For those watching the Russia-Trump investigation being led by US special counsel Robert Mueller, this week’s revelations feel like a watershed: Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was indicted on 12 felony charges, including tax evasion and conspiracy against the United States. The last time this occurred was in 1974, when president Nixon’s campaign manager was indicted. Hitherto faint historical echoes of Watergate are now becoming deafening. The question is whether history will repeat itself and follow the pattern of Watergate—or, maybe, produce an even worse constitutional crisis.
The stench of collusionWhen court documents were unsealed on Monday morning revealing Manafort’s indictment charges, Trump took to his usual medium, Twitter, to blast out: “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign”, the president posted, adding his usual vitriole about “crooked Hillary”, and then hammering out, for good measure, “NO COLLUSION”.
The indictments charges against Manafort do not expressly mention Russia or collusion—though Putin is surely lurking in the background, as Manafort’s tax evasion relates to millions he obtained while working as a consultant to the pro-Putin leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukoych, now ousted and living in Russia under Putin’s protection. Despite the initial drama of the charges against Manafort, it soon became clear that they were something of a side-show—probably deliberately designed as such by Mueller. The real Russia story lay in other court documents, unveiled soon after Manafort’s, concerning a former foreign policy aide on the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, who had secretly pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and started working with them. As news about Papadopoulus broke, there was a conspicuous silence from Trump on Twitter.
The 14-page unsealed court document shows that Papadopoulos had previously pled guilty to lying to FBI agents about his efforts to solicit “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from an unnamed “Professor” in London and an unnamed female Russian national, who were closely connected to the Kremlin. In the jargon of the intelligence world, these people seem to have been acting as “cut outs”, or intermediaries, between Russia and Trump campaign officials. According to the indictment, “The Professor” told Papadopoulos in April 2016 that the Russians “have dirt” on Clinton and “they have thousands of emails” about her.
This is important because the Democrats’ email server was hacked in March, but this did not become public until June. This means that, in the intervening period, Papadopoulos had access to someone with top-secret information about the Russian plot to hack and interfere with the US election. This also throws new light onto the now-infamous meeting held in Trump Tower in June, in which Trump campaign officials met with another Russian, Natalia Veselnitskaya, to get “dirt” on Clinton. This meeting now reads to some as less an innocent one-off encounter, as the White House subsequently claimed, but as potentially part of a longer-term trafficking of information on Clinton between Russia and the Trump campaign. The unsealed court documents show that Papadopoulos kept the Trump campaign informed about his activities brokering deals with Russia to get “dirt” on Clinton. They also show that the Russian government was eager to meet Trump in person, possibly in a trip to Russia. Buried in a footnote of the court document is a revealing statement that “DT [Donald Trump] is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal”. This has all the hallmarks of conspiracy. Although no smoking gun has yet been produced, there is now an unmistakable stench of cordite in the air.
In a suspiciously perfect choreography, the Democrats’ hacked emails were subsequently dumped by WikiLeaks at the very moment— just over a year ago—when Trump’s election campaign seemed in real danger of collapse, when an Access Hollywood video tape was revealed in which Trump openly discussed groping women. A year later, Clinton has finally publicly said what many have expressed privately: by dumping hacked emails to damage her campaign, WikiLeaks was effectively operating as the agent of the Kremlin and functioning as a subsidiary of the Russian intelligence services. A shadowy matrix between Russia, Trump, and WikiLeaks is now coming to light.
All the President’s MenMueller, a long-serving former FBI Director, who cut his teeth prosecuting organised crime, has assembled a stellar legal team around him as special counsel and appears to be doing what all good white-collar crime prosecutors do: build a case from the bottom up, turn defendants into witnesses and informants where possible, and use them to box in those higher up the chain.
It is inconceivable that Trump’s White House is now not living in fear about who else may have been turned by Mueller and is cooperating with him. The DC court where the documents were unsealed has several other still-sealed cases whose docket numbers are listed between Manafort and Papadopoulos’s cases, which may or may not be connected with Mueller’s investigation. It is anyone’s guess. What’s revealing about how tightly sealed Mueller’s investigation is that there were no leaks about Papadopoulos before yesterday. Papadopoulos is described in the unsealed documents as an active participant in the FBI’s investigation, which suggests to some acquainted with this kind of legal language that he may have been wearing a wire, recording his interactions with Trump campaign officials. One can only imagine the damage limitation exercise taking place in the White House at present.
Since the news broke about Papadopoulos, Trump has inevitably derided the story as “Fake News,” tweeting that he was a “low level volunteer” and a “proven liar”—begging the question why Trump allowed him on his campaign. The bigger question is whether Trump will allow Mueller to continue to do his job; he seems to be closing in on the Oval Office. It is not beyond possibility that Trump will put pressure on the Department of Justice to fire Mueller. It is worth remembering that the reason why Mueller was appointed in the first place was because Trump fired the former FBI Director, James Comey, who was investigating Trump’s campaign and Russia, an act that had all the appearances of the obstruction of justice.
In probably the greatest own-goal in modern US presidential history, if Trump had not fired Comey, Mueller would never have been appointed. If Trump now tries to fire Mueller, as he did Comey, we will be living the history of Watergate repeat itself. During the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon tried unsuccessfully to get his attorney general and deputy attorney general to fire the special prosecutor investigating him, Archibald Cox. We may find that Papadopoulos is the modern-day incarnation of E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA officer at the center of the Watergate scandal.
However, the Trump-Russia scandal has the potential to spark an even more damaging US constitutional crisis than Watergate. Unlike Watergate, it involves a hostile foreign power and its intelligence services. At the same time that Mueller’s opening indictments were unveiled yesterday, it was revealed that Russian-backed fake election content had reached a staggering 126 million Americans on Facebook during the 2016 election campaign. The Russia-Trump scandal, Watergate 2.0, is just beginning.