WASHINGTON – Three former officials in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign have been charged with federal crimes by Robert Mueller III, the special prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.
These are the first charges filed in Mueller’s probe, and amount to the opening salvo in a wide-ranging investigation expected to target several other figures in the president’s inner circle. Questions over whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with the Russian government to win the 2016 race have clouded his victory and the first year of his presidency.
Two of those officials – Paul Manafort, former chairman of the Trump campaign, and Rick Gates, a longtime Manafort business partner who also worked at a high level in the campaign and in Trump’s presidential transition team – willingly surrendered themselves to FBI custody early Monday morning, after being served with a 12-count indictment.
Charges included conspiracy against the United States, money laundering, failure to register as agents of a foreign power and making false statements to government and law enforcement officials.
Manafort and Gates joined Trump’s campaign at the beginning of his general election effort against the 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. One of Manafort’s early and most important tasks was navigating Trump through a heated Republican National Convention, where Trump was formally nominated for president and where the GOP platform suspiciously softened its positions on Russia and Ukraine, compared with prior years.
Mueller charged Manafort and Gates – to whom the indictment refers as Manafort’s “right-hand man” – with laundering over $75 million through overseas accounts over the course of a decade. They together spent over $20m. on luxury goods and services within the US, the charges assert.
Mueller found that the two men “generated tens of millions of dollars” from individuals and entities in Ukraine working with and on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including the pro-Russia Party of Regions and its former leader, Viktor Yanukovich, who fled to Russia in 2014. The indictment accuses Manafort and Gates of continuing these illicit activities “through at least 2016,” indicating they were perpetrating the scheme – benefiting financially from Moscow- linked entities – while they were running Trump’s campaign operation.
Both Manafort and Gates entered “not guilty” pleas during their arraignment in a Washington, DC, court on Monday. The government requested bail for Manafort at $10m. and for Gates at $5m., followed by house arrest should they post it.
Responding to the news within an hour of its publication, Trump wrote on Twitter that Manafort and Gates were subject to charges over “years old” behavior. One of the president’s lawyers told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the indictment had nothing to do with Trump or the White House, noting that the 31-page document made no reference either to the president or to coordinating contact between Russian government officials and the Trump campaign.
“Today’s announcement has nothing to do with the president, nothing to do with the president’s campaign or with campaign activity,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters in a briefing.
But a third indictment, also unsealed on Monday, reveals a more direct connection.
George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign who had frequent documented contact with senior campaign officials, was charged with making false statements to FBI agents when pressed over his engagement with Russian- connected individuals in January of this year. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to that charge earlier this month and has since been cooperating with authorities, according to an affidavit released by Mueller’s team on Monday.
The document details a sustained effort by Papadopoulos to connect senior members of the Trump campaign with Russian government officials, and even to organize a meeting between Trump and Putin himself. Without naming individuals, Mueller’s affidavit notes that senior advisers in the campaign expressed interest in Papadopoulos’s effort and suggested sending low-level officials in order to avoid sending “any signal.”
One Russia-linked individual who met with Papadopoulos at a London hotel in April 2016 – roughly one month after Papadopoulos joined the campaign in the capacity of adviser – told him that Moscow had “dirt on Clinton” in the form of “thousands of emails.” Mueller’s team says that Papadopoulos proceeded with his efforts to connect campaign aides with Russian government officials after the meeting.
Sanders said that Papadopoulos’s role in the 2016 race was “extremely limited” and that he was acting “outside of the campaign or campaign activity” as a volunteer adviser.
But in an interview during the campaign with The Washington Post’s
editorial team, Trump named Papadopoulos as one of his top foreign policy talents.
The timing of the affidavit’s release is noteworthy, as it could have been unsealed earlier or later. Instead, its release was apparently timed with the announcement of indictments against Manafort and Gates.Mueller is understood to be investigating a wide net of connections between Russia and the Trump campaign, including but not limited to the GOP candidate’s employment of Carter Page, a consultant with ties to the Russian oil and gas industry; Michael Flynn, a former US general who failed to register as a foreign agent despite profiteering off a Russian propaganda network, Russia Today, meeting with Putin in Moscow, working for the Turkish government and lying about contacts with Russian officials, all before being appointed Trump’s first national security adviser; Roger Stone, a political operative who allegedly communicated with both Trump and WikiLeaks staff during the campaign; and the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who both attended a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer offering ''useful'' information on Clinton.
Trump aggressively opposes the investigation of ties between his campaign and the Russians, insisting that the entire inquiry is a hoax, despite parallel bipartisan investigations occurring on Capitol Hill. All US intelligence agencies are in agreement that Moscow attempted to influence the 2016 race in Trump’s favor through a sustained dirt and disinformation campaign.
Attempting to thwart the investigation, Trump fired the man who was leading it, FBI director James Comey, back in May.Trump explained at the time to US press and Russian officials that he was frustrated by his handling of the case.
Mueller is investigating the matter of Comey’s firing as a potential case of obstruction of justice.
His mandate is to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Mueller has offered no public comment on the progress of his investigation or how long it may take.