The charges against Paul Manafort and his business partner, Rick Gates, attracted oversized attention yesterday because they were the first out of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s shop. While both Manafort and Gates had top roles in the Trump 2016 campaign, the criminal charges do not describe any actions clearly related to the presidential race. And conviction will mean sure jail time.
That would be enough for the spinners at the White House to note that this is about behavior unrelated to President Trump. Indeed, over months, Trump has asserted that Manafort was only in place for a relatively short time as head of his campaign, as if that should resolve any outstanding questions about Russian attempts to influence the election. The indictment did note that a Ukrainian political party the men worked for had a pro-Russia outlook.
Instead, this indictment is for just plain old bad behavior –money laundering, operating as unregistered foreign agents of the government of Ukraine, failing to disclose overseas bank accounts and making false statements to federal authorities. While there was no accompanying word from the Justice Department about the nature or focus of the wide-ranging investigations arising from all-things-Russia, it was clear that Manafort was a target. Indeed, Mueller apparently told him so.
That prompted 45 to tweet that this had nothing to do with him or collusion with Russians.
But then 90 minutes later, it came to light that the charges also included a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, an early foreign policy advisers to Trump’s campaign, for lying to the FBI about a contact with an unnamed Russian professor with ties to Kremlin officials, and that emails about those contacts were forward up the chain in the campaign. That, of course, is right on target with all-things-Russia, and may well show a path for further investigation inside the White House. The court records offer the clearest evidence yet that a Trump-connected individual knew Russia had obtained thousands of emails related to Clinton, months before the leaks began of exchanges hacked from Democrats’ email accounts, said Politico.
Mostly, the indictments made clear that the Mueller operation is serious, focused, going after criminal violations and unafraid to wade into the politically charged waters around all-things-Russia.
For his part, Trump has continued to be dismissive of the entire investigatory effort, calling it a “witch hunt” and saying somehow that Hillary Clinton should be the target of investigations, however silly it looked as the news of the Papadopoulos guilty plea sank in. The President consistently has refused to accept what everyone else in Washington seems to have concluded — that the Russians did try to influence or at least disrupt the presidential election campaign, with a strong lean against Clinton. Trump quickly downplayed the charges on Twitter. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” He added, “….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
Several reports outlined Manafort’s ties to the Trump campaign. The New York Times, for example, said that Manafort, a veteran Republican strategist, joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 to help keep delegates from breaking with Mr. Trump in favor of establishment Republican candidates. Trump soon promoted him to chairman and chief strategist, a job that gave him control over day-to-day operations of the campaign, but fired him a few months later after reported that Manafort had received more than $12 million in payments from the former Ukrainian President Victor F. Yanukovych, a pro-Russia official.
The Washinton Post analyst centered on the issue that these indictments make it more difficult for Trump to argue that the whole investigation is “fake news.”
Jennifer Rubin, a self-described conservative columnist, said, “The intensity of
Trump’s frenzy (in reaction to the indictments) underscores the peril in which the President now finds himself. Beyond the indictments unsealed this morning, Trump does not know what Mueller has uncovered; which witnesses are flippable; what financial documents have revealed about the Trump business empire; and whether, for example, Mueller finds support for an obstruction of justice charge from Trump’s own public dissembling (e.g., hinting at non-existent tapes of former FBI director James B. Comey). For someone who insists on holding all the cards and intimidating others, Trump finds himself in a uniquely powerless position.”
Clearly, each side of political thinking was out to use the indictments to score points — either to insulate the White House or to suggest that this is the beginning of something larger to come. There was rampant speculation about whether Manafort or Gates have information to trade about others in the Trump orbit in return for some leniency.
For me, I’m glad to see the determination of the Mueller effort to pin down actual facts and violations as opposed to political spin. It makes me more eager to get to the main events ahead.