In the wake of the news on Friday that special counsel Robert Mueller had indictments prepared for at least one person in connection with his Russian election-meddling investigation, a lot of liberals had dreams that looked a lot like this hilarious video: top Trump campaign officials, from former national-security adviser Mike Flynn to Jared Kushner to the president himself, being perp-walked by the FBI.
The news Monday morning that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and deputy Rick Gates were Mueller’s targets, for crimes of money laundering and tax evasion with no direct connection to the Russian-collusion allegations, was hard to interpret. Trump quickly tweeted that the behavior in question occurred before and after Manafort helmed the campaign, not during the campaign. This was just another lie, as it turned out. Still, the indictments didn’t provide an obvious through-line to trouble, let alone impeachment, for Trump.
But the plea agreement Mueller released an hour later with Trump policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty of making false statements to investigators about his dealings with Russian government agents during the campaign, could provide that through-line. Papadopoulos first told investigators that he’d had a few contacts with unimportant Russian nationals, all before he joined the campaign. He also claimed those contacts produced nothing of value.
Later, investigators confronted Papadopoulos with evidence that showed that (1) the Russian nationals he was in frequent touch with had government ties; (2) their contacts came only after he joined the Trump campaign and continued for months afterward; and (3) they promised him many significant things, including “thousands of emails,” apparently relating to Hillary Clinton, as well as “dirt” on the Democratic nominee and the ability to arrange a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin (which never happened). Papadopoulos was arrested in July and, in words that should shake the administration, the plea agreement states: “Following his arrest, defendant PAPADOPOULOS met with the Government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions.” Hmmmm.
To be fair, the document doesn’t provide evidence that Papadopoulos brought that “dirt” on Clinton to anyone else in the campaign. But it does show that he obtained that information shortly before attending a big foreign-policy meeting with Trump and his top advisers—and you may recall that current attorney general Jeff Sessions was Trump’s principal foreign-policy adviser. Papadopoulos sat two seats away from Sessions at that meeting, described in the plea agreement this way:
On or about March 31, 2016, defendant PAPADOPOULOS attended a “national security meeting” in Washington, DC, with then-candidate Trump and other foreign policy advisers for the Campaign. When defendant PAPADOPOULOS introduced himself to the group, he stated, in sum and substance, that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.
So we now have evidence that at least someone within the campaign knew that the Russians had “dirt” and “thousands of emails” on Clinton a month and a half before the already-shady-seeming June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting. You know, the one at which Donald J. Trump Jr. was promised “dirt” on Clinton from Russian government sources (“If true, I love it!” he replied in an e-mail), and to which he invited Jared Kushner—and the now-indicted Paul Manafort.
Clearly, the Papadopoulos guilty plea is today’s worst news for the Trump administration. But the Manafort and Gates indictments aren’t exactly good news. At minimum, they show Trump put his campaign in the hands of a sleazy tyrant-fellating influence peddler who laundered a staggering $75 million to avoid taxes—much of it through a Cyprus bank tied to Russia. Also, given Manafort’s work on behalf of Russian-allied Ukranian organizations and leaders, Mueller is almost certainly still examining whether Manafort used those ties to encourage Russian support for Trump.
You’ll also remember some of the e-mails Mueller already has, in which Manafort offers personal briefings on the Trump campaign to Putin-allied Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, with whom Manafort had a business relationship that went sour. He also e-mailed an aide asking whether his growing power within the Trump campaign could help his business: “How do we use to get whole?” A Manafort spokesman told The Washington Post the e-mails reflected innocuous attempts to collect on past business debts. That’s a hilarious admission that the campaign chair was trying to use his political position with Trump to advance his business interests. If that’s his cover story, what’s the real story?
Many legal analysts have suggested that veiled references to high-level Trump campaign officials throughout the Papadopoulos plea deal—none of them named; they’re described as a “Campaign Supervisor,” a “HighRanking Campaign Official,” a “Senior Policy Advisor”—are designed to let Manafort know how much they know about what he did, from so many directions. These indictments may be an effort to get Manafort to join Papadopoulos in a guilty plea, and tell Mueller more about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia. Former US Attorney Barbara McQuade told MSNBC Monday afternoon, “This is a dog whistle to Paul Manafort.”
But we all hear it. Let’s all keep listening.