The news about Manafort and Papadopoulos isn't enough to bring down the presidency. But it will still worry Trumpby Andrew Stuttaford / October 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
The unsealing of a grand jury indictment of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign manager in mid-2016, did not come as much of a shock. Long-standing suspicions about Manafort’s dealings with Ukraine and what the Washington Post has delicately referred to as his “complicated financial past” were bad enough, but when the FBI descended on his house in a pre-dawn raid in August, well…
Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to look into possible links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, but he can nose around much more widely than that job description might suggest—and then follow up on whatever it is he thinks that he has found.
What Mueller thinks he has found arises out of Manafort’s career as a political consultant and lobbyist, and specifically the work he carried out for Ukraine’s ‘Party of Regions’, the party of the now-deposed president, Victor Yanukovych, and the party that succeeded it after Yanukovych fled to Russia. Along with his business associate and fellow Trump campaign worker Rick Gates, who has also been indicted, it is alleged that Manafort laundered millions of dollars, failed to declare his full income to the taxman, failed to register as a ‘foreign agent’ and failed to furnish the information that that status would have required. When questioned about this, Manafort allegedly lied to the Feds—something that is also illegal.
The indictment has its theatrical moments, including talk of “conspiracy against the United States”—a phrase that means rather less than non-lawyers might think. As is usual when American prosecutors want defendants to crumble, squeal or both, every imaginable charge—bank fraud, failures to disclose foreign bank accounts, you name it—is thrown into the mix, pushing the potential prison sentence out into some dismayingly distant date (Manafort is 68). The indictment also includes notice that prosecutors will seek forfeiture of any assets traceable back to the alleged money laundering, something that will add to the pressure on the defendants and will not, I suspect, have gone unnoticed by their lawyers.
Bad as this all is, these indictments may have been greeted with a degree of relief in the White House. Donald Trump was quick to—surprise—tweet that “this [was] years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”
While this isn’t wholly accurate—the allegations cover the period between “at least 2006 and 2015”—the president had a point. The conduct complained about does not—in any direct way—relate to the Trump campaign. It also seems that at least one prominent Democrat, the older brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, has been caught up in the indictment’s backwash: Tony Podesta has announced that he is leaving the lobbying firm he founded amid speculation that it is one of the unnamed firms that came under investigation by Mueller for its work with Manafort.
However, any celebrations in the Oval Office will have been muted by the knowledge that Mueller now has Manafort where he wants him. If Manafort has anything to confess about campaign shenanigans—and, to be fair, we don’t know that he has—he now can be under no illusion about how much he has to lose by not doing so. It is also unlikely to have escaped Trump’s notice that the fact that this indictment has nothing (directly) to do with the election campaign cuts both ways. It is also an unsettling reminder of how far Mueller can cast his net.
Then there’s George Papadopoulos. Before Monday, he was relatively little-known, a low-level foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Now we learn that he had plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his relationship with the Russians as part of a plea bargain. Court papers were released disclosing that he “met with the [U.S.] Government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions”—in exchange, obviously, for leniency.
Previously Papadopoulos had said that he met his Russian contacts—“the overseas professor” and “a certain female Russian national”—before he had joined the Trump campaign. But not only were they far better connected than Papadopoulos had originally let on (he had told the FBI that the professor was a “nothing”), in reality they only took an interest in him after he had boarded the Trump train. It was only then that the professor told him that Moscow had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton: it had “thousands of emails”. With the help of other Russian officials, all three tried to set up a meeting between the campaign and the Russian government. Papadopoulos was also invited to Russia with “another foreign policy advisor,” although he never went.
It is not a particularly pretty picture, but it is neither damning nor complete. We do not know yet who else on the Trump campaign knew what Papadopoulos was up to. We do not know yet what else Papadopoulos knows about contacts between the campaign and the Kremlin. And we do not know yet, to pass on one intriguing theory, whether he’s been wearing a wire.
The president, however, wants you to know now that “there [was] NO COLLUSION!”
Even if there was, it is worth noting that while ‘collusion’ with Russia might be embarrassing, it is not necessarily illegal. So far, there is no proof that the Trump campaign’s dealings with the Russians crossed that somewhat blurry line into criminality.
So, what now? Politically, Trump is in no position to fire Mueller, but legally Mueller is still very far from being in a position to trigger Trump’s departure. The Trump presidency has had a bad day, but it has had many bad days—so many that the indictment of one of his former campaign managers, which would be a monumental drama had it happened under any president, just seems like another pratfall. The legal investigation will grind on, armed with all the formidable weapons that a skilled prosecutor such as Mueller knows how to wield, weapons now reinforced by two indictments and one guilty plea. Trump will have to live with that.