Is the White House Scared Yet?
You know it’s a bad day for the White House when the president’s former campaign chairman is charged with money laundering, tax fraud, making false statements and failing to register as a foreign agent — and that is only the second most damaging story of the morning.
Early Monday, Paul Manafort, who led Donald Trump’s campaign during several crucial months in 2016, and a longtime Manafort associate, Rick Gates, who was also a Trump campaign official, surrendered to federal authorities after being named in an indictment obtained by Robert Mueller III, who was appointed as special counsel in May to investigate connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
These are the sorts of people Mr. Trump has regularly chosen to associate with. And given Monday’s developments, they’re not the only ones who should be afraid of being ensnared in Mr. Mueller’s spreading net.
Both men pleaded not guilty. The crimes they are charged with are very serious — money laundering alone carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison — but on their own they suggest no immediate link to the original subject of Mr. Mueller’s investigation: possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to help swing the election to Mr. Trump, and any subsequent cover-up of that collusion.
Mr. Trump was eager to highlight that point, tweeting on Monday morning, “there is NO COLLUSION!”
Surprise! Soon after Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates turned themselves in, newly unsealed court documents revealed that another Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty in early October to lying to the F.B.I. about conversations he had with a professor who had substantial ties to Russian government officials.
The professor introduced Mr. Papadopoulos to a woman he claimed was a relative of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Then in April 2016 he told Mr. Papadopoulos that Moscow had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” Mr. Papadopoulos tried for several months to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and the Russians, including Mr. Putin
But in a late-January interview with F.B.I. investigators, Mr. Papadopoulos said that the professor had contacted him well before he joined the campaign and that the professor was “a nothing” who was “B.S.’ing to be completely honest with you.”
Mr. Papadopoulos was not telling the truth, as it turned out. He had joined the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser in early March 2016, more than a month before speaking with the professor about the “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton. On July 27 of this year, he was arrested, and began cooperating with Mr. Mueller — a carrot-and-stick strategy that Mr. Mueller is most likely to keep using to try to turn other Trump associates. On Oct. 5 Mr. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to federal officials.
The guilty plea is the most direct evidence connecting the campaign to the Russian efforts to help elect Mr. Trump. After days of dishonesty, the White House acknowledged in July that Mr. Manafort and Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had attended a meeting arranged by Donald Trump Jr. with Kremlin-connected intermediaries who said they had dirt on Mrs. Clinton. And the Trump adviser Roger Stone (recently kicked off Twitter for abusive and profane tweets) has acknowledged having contacts with WikiLeaks, which has been a conduit for Russian-hacked emails.
And yet the White House’s response Monday was essentially “George who?” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, called Mr. Papadopoulos a campaign “volunteer” who worked in an “extremely limited” role — a characterization that’s hard to square with the fact that Mr. Trump identified him, along with four other people, as a member of his foreign-policy team in March 2016. And then there were the numerous communications between Mr. Papadopoulos and top campaign officials about meeting with the Russians, including one encouraging Mr. Papadopoulos to “make the trip” to Moscow, “if it is feasible.”
But back to Mr. Manafort. Mr. Trump tweeted Monday that the allegations in the indictment concern activities from “years ago,” before Mr. Manafort joined the campaign, and complained once again that the investigation was not focused on “Crooked Hillary and the Dems.” Putting aside Mr. Trump’s bizarre fixation with a political opponent he bested nearly a year ago, he’s wrong about the indictment, which explicitly alleges illegal behavior that continued through 2017.
Anyway, whether Mr. Trump was aware of any of the specific details in the indictment is beside the point. He certainly must have known what he was getting in hiring Mr. Manafort. A Republican lobbyist and political consultant, Mr. Manafort has a long history of enriching himself working for some of the world’s most unscrupulous and dictatorial leaders, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Jonas Savimbi in Angola and Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo — not a list most American presidential candidates would want to be on. More recently, he helped to elect the pro-Kremlin Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine. In 2014, Mr. Yanukovych fled the country for Russia in the face of street protests, opening the door for Mr. Putin to destabilize the country.
The indictment charges that Mr. Manafort used overseas shell companies to launder more than $18 million of the tens of millions of dollars he raked in through his Ukraine work, and used that untaxed money to buy multimillion-dollar properties, luxury cars and fancy suits. Mr. Gates, a former protégé of Mr. Manafort’s, was charged with laundering more than $3 million. Both men were also accused of lying to bookkeepers, tax accountants and lawyers as part of their scheme.
Mr. Manafort, in other words, embodies the sort of amoral, self-dealing denizen of the swamp that Mr. Trump pledged to drain when he got to Washington. What the president did not anticipate was that Mr. Mueller would be the one doing the draining.