Russia Inquiry Charges: How Close Does This Get to Trump?
On the day that Donald Trump summoned James Comey to a one-on-one dinner and asked the then FBI director to pledge loyalty, a crucial interview was taking place at the bureau. George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, was questioned about contacts with a Russia-linked professor who had offered “dirt” on election rival Hillary Clinton.
Papadopoulos lied during that 27 January encounter, it transpired on Monday. He is the first person to face criminal charges linked to interactions between the Trump campaign and Russia during last year’s presidential election.
And ominously for the White House, the indictment against him states that, following his arrest at Dulles international airport in July, he has “met with the government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions” – implying that he has “flipped” and is now assisting special counsel Robert Mueller.
Preet Bharara, the former US attorney for the southern district of New York, who was fired by Trump, tweeted: “Special Counsel Mueller appears to have a cooperating witness, George Papadopoulos. That is significant. Time will tell how significant.”
The revelation came on the day that former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates were also indicted on 12 charges of conspiracy against the US, conspiracy to launder money, failing to register as a foreign agent, making false statements and failure to report offshore bank accounts.
These were the first public actions in Mueller’s sprawling investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. Even in the best times for a US president, that would be hugely damaging. For this president, it may be only the beginning.
Trump made a characteristic attempt to downplay their significance and deflect attention elsewhere. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” he tweeted. “But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”
Three minutes later he added for good measure: “....Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
It is true that Manafort’s indictment makes no mention of Trump or Russian involvement in the election campaign. But they do indicate that he is accused of illegal foreign lobbying on behalf of a Ukrainian political party with a pro-Russian stance from 2005 all the way up to and including 2016.
The Center for American Progress Action Fund noted: “The inclusion of money laundering charges indicates something important: leverage. If Manafort’s Kremlin-aligned partners were aware of his money laundering crimes, that would give them leverage over the head of Donald Trump’s campaign.”
And the fact that, with so many skeletons rattling in his cupboard, he was hired to work for Trump suggests that the campaign did not employ the type of “extreme vetting” the president now advocates for immigration to the US. The indictment filed in federal court in Washington accuses Manafort and Gates of funneling tens of millions of dollars in payments through foreign companies and bank accounts.
Manafort – campaign chairman from March to August 2016 – was also among the participants of a June meeting at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-linked lawyer that raised suspicions of coordination between the campaign and Moscow. Gates, for his part, never left the campaign, was on the inaugural committee and has made visits to Trump at the White House.
The indictment against Papadopoulos offers the hardest evidence yet tying the Trump campaign to Russian government interference in the election. The administration will probably claim that Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to making false statements to FBI agents, played a limited role in the campaign and no direct access to Trump, as it has with similarly nebulous figures such as Carter Page.
But the indictment, which was unsealed on Monday, is damning. “Papadopoulos impeded the FBI’s investigation into the existence of any links or coordination between individuals associated with the campaign and the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election,” it states.
The international energy lawyer initially told investigators that the professor was a “nothing” and “just a guy talk[ing] up connections or something” when in truth he understood that the professor had “substantial connections to Russian government officials,” the document says.
The special counsel said Papadopoulos told FBI agents he had been in contact with an unnamed foreign “professor” who claimed to have “dirt” on Democratic nominee Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails”, and that Papadopoulos claimed such contacts occurred before he joined Trump’s campaign. However, Papadopoulos in fact did not meet the professor until after he joined Trump’s campaign, according to the indictment.
The Manafort charges were not unexpected after initial reports emerged on Friday night, but the Papadopoulos case may have taken even Trump by surprise. The president spent the weekend typically trying to fling mud in other directions to obscure the picture. On Sunday, he called Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt” and tweeted about the special counsel’s attention to “phony Trump/Russia, ‘collusion’, which doesn’t exist”.
Fox News and other conservative media are also likely to remain loyal, questioning the significance of the charges and continuing to focus on Clinton instead. And perhaps most reassuringly for Trump, his populist base rarely seems troubled by the issue, cheering at rallies when the president mockingly says that he did not see any Russians in Pennsylvania, West Virginia or other states.
Nevertheless, the odds on the special counsel’s investigation leading to Trump’s downfall just shortened again. People will talk. Matthew Miller, a former justice department spokesman, tweeted: “Mueller’s choreographed one-two punch today sends a signal to every Trump official: cooperate & get a good deal or resist & get hammered.”