RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Federal prosecutors are accusing President Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of witness tampering. A judge is giving him until Friday to respond. Manafort already faces money laundering and tax fraud charges. The case was brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, and prosecutors working for Mueller say that while waiting for his trial to start at home on bail, Manafort contacted two people and encouraged them to give false testimony. Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR, and I spoke with him earlier.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What exactly is it that Manafort is accused of doing here? What other specifics do you have?
LUCAS: Well, lawyers on special counsel Robert Mueller's team say in court papers that they filed late last night that back in February, April, after Manafort was hit with more charges in a superseding indictment, that he and a longtime associate tried to contact two witnesses to influence the story that they would tell investigators. Now, this is related to what prosecutors say was secret lobbying work that Manafort was doing related to Ukraine. They say that Manafort had organized a secret group of former European politicians to basically lobby on behalf of Ukraine. He paid them some 2 million euros out of a secret bank account in 2012 and 2013. And the government says that this work targeted Europe and the United States. Manafort says it was just in Europe. And this is a key point because if it's just in the EU then Manafort doesn't fall afoul of U.S. lobbying laws. Now, what the government says in its filing late last night is that Manafort was trying to get in touch with two people who worked for a public relations firm to get them to say that the lobbying work was exclusively in Europe.
MARTIN: Do we know what evidence prosecutors have to back up this claim?
LUCAS: We do. The government cites text messages that Manafort and his associates sent to the witnesses back in February and April on encrypted messaging apps. The two witnesses gave those text messages over to the government. They handed them to government prosecutors. Prosecutors also have phone records showing Manafort attempting to call the witnesses around the time that he was sending these messages. And then one of the witnesses told the government that this individual understood Manafort's outreach to be an effort to get this person to commit perjury because the individual knew that the lobbying work had indeed been in the United States.
MARTIN: So as we noted, Manafort's been at home, home arrest, essentially, waiting for his trial to start. What happens now? I mean, now does the judge decide if he goes to jail to await his first trial to start?
LUCAS: Basically it's up to the judge, yes. What the government says is that this alleged attempt to tamper with witnesses is a violation of Manafort's release conditions that have allowed him to live basically under what's called home confinement. The government says anything short of detention - so jail time - won't guarantee that he won't violate federal law again by, say, attempting to tamper with witnesses. And it's worth remembering that this is not the first time that prosecutors have complained about Manafort's behavior since he was charged. Early on in the case, they said that they had intercepted emails showing that Manafort was helping write an opinion piece to try to get - to try to influence views of his actions in the lobbying work that he was doing in Ukraine, and that was running afoul of a gag order that the judge had in this case.
MARTIN: All right. So last question. Sort of a big one, but, in the course of our conversation, I don't think you've said the word Russia, which is the central question in the Mueller investigation. So put this development with Manafort into that broader context for us.
LUCAS: Well, Manafort's - the charges related to Manafort relate to his lobbying work in Ukraine, but that falls within the parameters of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
LUCAS: What this does is potentially increase the pressure on Manafort and could really ramp up the pressure if the judge decides that Manafort should await trial in jail. His trial is currently scheduled for the fall. Now, the prospect of awaiting trial in jail is not something that anyone relishes. Manafort matters because he was the campaign chair for a key period of the Trump campaign. If you recall, he took part in key moments like the meeting in Trump Tower with the Russian lawyer offering dirt on Clinton. So Manafort may have information that is of interest to Mueller's team, and this would increase the pressure and perhaps get him to decide to cooperate.
MARTIN: NPR's Ryan Lucas.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.