Indictments put a crack in Trump’s defences
Charges against campaign officials show probe into Russia ties is ‘going for the jugular,’ observers say
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.”
Former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort, left, and Rick Gates pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy to launder money.