Indictment charges for Manafort and Gates, a guilty plea from Papadopoulos—it seems like a promising start. But what does it all mean? Our legal adviser breaks it down.
Good morning! Today, we all got to wake up to the news that Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign manager, and Richard Gates III, a Manfort protege, are the first people to get indicted as part of the investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Hopefully it’s the first in a long line of indictments of Trump cronies and fellow travelers.
Manafort worked as Trump’s campaign manager from May 2016 through August 2016. Though that might seem like a relatively short time, he managed to pack a lot of communication with Russia on behalf of the campaign into those few months. He was part of the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump Jr. where she promised to provide info that would damage Hillary Clinton and brought some Putin-approved talking points to that meeting. While acting as Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort also emailed a Russian billionaire pal, Oleg Deripaska, offering to give him private briefings about the 2016 race. You’ll also remember that during the GOP convention last summer, they significantly weakened platform language about helping Ukrainians fight against Russia, which Manafort denied he had anything to do with.
Gates is more of a bit player in this saga, but he actually hung on longer than Manafort. After Manafort was fired, Gates was the campaign liaison with the RNC, then helped plan Trump’s inauguration, then left to run a pro-Trump group, America First Priorities.
Manafort was always the most likely suspect to get indicted first, although incredibly compromised former national security adviser Michael Flynn is an extremely close second. Manafort had massive—and obvious—ties to Russia that well predated the Trump campaign. Back in 2005, he secretly worked for Deripaska—yes, the same one he offered private campaign updates to— to benefit Putin’s government, a piece of news that didn’t come out until after the election. Until 2014, he also secretly (see a pattern here?) ran a lobbying operation to boost Ukraine’s pro-Putin ruling party. So what are Manafort and Gates going to go down for?
You can read the whole indictment here. There are 12 counts against Manafort and Gates, all of which revolve around the fact that Manafort and Gates had to hide the mountains of cash they made while illicitly working on behalf of Ukraine and the pro-Russia Ukrainian party from at least 2005 to 2016. Manafort is charged with defrauding the United States government, laundering money, not filing the proper reports about his financial ties to foreign governments, not registering as an agent of a foreign government and lying about it all.
Here’s why all of this is a problem: You can’t work on behalf of a foreign power without registering your activities by filing a sworn statement with the DOJ outlining who you work for and what you get paid. You also have to make it obvious that any lobbying material you distribute is being done so on behalf of the foreign power that’s paying you. The United States government gets to know what foreign entities are trying to influence it. Manafort and Gates didn’t do that, though. Instead, they hid their activities, which means they needed to hide the money and then launder it through legitimate businesses through complex transactions that would hide the illegal source of the money.
Mueller has unearthed that Manafort laundered at least $18 million of Ukraine-related money through an insanely complicated series of companies. (Gates, by comparison, only managed to move about $3 million around). Manafort hid his money by running it through a home entertainment company, an antique rug store, a couple clothing stores, a landscaper, and more. He also bought an impressive number of cars, including three range rovers and a Mercedes. Oh, and Manafort used one of the companies named in the indictment to buy a condo in Trump Tower.
Don’t get too attached to the language in the indictment that says that Manafort and Gates “intentionally conspired to defraud the United States.” Though that sounds exciting and ominous, it’s really just the required language for money laundering and tax evasion charges—not that those aren’t bad enough. But Manafort, of course, didn’t pay taxes on all that money he was hiding, and that tends to make the government unhappy since it’s illegal.
Expect Trump to spend the day spinning and deflecting. Clearly no aides could get his phone away from him, because he’s already tweeting about how the Manafort charges are about things that predated his involvement with the Trump campaign (which is not actually true as the indictment says Manafort’s criminal activity extended into 2016 and 2017) and that the real focus should be “Crooked Hillary & the Dems.” He also did one of his patented ALL CAPS tweets to just yell that there is NO COLLUSION.
Expect Fox News to try to minimize this all day too. One of their first stories on the indictment this morning starts with this framing:
It’s been more than a year since Paul Manafort briefly led President Trump’s quest for the White House and even longer since he worked for a controversial Ukrainian politician.
On TV this morning, Fox decided the mission critical news of the day was to discuss the raging controversy over where the cheese should go in a cheeseburger emoji. No, really.
Of course, there’s speculation about whether Trump can and will pardon Manafort and Gates. He totally can, because these charges are federal ones. But—the indictment shows that Manafort used money to buy things in New York, Florida, California, Virginia, and South Carolina, which means state charges are a possibility. Trump can’t issue pardons related to state charges.
Oh, and by the way: news dropped today that another Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, just pled guilty to lying to the FBI about contact with a Kremlin-affiliated Russia professor. He told the FBI that conversation had occurred before he started advising the Trump campaign, but lo and behold he talked to the professor after signing on to work with Trump. That professor told Papadopoulos the Russians had thousands of emails with “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The Trump campaign, of course, has always said they had no inside info about the hacked Clinton emails, but it looks like, via Papadopoulos, they certainly did.
Papadopoulos told the FBI that this all happened before he joined the campaign, but has now admitted that was a lie. Papadopoulos also had numerous conversations with Russian nationals someone connected to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about how happy they would be to have a good relationship with Trump. Papadopoulos is also the guy that kept trying to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian officials and sent emails to Manafort to that effect. Papadopoulos’s plea deal says he’s cooperating with the government, which could prove to be very bad news for Trump.
In fact, both the Papadopoulos plea and the Manafort and Gates indictments show that Mueller is casting a wide net and sees his mandate to investigate Russian election meddling as a broad one. That’s good news for those of us that would like to see this go all the way to Trump’s doorstep. Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson have Russia ties, Trump has multiple business ties to Russia, Trump’s kids have ties to Russia … the list goes on and the mind reels. Keep digging, Mueller.
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