Indictments against a former Trump campaign manager and his associate, as well as a guilty plea by a campaign adviser, marked the opening salvo Monday by special counsel Robert Mueller into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The Trump administration is correct grand jury indictments against Paul Manafort, who briefly managed the campaign, and Rick Gates, his colleague and a White House presence, predate the campaign. FBI surveillance of Manafort began in 2014.
Mueller’s charge, though, allows him to probe any Russian connections, just as Ken Starr unearthed President Bill Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky while investigating Whitewater land dealings.
Manafort was recommended to Trump by his business partner Roger Stone. Manafort managed delegates for Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush at Republican conventions and had the same job for Trump before ascending to campaign manager.
Manafort was fired as campaign manager after reports he received $18 million from Ukraine’s pro-Russian party.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise given his sleazy public relations roster: President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines; Mobutu Sese Seko, corrupt dictator of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian puppet ousted in 2014; Ukrainian gas tycoon Dmytro Firtash, charged in a bribery scheme in India; Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, banned from the U.S. because of suspected organized crime ties; and scandal-plagued Mideast arms dealer Abdul Rahman el-Assir.
Manafort faces a dozen charges — conspiracy against the U.S., conspiracy to launder money, failure to disclose foreign bank accounts, failure to register as an agent of a foreign principal and various false statements.
A money-laundering conviction could mean 20 years in prison, an incentive for Manafort and Gates to reveal any Russian ties. Gates, with a young family, is considered more likely.
George Papadopoulos, an unpaid foreign policy adviser, already has entered a guilty plea for lying to the FBI and faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
The FBI interviewed him in January, when James Comey was still FBI director. He was arrested July 27.
Papadopoulos was a consultant for a London-based oil and gas company and director at the London Centre of International Law Practice when he met “the professor” — Joseph Mifsud, director of the London Academy of Diplomacy with ties to international relations seminars in Russia — at a London hotel in March 2016.
Mifsud told Papadopoulos he had met with senior Russian officials to discuss Hillary Clinton’s emails. “They have dirt on her. They have thousands of emails.”
Papadopoulos told Trump campaign officials about his “good friend” the professor and a woman he believed — incorrectly — to be President Vladimir Putin’s niece. His desire to pursue it was denied.
The FBI contends, “The professor only took interest in (him) because of his status with the campaign.”
More Russian overtures were forthcoming.
In June, music promoter Rob Goldstone emailed Donald Trump Jr. regarding a Russian prosecutor with documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” The “sensitive information” was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
“If it’s what you say, I love it,” Trump Jr. responded.
Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Manafort met with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has done Kremlin business.
That meeting was subsequently framed as a discussion of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which punished Russian officials for the 2009 prison beating death of accountant Sergei Magnitsky, who had investigated government fraud. President Vladimir Putin retaliated by banning American adoptions of Russian children.
In August 2016, DC Leaks, considered the creation of Russian military intelligence, and Wikileaks, using a hack supposedly by Russian operatives, posted information gathered from Democratic National Committee servers.
Amid Mueller’s investigation, Trump has responded by citing a secret dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, purporting to have raw intelligence involving Trump’s activities in Russia, which was funded by a law firm linked to the Clinton campaign.
However, the conservative Washington Free Beacon news site initially paid Fusion GPS, a strategic intelligence firm, to hire Steele.
It is assumed Mueller and congressional committees are investigating the dossier’s veracity and the politics behind it.
Trump also has cried foul about a Canadian mining financier — and major Clinton Foundation donor — who sold controlling interest in his company, which has rights to 20 percent of U.S. uranium, to a Russian company. Yet U.S. uranium can’t be exported, and Hillary Clinton wasn’t involved in overseeing the transaction.
Judging by Mueller’s trajectory, Trump Jr. and Kushner have reason for concern as well as Trump advisers with Russian business dealings.
Circumstantial evidence may exist of Russian influence in the Trump campaign — or, at least, attempts at it. But it’s no slam-dunk, even with Mueller’s staff of 16 top prosecutors. Trump foes could be celebrating prematurely.