Mueller ups the stakes in the Trump Russia inquiry
Mueller ups the stakes in the Trump Russia inquiry, for a moment in court, the mask slipped. Paul Manafort glanced at his lawyer and smirked, like a TV mafia boss with reasons to be confident. It was the look of a man who, after decades of work as a lobbyist for murderous dictators in Africa and Asia, was not about to be rattled by the prospect of house arrest.
But less than a mile away, another man displayed rather less equanimity. Donald Trump woke before dawn on Monday and, instead of heading to the Oval Office, lingered in the White House residence. “Trump clicked on the television and spent the morning playing fuming media critic, legal analyst and crisis communications strategist, according to several people close to him,” the Washington Post reported.
Until that moment, the justice department investigation into his election campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia had seemed somewhat theoretical, dismissable by Trump as a “hoax” and “witch hunt”. But here was the concrete of the courthouse, the accused escorted in by marshals, standing before a robed judge, swearing on oath and pleading for liberty. Suddenly Trump understood the five-month investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller – probing whether the American president has been compromised by a foreign power – had entered a new and dangerous phase.
“Overall this week what we learned is that Bob Mueller knows a lot more about what happened during the presidential campaign than anyone on the outside thought he did,” said Matthew Miller, a partner at strategic advisory firm Vianovo and former director of public affairs at the justice department. “We have an incomplete picture and we don’t know what the final picture might look like.”
Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chairman for five months, and his business associate Rick Gates, who also played a role in the campaign, were indicted on 12 counts including conspiracy against the US, conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, making false statements and failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts.
There was a silver lining for the president: the indictment did not reference the Trump campaign or coordination with Russia. But it did allege a criminal conspiracy was continuing into February this year, after Trump had taken office, and that the pair funneled payments through foreign companies and bank accounts as part of their work for Ukraine’s pro-Russia former president Viktor Yanukovych.
Frank Figliuzzi, former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, told MSNBC: “If you look at this through a counterintelligence lens, you see the fingerprints of the Russian government here … He [Manafort] got a primer on how the Russians can influence a campaign when he represented the Ukrainian candidate [Yanukovych] and he saw what Russia could do to influence a campaign. And he liked it.”
Appearing in a tense courtroom on Monday before a packed public gallery, Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty and were released on multimillion dollar bonds but confined to their homes. Lawyers for Manafort – also among the participants of a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-linked lawyer after Donald Trump Jr was promised “dirt” on rival Hillary Clinton – defended him in a court filing on Thursday as a “successful, international political consultant” who was necessarily involved in foreign financial transactions. US district judge Amy Berman Jackson has set a possible date of 7 May for the trial.
Mueller, evidently, is carrying his investigation out in stages, as if taking on an organised crime family. He may delve into Trump’s personal finances too. John Sipher, a national security analyst and former member of the CIA’s national clandestine service, said: “The fact the Mueller investigation would be willing to bring charges on everything from money laundering to tax evasion against Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman, is a big deal and suggests to me there’s a lot more there.”
Trump said on Twitter the alleged crimes were “years ago” and insisted there was “NO COLLUSION” between his associates and Russia. He characteristically sought to shift attention to his Democratic opponent, tweeting: “Why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”
The Manafort story broke just before 8am on Monday. In normal circumstances, charges against the former campaign chairman of a sitting president would be devastating enough. But then, around 10.30am, came a bolt from the blue. An unsealed indictment revealed that former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about contacts with people who claimed to have ties to top Russian officials and who were offering “dirt” on Clinton.
The special counsel’s one-two punch was deliberate, Miller believes. “He did the two together to send a very clear message to everyone in the Trump orbit. ‘If you cooperate, you’ll get a very favourable deal’ – I think he probably won’t go to jail – ‘If you lie and obstruct I’m going to throw the book at you and you’re looking at years in jail.”
Alarmingly for the White House, Papadopoulos is now cooperating with Mueller’s investigators and, some speculated, may have worn a wire. The White House predictably sought to distance itself from him. Trump tweeted: “Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar.”
But a photo posted on Trump’s Instagram account shows Papadopoulos sitting at a table with the businessman as well as Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, and other foreign policy advisers in March last year. According to the court documents, Papadopoulos told the meeting “that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin”.