In­dict­ments put a crack in Trump’s de­fences

Charges against cam­paign of­fi­cials show probe into Rus­sia ties is ‘go­ing for the jugu­lar,’ ob­servers say

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - Daniel Dale Wash­ing­ton Bureau Chief

WASH­ING­TON— Two top of­fi­cials from Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign were charged Mon­day with se­ri­ous crimes: al­legedly laun­der­ing more than $20 mil­lion from a pro-Rus­sia Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal party they il­le­gally failed to re­veal they were rep­re­sent­ing.

And that wasn’t the worst news of Trump’s worst day in of­fice.

The sen­sa­tional in­dict­ments of for­mer cam­paign chair­man Paul Manafort and deputy Rick Gates would have rep­re­sented a ma­jor prob­lem for the “Amer­ica First” White House no mat­ter what spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller did next.

But what Mueller did was throw a hay­maker that de­stroyed Trump’s fee­ble early at­tempt at a self-de­fence, showed that his in­ves­ti­ga­tion has pen­e­trated deep into the cam­paign’s deal­ings with Rus­sia, and strongly sug­gested far more dam­age to come — pos­si­bly on the very al­le­ga­tion Trump has most stren­u­ously in­sisted is phoney.

“The in­ves­ti­ga­tion’s go­ing right for the jugu­lar: col­lu­sion,” said Nick Ak­er­man, a part­ner at law firm Dorsey and Whit­ney and for­mer as­sis­tant pros­e­cu­tor in the Water­gate scan­dal.

“They’re go­ing right to the heart of the thing, not wast­ing any time. And they’re go­ing for the peo­ple that know the most, and they’re go­ing right to the top.”

Just two hours af­ter Manafort and Gates turned them­selves in at an FBI of­fice in Wash­ing­ton — both later pleaded not guilty — Mueller dis­closed that he had se­cured a guilty plea from Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los, a for­mer for­eign pol­icy ad­viser to the cam­paign who ad­mit­ted to ly­ing to the FBI.

Ly­ing to the FBI, that is, about his deal­ings with Rus­sia. Deal­ings with Rus­sia re­lated to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s stolen emails.

There was still noth­ing close to a smok­ing gun on the pres­i­dent him­self. By noon, though, you could see the smoul­der­ing wreck­age of Trump’s fre­quent claim that Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion was a “witch hunt.” The probe was in­dis­putably real, and what re­mains of the pres­i­dent’s rep­u­ta­tion, at least, was not go­ing to sur­vive un­scathed.

Fox News pun­dits tried valiantly to go on the of­fen­sive, us­ing the news to call for Mueller’s fir­ing. But Trump re­mained largely quiet through the day, say­ing noth­ing for hours af­ter tweet­ing “there is NO COL­LU­SION!”

For once, the ad­min­is­tra­tion with a coun­ter­punch for every would-be knock­out seemed stunned into si­lence. “Any hope the White House may have had that the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion might be fad­ing away van­ished this morn­ing. Things are only go­ing to get worse from here,” an­a­lysts Su­san Hen­nessey and Ben­jamin Wittes wrote on their web­site Law­fare.

The story out­lined in the pros­e­cu­tors’ “state­ment of of­fence,” which Pa­padopou­los signed, pro­vided the most di­rect ev­i­dence un­veiled to date of an at­tempt by some­one in the Trump cam­paign to work with Rus­sia.

It was also the first ev­i­dence that some­one in the cam­paign knew of the hacked Clin­ton emails three months be­fore they were re­leased. Per­haps worst of all for Trump, the state­ment re­vealed that Pa­padopou­los has be­come a “proac­tive co-op­er­a­tor” in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion: Mueller’s team turned him into a wit­ness af­ter ar­rest­ing him at a Wash­ing­ton-area air­port in July.

It is not clear how much Pa­padopou­los knows. Manafort, how­ever, likely knows a whole lot, and the charges against him raised the pos­si­bil­ity of coun­try-shak­ing co-op­er­a­tion to come.

The charges were not di­rectly re­lated to Manafort’s work on the Trump cam­paign. Le­gal ex­perts, how­ever, said they might have been laid in an at­tempt to put pres­sure on Manafort to cough up what he knows about the pres­i­dent and the pres­i­dent’s fam­ily.

The charges — 12 felony counts, in­clud­ing con­spir­acy to laun­der money; fail­ing to reg­is­ter as a for­eign agent; fail­ing to re­port for­eign ac­counts; and mak­ing false state­ments — carry the pos­si­bil­ity of decades in prison.

Giv­ing them­selves ad­di­tional lever­age, pros­e­cu­tors said they are seek- ing to seize four of Manafort’s homes.

Manafort, a vet­eran po­lit­i­cal hired gun who has worked for a se­ries of un­savoury for­eign of­fi­cials, is not viewed as per­son­ally loyal to Trump. Trump had forced him out of the cam­paign five months into his ten­ure — though Gates was al­lowed to stay and then join the in­au­gu­ra­tion com­mit­tee — af­ter me­dia re­ports about his deal­ings with the pro-Rus­sia for­mer Ukrainian pres­i­dent, Vik­tor Yanukovych.

“It’s got to be trou­bling to the pres­i­dent and his as­so­ci­ates that some­one who served as his cam­paign man­ager, and who may have in­sights into a con­tin­u­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion, finds him­self in­dicted and sub­stan­tially ex­posed. The pos­si­bil­ity of co-op­er­a­tion — if there is any­thing Manafort can pro­vide — has to be con­cern­ing,” said Dan Pe­ta­las, a lawyer at Gar­vey Schu­bert Barer who for­merly worked in the Jus­tice Depart­ment sec­tion tasked with pub­lic cor­rup­tion.

Manafort is ac­cused of laun­der­ing $18 mil­lion (U.S.) in im­proper Ukrainian pay­ments to fund a “lav­ish” life­style, in­clud­ing fancy houses, cloth­ing, cars and rugs. Gates is ac­cused of laun­der­ing $3 mil­lion.

The Pa­padopou­los saga reads more like a spy novel than Manafort’s cor­po­rate-style scan­dal. Ac­cord­ing to the agreed state­ment of facts, Papa- dopou­los met with both a Rus­sian woman he had thought was Putin’s niece, though she was not, and a Rus­sia-linked pro­fes­sor who told him Rus­sia had “thou­sands of emails” worth of “dirt” on Trump’s op­po­nent. Then Pa­padopou­los at­tempted to set up an “off the record” meet­ing be­tween the cam­paign and Putin’s of­fice.

Adam Schiff, the top Demo­crat on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said the Rus­sians ap­peared to be try­ing to ex­e­cute a “clas­sic” in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tion.

Pa­padopou­los’s guilty plea, for ly­ing in or­der to mis­lead the FBI about the na­ture and im­por­tance of the con­tacts with Rus­sia, is the first con­vic­tion se­cured by Mueller since he was ap­pointed spe­cial coun­sel in May. Trump has de­rided the probe as bi­ased and mis­guided, ar­gu­ing, im­plau­si­bly, that the real scan­dal is over Clin­ton’s own deal­ings with Rus­sia.

Trump aides had a line of spin ready in re­sponse to the Manafort and Gates in­dict­ments: they were be­ing charged, the White House noted, for crimes un­re­lated to the cam­paign. But they could not say the same about Pa­padopou­los.

In­stead, press sec­re­tary Sarah San­ders ar­gued that Pa­padopou­los was an ir­rel­e­vant ju­nior aide, “some­body on a vol­un­teer com­mit­tee” who never acted in an “of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity.”

SU­SAN WALSH/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

For­mer Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials Paul Manafort, left, and Rick Gates pleaded not guilty to charges in­clud­ing con­spir­acy to laun­der money.

WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IM­AGES

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