as part of the broader probe of Russian election interference and any possible co-ordination with Trump associates.

Prosecutors have made clear that they remain deeply interested in Mr Manafort's interactions with a man the FBI says has ties to Russian intelligence. But it is unclear exactly what has drawn their attention and whether it relates to election interference because much of the dispute has played out in secret court hearings and blacked-out court filings.

In her ruling on Wednesday, Ms Jackson provided few new details as she found there was sufficient evidence that Mr Manafort broke the terms of his plea agreement by lying about three of five matters that prosecutors had singled out. The ruling was largely a rejection of the argument by Mr Manafort's lawyers that their client had not intentionally misled investigators but rather forgot some details until his memory was refreshed.

The judge found that Mr Manafort did mislead the FBI, prosecutors and a federal grand jury about his interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik, the co-defendant who the FBI says has ties to Russian intelligence. Prosecutors had accused Mr Manafort of lying about several discussions the two men had, including about a possible peace plan to resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict in Crimea.

During a closed hearing last week, Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said one of the discussions – an August 2, 2016 meeting at the Grand Havana Room club and cigar bar in New York – went to the "larger view of what we think is going on" and what "we think the motive here is".

"This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel's office is investigating," Mr Weissmann said, according to a redacted transcript of the hearing. He added: "That meeting and what happened at that meeting is of significance to the special counsel."

The meeting occurred while Mr Manafort was still in a high-ranking role in the Trump campaign. Rick Gates, Mr Manafort's longtime deputy and also a Trump campaign aide, attended. And prosecutors say the three men left separately so as not to draw attention to their meeting.

Mr Weissmann said investigators were also interested in several other meetings between Mr Kilimnik and Mr Manafort including when Mr Kilimnik travelled to Washington for Mr Trump's inauguration in January 2017. Mr Manafort's attorneys accidentally revealed weeks ago that prosecutors believe Mr Manafort shared polling data with Mr Kilimnik during the presidential campaign.

On Wednesday, Ms Jackson found that in addition to his interactions with Mr Kilimnik, there was sufficient evidence that Mr Manafort had lied about a payment to a law firm representing him and about an undisclosed Justice Department investigation.

But she found there was not enough evidence to back up two other allegations. The judge said prosecutors failed to show Mr Manafort intentionally lied about Mr Kilimnik's role in witness tampering or about Mr Manafort's contacts with the Trump administration in 2017 and 2018.

Mr Kilimnik, who lives in Russia, was charged alongside Mr Manafort with conspiracy and obstruction of justice. He has yet to appear in a US court to face the charges.

Mr Manafort's sentencing is set for March 13. He faces up to five years in prison on two charges stemming from illegal lobbying he performed on behalf of Ukrainian political interests.

Separately, he faces the possibility of a decade in prison in a federal case in Virginia where he was convicted last year of tax and bank fraud crimes. Sentencing in that case was delayed for Ms Jackson's ruling in the plea-deal dispute.