Former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates were indicted by a federal grand jury on 12 counts, including conspiracy to launder a whopping $75 million, and false and misleading federal filings. They pled not guilty on Monday. In addition, Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopolous was revealed to have pled guilty to making false statements in an FBI interview about his discussions with Russia-related contacts earlier in the year.
Is this a huge deal? Is Trump on course to be impeached? Is it not that big of a deal and unrelated to the long-promised proof of Trump’s illegal ties to Russia? It depends on who you ask and may take some time to determine. Here are a few takeaways.
1. Whatever It Is, It’s Not Nothing
President Trump likes to say that Manafort wasn’t his campaign chairman for long. After Special Counsel Robert Mueller raided Manafort’s home this summer, Trump said, “He was with the campaign, as you know, for a very short period of time—for a relatively short period of time.”
That’s true, but the two have known each other for decades and Manafort was not just the Republican candidate’s campaign chairman, but chairman of the campaign at a very important time, from mid-May to mid-August of 2016. This time period included the fraught Republican Convention at which Manafort orchestrated a harsh shutdown of grassroots Republican opposition to Trump’s nomination.
Gates’ indictments relate to his work with Manafort, but he has his own relationship with Trump, including being an early visitor to the White House and the vice-chair of Trump’s Inaugural Committee.
The two are accused of laundering more than $75 million in foreign funds. However you slice it, two associates of Donald Trump getting caught up in a money laundering scheme is not going to burnish the president’s image.
2. What’s Not Surprising About The Indictments
Today was not the first day the world learned that Manafort and Gates might have engaged in some shady financial dealings. The whole reason Manafort stepped down from the campaign in the first place was the rash of unfavorable stories about the financial consequences of his work in Ukraine. “Secret Ledger in Ukraine Lists Cash for Donald Trump’s Campaign Chief,” was one New York Times headline. In August of last year, my better half wrote about possible money laundering by Manafort.
In light of this previously well-known and widely published news, a single count of money laundering along with charges related to many process and filing violations is perhaps less than reasonable observers might have expected.
3. What Is Surprising About the Indictment
The relatively restrained indictment against Manafort and Gates is mostly built around Foreign Agents Registration Act violations. Similar violations of this act are not uncommon, but criminal prosecutions for violations are uncommon. Usually the government requests a proper filing and issues a fine. Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, says there’s “not much there” in the indictment.
The indictment was also interesting for some of the information contained in it. There’s Manafort’s lavish spending, alleged to be the vehicle by which the duo laundered gobs of cash back to the United States. The indictment also mentions problematic behavior with “Company A” and “Company B,” reported to be the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs. Both of these groups admitted in 2017 to doing work on behalf of Manafort’s Ukraine front group, work they’d been doing since 2012.
On Monday, Tony Podesta of the Podesta Group announced he was departing the lobbying firm he founded. Podesta Group had lobbied on behalf of Uranium One, the group at the center of questions about a bribery attempt during the previous administration. Podesta is the brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, and a longtime Democratic operative.
4. Are The Indictments Related To 2016 Election Collusion With Russia?
No. The indictments are about money laundering and failing to disclose and file proper paperwork. Nothing in the indictment mentions Russia, or collusion with Russia, and nothing mentions Donald Trump. The indictments show that Mueller has moved afield from investigating Russian election meddling and collusion with Russia, although the tangential ties to the campaign and Russia may keep observers from getting too upset with him.
5. What About George Papadopolous?
Perhaps because the Manafort/Gates indictment was unrelated to the campaign or Trump, reporters quickly turned their attention to the more surprising news that Trump policy advisor George Papadopolous had not just pled guilty to making false statements to federal investigators, but had become what’s called a “proactive cooperator” with investigators. That means he may have been used to try to lure other Trump affiliates into false testimony or obstructions of justice.
The guilty plea was related to a single count of Papadopolous telling investigators false things about the timing of his discussions with Russian-connected contacts. Trump defenders say that he was an insignificant volunteer with no access to Trump while Trump critics are saying this is evidence of the Trump campaign’s intent to collude.
Former federal prosecutor McCarthy says the evidence in the plea document is exculpatory for Trump. Papadopolous was told, apparently falsely, that Russians had acquired thousands of Clinton emails. He was presumably willing to receive these emails. But if Russia had to inform a low-level campaign figure of this fact so the campaign could learn about it, that would mean they had nothing to do with the acquisition of the emails. And there is no evidence the claim was true to begin with.
While the guilty plea isn’t in and of itself bad for Trump, Papadopolous’ work as a proactive cooperator may yield additional results.
6. What’s Next?
Since Manafort was always assumed to be the big target of Mueller’s probe, today’s indictments could indicate that the investigation is wrapping up. But it’s not unreasonable to wonder if other Trump affiliates will be caught up in false statement charges or money laundering charges. Or perhaps family members or affiliates of Manafort and Gates can expect charges. Company A and Company B might also face the wrath of a special prosecutor who has found evidence of failure to properly file foreign agent paperwork.
If Mueller is serious about rooting out undisclosed lobbying work for foreign governments as well as looking at Russia’s influence in the election, the stated reason for his probe, he’ll be digging more into Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm hired by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to run the Russia-Trump dossier operation. The group has been accused of doing unregistered lobbying work on behalf of Russians.
And let’s not forget Mike Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor who was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for unregistered lobbying on behalf of Turkey during the campaign.
7. Trump Is Guilty Of Bad Judgment
It was Trump’s decision to hire Manafort, a known character, and place him at the head of his campaign. Ditto for Flynn’s role. Manafort may have been instrumental in helping Trump secure the Republican nomination, but his indictment on money laundering is not exactly an earth-shattering surprise.
Having affiliates who behave in such ways as to get in trouble with special prosecutors is not the same thing as traitorous collusion with Russia to steal an election that Hillary Clinton was supposed to win. But while Trump has many people in his cabinet and team who have good reputations, he has not always shown good judgment with those close to him.