The Trump administration claimed Monday that the first indictments handed down by special counsel Robert Mueller vindicate the president’s longstanding claim that his campaign did not collaborate with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election.
For the moment, it seems the administration is correct. Those senior campaign aides indicted Monday were charged with crimes unrelated to their campaign duties. Yet the charging documents suggest that the general trajectory of these prosecutions is substantially connected to the matter of alleged collaboration.
Two individuals were indicted Monday — Paul Manafort, the deposed campaign chairman, and his longtime deputy Richard Gates. The special counsel’s office also revealed a low-level campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in early October.
The Manafort’s indictments do not directly concern Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, though they may be eventually be relevant to that enterprise. Manafort faces 12 criminal charges including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, failure to disclose foreign bank accounts, failure to register as an agent of a foreign principal, and false statements of various sorts.
Manafort pleaded not guilty to all counts in a federal court Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson. He was released on house arrest and a $10 million unsecured appearance bond.
The structure of Manafort’s scheme as alleged by prosecutors is this: Manafort acted as an unregistered foreign agent of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, a pro-Russia political party which most recently held power from 2010 to 2014. In this capacity, Manafort coordinated lobbying campaigns effectuated by two Washington-based government affairs firms (likely the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs).
Manafort was generously compensated for these services by the Yanukovych regime. These payments — totaling tens of millions of dollars — were held in a network of foreign bank accounts and shell companies in Cyprus, Grenadines, Seychelles, St. Vincent, and the United Kingdom. Manafort never disclosed the existence of these entities as required by law, and did not pay the attending taxes. These funds, which were laundered into Manafort’s domestic financial holdings, were used to purchase luxury assets including cars, antique rugs, and bespoke suits as well as upscale real estate in the United States. Those property holdings were used as collateral in securing favorable loans from American financial institutions, affording Manafort “the benefits of liquid income without paying taxes on it,” according to the indictment. Those loans were used for capital improvements and further real estate purchases.
And finally, when questioned about these alleged arrangements, Manafort made false and misleading statements to federal investigators.
If convicted Manafort faces a lengthy prison term and significant financial penalties. Though the alleged crimes are not related Moscow’s dedicated campaign of disruption, the stiff sanctions Manafort faces provide a powerful incentive for his cooperation with Mueller’s inquiry into the Trump campaign. Mueller’s design may not be a tawdry white collar crime prosecution, then, but an aggressive play to “flip” Manafort and secure his cooperation.
The scale of the forfeiture allegation in Monday’s indictment corroborates this reading of events. Prosecutors claim that several Manafort properties in New York state and Arlington, Va., as well as his life insurance policy, derive from his criminal enterprise, warranting their seizure by federal authorities in the event of conviction. The prospect of destitution is still another forceful incentive to cooperate.
All told, while today’s events do not directly implicate the Trump administration, they appear to be part of a long game whose true objective is securing Manafort’s assistance with the investigation. We cannot anticipate what his collaboration could yield.
The Papadopoulos indictment is substantially relevant to the matter of Russian interference. Papadopoulos, a member of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy council who communicated regularly with Russia-aligned operatives, made “numerous false statements and omitted material facts,” in interviews with federal investigators, according to the special counsel. He subsequently pleaded guilty to making false statements on Oct. 5.
Papadopoulos himself appears to have been something of a vestigial limb on the Trump campaign. He served as an unpaid appointee on a foreign policy advisory council that met only a handful of times. It appears he was something of a peripheral presence who was not taken seriously by colleagues. The Daily Caller reported in August that Papadopoulos offered to broker a meeting between Trump aides and Russian officials during a March 2016 meeting. His overtures were rejected out of hand by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, who chaired the council, according to two sources present at the meeting.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed Tuesday during a briefing with reporters that Trump and Papadopoulos interacted only once in a group setting.
Still, Papadopoulos traded emails with senior officials in the campaign on a regular basis, including Manafort and Sam Clovis, a former campaign co-chair who has been tapped for a senior post at the Department of Agriculture. He raised the prospect of a summit with Russian leaders during multiple transmissions with campaign officials, took meetings with unnamed sources in Europe billing themselves as Kremlin-operatives, and pursued emails the Russian government may have recovered from Hillary Clinton’s private email service. What’s more, Clovis once encouraged Papadopoulos to travel to Russia on his own initiative to take meetings with members of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Much of this matter turns on who exactly Papadopoulos was to the campaign. The indictment at times casts him as a classic Washington self-promoter, prone to regular exaggeration and misrepresentation — just the sort of journeyman leech the Trump campaign attracted during last year’s general election. And yet he had access to campaign principals, who appeared to (eventually) sanction his efforts, raising the prospect that the special counsel has not revealed all that he knows about the Papadopoulos connection.
Prosecutors intimated as much during a plea agreement hearing at a federal court in Washington on Oct. 5.
“The criminal justice interest being vindicated here is there’s a large-scale ongoing investigation of which this case is a small part,” government lawyer Aaron Zelinsky said of the indictment.
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