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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Lawyer charged with lying in US investigation of Russia's election role

Alex van der Zwaan was scheduled to enter a plea to charges on Tuesday in US district court in Washington

Alex Van der Zwaan arrives at federal court in Washington. Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg
Alex Van der Zwaan arrives at federal court in Washington. Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Special counsel Robert Mueller on Tuesday stepped up pressure on two former Trump campaign aides to co-operate in his investigation into possible collusion with Russia, bringing criminal charges against a lawyer for allegedly lying to the FBI.

The attorney, Alex van der Zwaan, the son-in-law of one of Russia’s richest men, was scheduled to enter a plea to charges on Tuesday afternoon in US district court in Washington.

The case involves work that London-based Mr van der Zwaan, 33, performed in 2012 about Ukraine for Paul Manafort and Rick Gates — senior officials in Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

The former aides have been charged with conspiracy to launder money and failure to register as foreign agents in connection with work for a pro-Russia Ukrainian party.

The charges against Mr van der Zwaan make no reference to Mr Trump’s campaign or the 2016 election.

But legal experts said the charges would put more pressure on the former Trump aides to co-operate with Mr Mueller as he looks into the extent to which Russia tried to influence the election in favour of Mr Trump by hacking the emails of leading Democrats and distributing disinformation and propaganda online.

The case also appears to underscore the extent of Mr Mueller’s investigation and of his interpretation of how far and wide he can take his inquiries.

On Friday, Mr Mueller charged a Russian propaganda arm and 13 Russian nationals with crimes related to their alleged interference in the election.

Mr Manafort, who was the Trump campaign manager for almost five months in 2016, and Mr Gates, who was deputy campaign manager, last year pleaded not guilty to Mr Mueller’s charges.

The father-in law of lawyer Mr van der Zwaan is Russian billionaire German Khan, the founder of the privately-owned Alfa Bank. Mr Khan was recently named on a list of Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin that was released by the US treasury department.

Even if Mr van der Zwaan “is only co-operating against Paul Manafort, that could be very valuable in the big picture. Prosecutors typically very methodically start with low level offenders and try to work their way up the chain,” said Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney for the eastern district of Michigan. “My guess is he is co-operating.”

A one-time associate of Mr Mueller described the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director as a "boa constrictor" whose investigative strategy involves progressively increasing the pressure on his targets. The associate spoke on condition of anonymity.

A trial of Mr Manafort and Mr Gates is tentatively expected this autumn, although recent media reports have said that the latter is expected to plead guilty in the near future. If he agrees to co-operate, that could put more pressure on others who worked in the Trump campaign.

Mr Trump has called Mr Mueller’s investigation “a witch hunt” and the Russian president denies that his government conducted an operation to influence the American election.

Mr Manafort and his erstwhile colleague worked as political consultants to Ukraine’s former pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced from office in 2014. Mr Manafort was close to Ukrainian and Russian political and business figures with ties to the Russian president.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, can continue in his role as a senior White House adviser even if he does not obtain a security clearance, the White House said on Tuesday.

Mr Kushner has been operating under a temporary clearance for the past year while the FBI conducts a background investigation. Under an order issued on Friday by White House chief of staff John Kelly, Mr Kushner will lose the temporary clearance in less than a week.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said that Mr Kushner would continue the work he has been doing during the past year whether he gets a full security clearance or not. He has been trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.