Collusiongate

David French:

For once, the Twitter speculation was mainly correct. When news broke Friday night that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had obtained an indictment, the smart money pegged former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. After all, the FBI had raided Manafort’s home and widespread reporting indicated that he had complex and lucrative dealings with pro-Russian leaders and entities in Ukraine.

Today, Manafort and his business partner, Richard Gates, surrendered to federal authorities, and the special counsel’s office released its indictment. Hours later the special counsel’s office released a “statement of the offense” indicating that former Trump-campaign foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos pled guilty to providing material false statements to the FBI. Let’s use a question-and-answer format to walk through their scope, meaning, and implications.

First things first, does the Manafort indictment have anything to do with the Trump campaign?

No, not on its face. The indictment relates to Manafort’s personal business dealings with the Ukrainian government, former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, and a Ukrainian political party called the Party of Regions. It remains to be seen whether Special Counsel Mueller will use this indictment as leverage to pressure Manafort to cooperate fully with his much broader investigation into whether there were “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”

If the indictment’s not about the campaign, then what does it allege?

Essentially, it claims that Manafort and Gates engaged in an extensive scheme to conceal a vast amount of foreign revenue, hide the true extent of their ties to their Ukrainian clients, and to frustrate federal attempts to collect taxes and obtain information about their activities. The special counsel alleges that Manafort and Gates funneled roughly $75 million through offshore accounts and laundered more than $18 million.

The indictment claims that Manafort would, for example, use foreign bank accounts to purchase real estate in the United States, and then take out mortgages on the property to grant him access to tax-free cash. It also claims that he failed to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts and that he failed to register as an agent of the government of Ukraine.

I heard one of the counts was “conspiracy against the United States.” That sounds like treason.

No, it’s not treason. It essentially means that Manafort and Gates conspired together to defeat IRS efforts to enforce tax laws. It’s a common charge under the general federal conspiracy statute, which makes it a crime to “commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose.”

So, this indictment has nothing to do with Russia?

Not on its face, but one can’t divorce this case from its geopolitical context. The survival of the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime in Ukraine was a matter of extreme urgency for the Russian government and was considered a matter of vital Russian national interest. Yanukovych’s fall was one of the proximate causes of the Russian invasion of Crimea and the ongoing civil war in southeast Ukraine.

I just heard another Trump-campaign official is in trouble. What gives?

As noted above, just as the nation was digesting the Manafort indictment, the special counsel’s office released a “statement of the offense” against former Trump-campaign foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos. In short, Papadopoulos admitted to making material false statements to the FBI.

What did Papadopoulos do?

He lied to the FBI about his contacts with a professor who had “substantial connections to Russian government officials.” This professor claimed to have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton “in the form of ‘thousands of emails.’” Papadopoulos claimed to have obtained this information before he became a Trump adviser. In reality, the professor told him about the alleged Russian “dirt” only after he joined the Trump team.

The statement of offense also details extensive contacts between Papadopoulos, an unnamed “Female Russian National,” and an unnamed “Campaign Supervisor.” Essentially, Papadopoulos was serving as a go-between to set up a potential meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, a meeting that never happened. It’s in that context that Papadopoulos learned of the alleged “dirt” on Clinton.

So, is this guilty plea proof of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia?

No, but it does raise serious questions, and it does demonstrate how little we truly know about the Mueller investigation. It seems from the statement of offense that the bulk of the contacts between Papadopoulos and his Russian intermediaries involved his efforts to set up the meeting between Trump and Putin, activity that’s certainly legitimate, but he also pushed to set up a meeting between Trump-campaign representatives and “members of president putin’s office [sic] and the mfa [Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs].”

What does all this mean?

This is not the beginning of the end of the Trump/Russia investigation; it’s the end of the beginning. It’s also a reminder that after countless news reports, an indictment, and a guilty plea we are still like the proverbial blind men feeling the elephant. But when you combine the Papadopoulos indictment with previous reports of the 2016 meeting between purported Russian government representatives and Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, then it appears clear that Russians seemed determined to at least lead Trump-campaign officials to believe that they had negative information on Clinton.

While the Papadopoulos indictment directly bears on the collusion investigation, Manafort unquestionably had greater overall situational awareness of the campaign’s operations, was unquestionably advancing vital Russian national interests, and apparently was operating an illicit operation on a scale larger than we previously imagined. When it comes to Manafort, Trump didn’t drain the swamp. He hired the swamp. If anyone thought Mueller’s investigation wasn’t necessary before today, the revelations from the special counsel’s office should dispel all doubt.

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