The big news we have been waiting all weekend to hear was announced early this morning. Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, Manafort’s long term business partner were charged with a number of serious federal crimes associated with their work for Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russia Party of Regions in the Ukraine. (Yanukovych eventually fled to Russia after being ousted from his position of President of the Ukraine in 2014.) Manafort and Gates were charged with conspiracy against the U.S., money laundering, being an unregistered foreign agent, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.
Manafort started working for the Trump campaign in April of 2016 and served as his campaign manager from May until August of 2016. Newt Gingrich was quoted in August saying, “Nobody should underestimate how much Paul Manafort did to really help get this campaign to where it is right now.” Gates started working for the campaign at the same time as Manafort serving as his deputy, but he stayed on long after Manafort resigned under pressure. Gates worked on the inauguration and eventually switched over to working for the Trump’s Super PAC. While campaign manager, Manafort attended the meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya who promised dirt on Clinton and, among other things, is said to have been behind the weakening of the Republican campaign platform plank on defending the Ukraine against Russia attacks.
While convictions on the charges of failure to report foreign financial accounts can each cost a defendant fines of up to $500,000 in fines and up to 10 years in jail, probably the most serious charge leveled against the two men is that of money laundering. Manafort is charged with funneling millions of dollars through overseas shell companies and using the money to buy several pieces of expensive real estate and various luxury items. Money laundering carries a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years.
While the Trump White House’s narrative is that all Manafort’s alleged crimes occurred “long before” he as appointed campaign manager is false – one alleged crime was committed while Manafort was on the job and another was committed in 2017 –no direct connection with the campaign was disclosed in the charges. Of course there is ample cause to question why the Republican nominee for President of the United States chose a man with very dubious reputation and deep ties to the Russians to run his campaign. Also, one has to wonder whether Manafort and/or Gates, facing tens of years in prison, might succumb to the temptation to work with Muller in exchange for reduced sentences. On these subjects we will have to await future developments.
While the arrests of Trump’s former campaign manager and his deputy has gotten most of the attention this morning, this development may not ultimately have the greatest impact on outcome of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. I have been reading through the legal documents associated with the guilty plea agreement of George Papadopoulos on the Lawfare website – George Papadopoulos Stipulation and Plea Agreement – and I believe that, at least for now, the unveiling of the Papadopoulos guilty plea is much more problematic for the future of Donald Trump than the Manafort charges.
As you have probably already learned Papadopoulos was a foreign affairs advisor to the Trump campaign who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian professor, who he knew had “substantial connections to Senior Russian government officials.” The guilty plea was entered and Papadopoulos agreed to turn state’s evidence and work with Muller’s team in exchange for a reduced fine and sentence . I found one paragraph from the “Statement of Offense” document is very revealing:
“On or about April 26, 2016, defendant PAPADOPOULOS met the Professor for breakfast at a London hotel. During this meeting, the Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that on that trip he (the Professor) learned that the Russians had obtained “dirt” on then-candidate Clinton. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS, as defendant PAPADOPOULOS later described to the FBI, that “They [the Russians] have dirt on her”; “the Russians had emails of Clinton“; “they have thousands of emails.” In another section of the statement: “. . . the Professor showed interest in defendant PAPADOPOULOS only after learning of his role on the Campaign.”
Here is what we know about the Papadopoulos affair from this set of court documents:
- Papadopoulos, who was living in London at the time and had recently been named one of a Trump’s campaign advisors, “met” a Russian professor who also lived in London while on a trip to Italy. (I put “met’ in quotation marks because one has to wonder whether the meeting was accidental or planned by Russian operatives.)
- The Russian professor, who claimed to have ties to high ranking Russian officials, was interested in Papadopoulos because of his involvement with the Trump campaign.
- On March 24, 2017 Papadopoulos met with the professor in London. At the meeting the professor introduced Papadopoulos to a Russian woman who he described as a relative of Vladimir Putin and the Russian ambassador.
- Following the meeting Papadopoulos sent an email to an official of the campaign describing the meeting and said it was about setting up a meeting for Trump to meet with high level Russian officials, perhaps Putin himself. The campaign official wrote back, “Good work.”
- On March 31st Papadopoulos attended a national security meeting with Trump and other foreign affairs advisors and at the meeting Papadopoulos told the assembled group including Trump that his Russiancontact that could arrange a meeting with Trump and Russian officials.
- For the next few weeks Papadopoulos worked using emails with the professor, the Russian woman, and a contact the professor had provided him in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a possible meeting between Trump and Putin, perhaps to be held in London.
- Papadopoulos met again with the Russian professor on April 26th. The professor told him that, “he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with senior Russian officials” where he learned that “the Russians had dirt on then candidate Clinton. The professor told the defendant Papadopoulos, as the defendant Papadopoulos later told the FBI, that they (the Russians) have obtained “dirt on her” and the Russians of Clinton, “they have hundreds of emails”.
- In the following months Papadopoulos communicated with the Russians and campaign officials as he continued to try to arrange a high level meeting between the between the Trump campaign and the Russians. However, apparently the campaign was concerned about the bad optics of such a meeting.
- Papadopoulos then concentrated on setting up an unofficial meeting between the campaign and Russian representatives. On June 19th Papadopoulos emailed a high level campaign official, “The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs messaged and said that if Mr. Trump is unable to make it to Russia, a campaign representative (me or someone else) can make it for meetings? I am willing to make the trip off the record if it is in the interest of Mr. Trump and the campaign to meet with specific people.”
- After several weeks of communications about a potential “off the record” meetings,“on or about August 15, 2016 the Campaign Supervisor told the defendant Papadopoulos the ‘I would encourage” you and another foreign policy advisor to the Campaign ‘to make the trip” if it is feasible.” The trip never happened and in January Papadopoulos was being questioned by the FBI.
While the description of the Papadopoulos affair cannot be honestly referred to as a “smoking gun”, it is definitely revealed a lot of smoke that is coming from some source. The Russians were apparently doing their best to penetrate the Trump campaign and this caper fits their MO perfectly. And let’s not forget that this was not the only attempt by the Russians to offer dirt on Clinton to the Trump campaign. The willingness of Trump Jr. and other campaign officials including Paul Manafort to attend the June meeting in Trump Towers with Russian representatives to “get dirt Clinton” is also prime evidence that the Trump campaign was open to colluding with the Russians.
By the way, I will leave it to others figure out who was being referred to as “the Campaign Supervisor” in the Papadopoulos documents, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that it was a high ranking campaign official. And I don’t believe the unsealing of Papadopoulos plea deal document just happened to coincide with charging and arrests of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.
The timing of the release of the documents was obviously intended to send a message to Manafort that Papadopoulos had copped a plea and was telling everything he knew to Muller and there was a lot more to Papadopoulos’ story than was provided in the court documents. In the introduction of the document entitled Statement of Offense there is the following sentence: “These facts do not constitute all of facts known to the parties about the charged offense; they are being stipulated to demonstrate that sufficient facts exist that the defendant committed the offense to which he is pleading guilty.”
I am reading this to mean the Papadopoulos has furnished Special Council Muller and his team with a lot more information than Muller is publishing right now. The unsealing of Papadopoulos’ plea deal is Muller’s way of telling everyone who was a member of the Trump campaign who has pertinent information that it you better come clean and cooperate with us when the FBI talks to you if you want to stay out of jail because we will be able to tell if you are lying. We’ll see how things progress from now on, but I am reminded of the old saying, “this might not be the beginning of the end, but it is at least the end of the beginning.”