So what's Paul Manafort on trial for again?

Paul Manafort’s trial gets underway in Virginia tomorrow with jury selection being the first order of the day. It’s been a long time coming and the public (or at least the majority of the media) are keen to find out what sort of answers may be in store for us. But the list of charges and the evidence being presented by the prosecution seems to be sorely lacking in one area. That’s highlighted in the title of this Associated Press piece from the weekend: Manafort trial to focus on lavish lifestyle, not collusion.

Hold the phone. So you’re saying that after all the hemming and hawing, immunity deals for witnesses and all the rest, the result of Manafort’s role in the Russian collusion scheme is a list of charges for… tax evasion? (Emphasis added)

The trial of President Donald Trump’s onetime campaign chairman will open this week with tales of lavish spending, secret shell companies and millions of dollars of Ukrainian money flowing through offshore bank accounts and into the political consultant’s pocket.

What’s likely to be missing: answers about whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential election, or really any mention of Russia at all.

Paul Manafort’s financial crimes trial, the first arising from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, will center on his Ukrainian consulting work and only briefly touch on his involvement with the president’s campaign.

The article goes on to slyly suggest that, “the broader implications are unmistakable” but never really says how.

Look, if the investigation turned up wrongdoing unrelated to the original alleged crimes, those charges obviously can and should be pursued. If Manafort had been funneling Ukranian money into offshore accounts and not paying taxes on it, then he broke the law. Of course, I’ve been repeatedly assured for years by lawyers of my acquaintance that officials need a reason to suspect you’ve done something wrong before they can collect evidence and charge you. Isn’t that what the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree doctrine is all about?

That brings us back to the starting point of the investigation. What was the original crime that Team Mueller was tasked with looking into when all this started? Wasn’t it supposed to be a question about whether or not people working for the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to “meddle” in the election? Every time I hear the Morning Joe panel answering the President’s tweets about the “witch hunt,” the response always begins with a haughty declaration that some of his closest associates have already been arrested and are going to trial. (At the moment that’s mostly Manafort.) But if all you managed to get on Manafort was that he was laundering money from Ukranian clients and lining his pockets before going to work on the Trump campaign, what’s all of this been about?

There are more dominos yet to fall and other people who may or may not be pleading guilty to something or going before a jury. But if this is typical of what Mueller has discovered from the past couple of years worth of campaign activity, there are going to be some very different questions for the Special Counsel to answer.