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United States v. Trump Campaign: Two Indictments and One Guilty Plea

News & Analysis

Today’s federal indictment of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates (President Trump’s former campaign manager and his deputy) gives us an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the type of person that Donald Trump associates with.  The charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller may have nothing obvious to do with Trump on the surface, but make no mistake: this is not good news for the president. And the guilty plea announced today by a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign – George Papadopoulos – concerning events that transpired while he was working on the campaign could be even worse news.

The alleged felonies by Manafort and Gates extend from 2006 into 2017.  We know that Manafort and Trump were in contact after the inauguration.  We also know that Gates had a meeting in the White House as recently as June.  Mueller knows that, too.

This is the first indictment brought by Mueller, who has been charged with investigating Russia’s interference with last year’s election, including possible collusion by the Trump campaign.  Notably, Mueller’s charge includes prosecuting any violation of the law that comes up in his investigation.  On the surface, this indictment appears to be mostly the latter, a period covering 2006 through this year: Manafort and Gates allegedly spent years representing the pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, both within that country and in the United States, without registering here as representing a foreign entity.  In order to hide Ukrainian payments to them from the federal government (including the IRS), they allegedly set up a network of foreign companies and bank accounts in an elaborate money laundering scheme.  This involved submitting false tax returns claiming to have no interest in foreign accounts.  It also involved lying to federal authorities looking into the issue.

Sleazy stuff.  But it isn’t just the criminal actions that are sleazy—or ominous.  Even the legal activities have a potential connection to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Manafort and Gates worked on behalf of the party of Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, a figure who worked to bring Ukraine back into the orbit of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Initially, the party was out of power, and Manafort and Gates worked to help the party’s candidates get elected.  After 2010, when Yanukovych was elected president, democracy suffered.  As the State Department observed:

The most serious human rights development during the year was the politically motivated detention, trial, and conviction of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, along with selective prosecutions of other senior members of her government. The second most salient human rights problem was the government’s measures to limit freedom of peaceful assembly. Under political pressure courts denied permits for the vast majority of protests that were critical of the government. For those protests that were approved an overwhelming police presence discouraged participation; actions by protesters were limited and tracked by the authorities. The third major problem was increased government pressure on independent media outlets, which led to conflicts between the media owners and journalists and to self-censorship.

Other serious problems included police abuse and deaths in custody, beatings and torture of detainees and prisoners, and an inefficient, corrupt judicial system. In addition, the following problems were reported: harsh conditions in prisons and detention facilities, arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention, government pressure on nongovernment organizations (NGOs), and pervasive corruption in all branches of government. Societal problems included violence against women, trafficking in persons, xenophobic attacks and hate crimes, and societal discrimination, harassment, and attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.

The government generally did not prosecute security officials who committed abuses, especially against ethnic minorities and prisoners.

Manafort and Gates lobbied Congress to defend Yanukovych’s decision to imprison the woman who had run against him in the campaign (echoes of “lock her up!”).  They funneled millions of hidden offshore dollars for a report on her trial on behalf of the government that had imprisoned her.  When Yanukovych fled the country four years later in response to enormous protests against his government’s corruption, Manafort and Gates continued to represent his pro-Russia party’s interests.

On its face, the indictment seems primarily about money-laundering and tax fraud.  But even if Manafort had been completely above-board in his finances (and remember, he is innocent until proven guilty), he got paid to do the bidding of anti-democratic figures who locked up their political opponents and who were instruments in Putin’s plan to disrupt the country’s democracy.  Is there a pattern here?

And this is who Donald Trump chose to be his campaign manager: a man who had no respect for democracy, and who had spent years serving the interests of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine by helping the pro-Russian party.  This tells us as much about Trump as it does about Manafort.

Manafort retained his connections to pro-Putin figures while working to get Donald Trump into the White House.  For instance, Manafort had a key role in setting up the notorious meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., and an agent of Russian intelligence.

There is no reason to believe that this first indictment will be the last one.  Mueller clearly has a great deal of information about Trump’s campaign manager’s longtime ties to pro-Russian figures, as well as about their actions while serving in Trump’s campaign and their interactions with the Trump White House.

The indictment is also leverage: Facing the possibility of prison, Manafort might choose to cooperate with Mueller and reveal specific information about the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia and its agents.

This is bad news for Trump and his associates.  Trump’s name may not appear in the indictment, but the watermark has Trump’s name all over it.

Soon after the indictment was made public, Trump’s morning got much worse: Campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos pled guilty to making false statements to FBI agents engaged in the Russia-election investigation.  It turns out that after he became involved with the campaign, he began corresponding with a foreign professor who supposedly had substantial connections to officials in the Russian government.  He even received an email from his overseas contact mentioning the existence of thousands of emails containing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.  And according to his plea agreement, he’s cooperating with Mueller and his team.

Papadopoulos’ guilty plea, and especially this morning’s indictments of Manafort and Gates, are a clarion call to Congress: Pass legislation to protect Mueller from being removed or having his investigation stripped of resources.  Do it now.  Today.