Robert Mueller’s Opening Salvo Is a Show of Strength

A quick and dirty analysis on the Manafort and Papadopoulos cases.

Former Trump presidential campaign manager Paul Manafort at Game Four of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 17, 2017. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Former Trump presidential campaign manager Paul Manafort at Game Four of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 17, 2017. (Elsa/Getty Images)

The first big takeaway from this morning’s flurry of charging and plea documents with respect to Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, and George Papadopoulos is this: The president of the United States had as his campaign chairman a man who had allegedly served for years as an unregistered foreign agent for a puppet government of Vladimir Putin, who was allegedly laundering remarkable sums of money even while running the now-president’s campaign, and who allegedly lied about all of this to the FBI and the Justice Department.

The second big takeaway is even starker: A member of President Donald Trump’s campaign team now admits that he was working with people he knew to be tied to the Russian government to “arrange a meeting between the campaign and the Russian government officials” and to obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of hacked emails — and that he lied about these activities to the FBI. He briefed President Trump on at least some them.

Before we dive any deeper into the Manafort-Gates indictment — charges to which both men pled not guilty to today — or the Papadopoulos plea and stipulation, let’s pause a moment over these two remarkable claims, one of which we must still consider as allegation and the other of which we can now consider as admitted fact. Trump, in short, had on his campaign at least one person, and allegedly two people, who actively worked with adversarial foreign governments in a fashion they sought to criminally conceal from investigators. One of them ran the campaign. The other, meanwhile, was interfacing with people he “understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials” and with a person introduced to him as “a relative of Russian President Vladimir Putin with connections to senior Russian government officials.” All of this while Trump was assuring the American people that he and his campaign had “nothing to do with Russia.”

The release of these documents should, though it probably won’t, put to rest the suggestion that there are no serious questions of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government in the latter’s interference on the former’s behalf during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It also raises a profound set of questions of its own about the truthfulness of a larger set of representations Trump campaign officials and operatives have made both in public and, presumably, under oath and to investigators.

And here’s the kicker: This is only special counsel Robert Mueller’s opening salvo.

As first moves go, it’s a doozy.

Let’s start with the surprise unsealing of the Papadopoulos plea agreement and stipulation of fact. Papadopoulos first became publicly affiliated with the Trump campaign in March 2016. That month, Trump faced significant pressure to announce foreign policy advisors, after numerous Republican foreign policy and national security experts publicly vowed never to work for him. In response, Trump produced a list of names of purported experts, a list that included both Papadopoulos and Carter Page.

The Washington Post reported back in August of this year that Papadopoulos, between March and May of 2016, had “offered to set up ‘a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss US-Russia ties under President Trump,’” but that the campaign had rebuffed his numerous attempts. It turns out he did a lot more than that.

His guilty plea is for lying to FBI investigators in a Jan. 27, 2017 interview regarding his own conduct and contacts. As we’ve discussed in the past, it isn’t uncommon for false statements to the Bureau to be prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. § 1001 offenses in these sorts of cases. Proving someone is lying is often easier than proving that the underlying offense violates the law. Here, for example, Papadopoulos’s underlying activity — working with Russian government officials to obtain “dirt” on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and set up a Putin-Trump meeting — may have been legal, if wholly disreputable. Lying about it, however, is a crime. We can assume that Mueller had the goods on Papadopoulos beyond lying to the FBI in some manner. The lying, after all, is merely the charge he pled to in the context of a plea deal in which prosecutors have cut him a break.

That said, the Papadopoulos stipulation offers a stunningly frank, if probably incomplete, account of what was occurring in the spring of 2016 in the Trump campaign. To wit, during that period, members of the Trump campaign team were actively working to set up a meeting with Russian officials or representatives. And from a very early point in the campaign, those meetings were explicitly about obtaining hacked, incriminating emails.

It isn’t clear which emails the various parties might have been discussing here. There are, after all, the hacked emails of the Democratic National Committee, which first became public on June 14, 2016 — though the breach had occurred more than a year prior. There are the hacked emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, a breach that occurred on March 19, 2016 — but did not become public until Oct. 9 of that year. And there are also the purported 30,000 emails from Hillary Clinton’s time at the State Department, a matter stretching back to 2015, which may not have ever been hacked but which Trump campaign folks clearly believed had been. There is also possibly some other category of alleged emails that wasn’t a matter of public discussion. But it’s clear that Trump campaign officials were after emails and, well, let’s just say they didn’t go to the FBI when they found themselves in conversations with Russian officials about them.

The stipulation also contains some rather damaging information about President Trump himself. Papadopoulos says he attended a “national security” meeting on March 31, 2016, with Trump personally in attendance, along with his other foreign-policy advisors. In that meeting, Papadopoulos told the group that he had connections to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin. This means that Trump either knew or should have known about his campaign’s effort to interface with Russia, even as news of various criminal hacking and attempts to interfere with the U.S. election were becoming public.

The Manafort-Gates indictment is, in a different way, also dramatic. The amount of money allegedly at issue is breathtaking. According to paragraph 6 of the indictment, “more than $75,000,000 flowed through the offshore accounts” that Manafort and Gates controlled. Eighteen million of these dollars are specifically alleged to have been laundered. This money laundering “to hide Ukraine payments from United States authorities” allegedly took place through the entire period of Manafort’s service in the Trump campaign.

Manafort’s alleged unregistered foreign agency on behalf of Ukraine and its Party of Regions, by contrast, allegedly ended in 2014, when then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted. So President Trump can at least claim that his campaign manager is not under indictment for being an unregistered foreign agent at the time he was running Trump’s campaign.

But that’s about the only good news for the president in this indictment. Manafort is alleged to have lied about his foreign-agent status and made false statements into this year. In other words, at the same time as Papadopoulos admits he was working Russian government officials for Clinton emails and for a Trump-Putin meeting, Manafort was allegedly still laundering the money he had obtained by illegally representing one of Putin’s allied strongmen.

In the wake of the document releases, Trump naturally took to Twitter to dismiss it all:

We offer no prediction as to how this will play politically or whether such antics will carry any water with Republicans who must be feeling a little uneasy today.

We will say this: Mueller’s opening bid is a remarkable show of strength. He has a cooperating witness from inside the campaign’s interactions with the Russians. And he is alleging not mere technical infractions of law but astonishing criminality on the part of Trump’s campaign manager, a man who also attended the Trump Tower meeting.

Any hope the White House may have had that the Mueller investigation might be fading away vanished this morning. Things are only going to get worse from here.

 Twitter: @susan_hennessey
 Twitter: @benjaminwittes