Last Friday, news leaked that Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, had issued his first indictments. The indictments, however, were sealed until this morning when former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime business partner and former Trump deputy campaign manager were charged with conspiracy, failing to register as an agent of a foreign government, making false statements, and money laundering. The Mueller investigation also revealed today that George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign policy advisor during the campaign, had pled guilty in early October to lying to the F.B.I. about his efforts to connect the Trump campaign with the Russian government. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start by looking at these three men and their alleged crimes .
Paul Manafort—Manafort served as Trump’s campaign manager from June-August 2016 after the firing of Corey Lewandowski. In the mid-1970s, Manafort began his career as an attorney and political operative for the Republican Party. He worked as the southern coordinator for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and served as deputy political director at the RNC. Later, he advised the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. In the 1980s, Manafort founded a lobbying firm with future Trump ally Roger Stone. He would spend the next several decades as a lobbyist for some of the world’s most brutal dictators including Jonas Savimbi, the leader of an Angolan rebel group; Ferdinand Marcos, dictator of the Philippines; Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire; and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort served as an adviser to Yanukovych even though the U.S. government opposed Yanukovych because of his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Manfort resigned from his position with the Trump campaign in August 2016 after allegations that he may have received nearly $13 million in off-the-record payments from Yanukovych’s political party. Today’s indictments are related to those allegations. The indictment alleges that Manafort and Graves laundered over $75 million as a result of their lobbying for the Ukraine. From 2006 to 2016, Manafort and Gates hid their money through a variety of US and foreign banks, corporations, and other means. Manafort used approximately $18 million of his money to pay for personal expenses like rugs and clothing and buy and upgrade numerous homes.
Rick Gates—Gates was the deputy campaign manager under Manafort and has worked with Manafort since at least the mid-2000s at Manafort’s lobbying firm. The indictment describes him as Manafort’s “right-hand man.” Gates remained on the Trump campaign after Manafort’s resignation. He served as second in command of Trump’s inauguration committee and remained close with Trump confidant Tom Barrack. Gates is charged with funneling $3 million of his lobbying money to pay for personal expenses.
George Papadopoulos—Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about meeting with a professor who had ties to the Russian government and promised to provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos lived in London and describes himself as a political consultant, having worked for the conservative Hudson Institute from 2011-2015. He initially worked as a foreign policy consultant for Ben Carson’s presidential campaign before joining the Trump team in March 2016. After joining the Trump campaign, Papadopoulos met with the unnamed professor. Under the direction of a “campaign supervisor” Papadopoulos sought to arrange a meeting between Trump campaign officials and agents of the Russian Foreign Ministry about improving US-Russia relations. Additionally, the professor told Papadopoulos that the Russians had thousands of emails on Clinton and “have the dirt on her.” Papadopoulos was arrested on July 27, 2017 when he landed at Dulles International Airport. On October 5, 2017, he pled guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his attempts to contact the Russian government.
So what does it all mean? These are the first indictments to stem from the Mueller investigation and they likely won’t be the last. Papadopoulos is charged with lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Russia from an interview he gave in January 2017, months before Mueller took over the investigation. His plea deal, however, did reveal something important—that the Trump campaign was seeking to meet with the Russian Foreign Ministry to obtain damaging information about Hillary Clinton. This revelation flies in the face of Trump’s claims that his campaign never sought coordination or cooperation with the Russian government. Papadopoulos himself may be small potatoes, but his interactions with “campaign supervisor” suggest that there’s fire behind all the smoke about collusion with the Russians.
There was nothing surprising about Manafort and Gates’ indictments. Numerous newspapers had identified Manafort’s real estate dealings and financial ties to the Ukraine. The current indictments don’t cover anything directly related to Manafort and Gates’ activities in the Trump campaign. The lack of charges relating directly to the campaign at this moment do not vindicate Trump and other conservative media who claim that this has nothing to do with the election. Manafort and Gates, in their respective roles as campaign manager and deputy campaign manager were engaged in a years’ long money laundering campaign, receiving millions of dollars from the pro-Putin president of the Ukraine. That’s a political scandal no matter how you slice it. Additionally, Mueller and his team of investigators can bring additional charges at any time.
Today was the beginning of a new phase of the investigation. Now we wait and see where it goes from here.