If you spent last week wondering why Donald Trump and his minions were ranting incessantly about Obama, uranium, Hillary Clinton and dossiers — old stories that were done to death years ago — well, now you know. A little bird told a little bird told the tweeter-in-chief that the hammer was about to come down on some of his people, but no one knew exactly who, so it was a week of predictable noise and nonsense until Monday morning.
And then, to crib a line from Dr. Seuss, something went “bump.”
“Manafort and Former Business Partner Asked to Surrender in Connection With Special Counsel Probe,” bellowed The Washington Post.
“Manafort Faces Charges in Mueller Inquiry,” clarioned The New York Times.
“MUELLER GETS HIS MAN: Paul Manafort, Top Aide, Charged With Money Laundering, Other Counts in Russia Collusion Probe,” boggled the folks at Fox News.
On a soggy Monday morning, special counsel Robert Mueller finally came down the mountain, indictments in hand, and put the investigation of possible Trump-Russia collusion into a whole new gear.
The indictment lists 12 counts against Paul Manafort and his longtime aide, Rick Gates. The charges include conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, false and misleading Foreign Agents Registration Act statements, making false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts. Paul Manafort surrendered himself to the FBI in Washington, DC, just after 8:00 am on Monday morning. Shortly thereafter, Rick Gates did the same.
Manafort and Gates have been involved in shady political and real estate dealings, and with Donald Trump, since the 1980s. Manafort is well known in Washington, DC, lobbying circles for his dubious associations with dictators and despots. His client list has included Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russia strongman who allegedly ordered the massacre of protesters in 2014, possibly at the urging of Manafort. Manafort’s ties to Russian financial interests run deep. Before joining Trump’s presidential campaign, he was reported to be as much as $17 million in debt to a Putin-allied Russian billionaire named Oleg Deripaska after a Ukrainian TV deal fell through.
Manafort has owned a residence in Trump Tower since 2006, and in 2016 joined the Trump campaign to manage the Republican National Convention. In May 2016, Manafort became Trump’s campaign chairman and chief strategist, and was given even greater campaign responsibilities after Trump fired Corey Lewandowski that June. Manafort was present at the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and a roomful of alleged Putin allies such as Natalia Veselnitskaya, an attorney whose clients include the target of US investigations into international money laundering.
The Russians weren’t there to talk about adoptions, except perhaps parenthetically as a way to discuss disposing of the Magnitsky Act, a set of sanctions against Russian oligarchs which Vladimir Putin hates. This was, you will of course recall, the meeting arranged after Trump Jr. made his enthusiasm for Russian help in the campaign vividly clear in print.
In August 2016, The New York Times reported that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had earmarked more than $12 million for payment to Manafort for his work with the pro-Russia Party of Regions. Manafort resigned from the campaign three days later, and the Trump administration has been trying to pretend he doesn’t exist ever since. That game came to a screeching halt on Monday morning.
As for Rick Gates, his standing as Manafort’s right-hand man is what landed him in the soup. “As investigators examine Mr. Manafort’s financial and political dealings at home and abroad,” reported the New York Times in June, “they are likely to run into Mr. Gates wherever they look. During the pair’s heady days in Ukraine, it was Mr. Gates who flew to Moscow for meetings with associates of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch. His name appears on documents linked to shell companies that Mr. Manafort’s firm set up in Cyprus to receive payments from politicians and businesspeople in Eastern Europe.”
Law enforcement’s dealings with Manafort have been anything but delicate to date. Before these indictments came down, US investigators had wiretaps on Manafort both before and after the election. On July 26, the FBI executed a no-knock warrant to search Manafort’s home in Virginia. “No-knock” warrants are only one step shy of clubbing the door down and swarming in with guns raised.
Robert Mueller has taken a broad approach to his investigation of Trump and his associates. The indictments handed down today appear to have everything to do with squeezing Manafort and Gates, and squeezing them hard. The two have been playing fast and loose with international financial law for a very long time now, and the last pages of the indictment read like a litany of doom for the two men… unless they flip, and cooperate, and tell Mueller everything they know about Trump, Russia and money laundering.
Others remain on the dangle, waiting for word of new indictments. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser (for 24 days) is likely to get a knock on his door regarding his own dealings with Russia. Energy consultant Carter Page can also expect to get some paper for his alleged ties to Putin while he served on Trump’s campaign.
Then of course, there are the big fish: Jared Kushner the son-in-law, and Donald Trump, Jr. the eldest son. Both were involved in the Trump Tower meeting, both lied about that meeting a half dozen times until the media finally pinned them down with their own words, and both know everything there is to know about the dealings — shady or otherwise — of the president of the United States. If either one flips for Mueller, Donald Trump Sr. will find himself in a very dark place.
As of this writing, Trump’s reaction to the news of Manafort and Gates’ indictments has been, for him, quite muted. “Sorry,” he Tweeted a little after 10:00 am, “but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” Three minutes later came, “….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” Since then, silence.
That will change in a red-hot second if Trump believes himself to be in legal danger. An indictment of his son or son-in-law is also likely to trigger an eruption of wrath. He might attempt to pardon everyone involved, an act fraught with serious legal peril because presidential pardon powers are very far from absolute. Trump, for one example, cannot pardon people for state-level crimes, and many of his associates are being investigated on the state level in places like New York.
Trump may even go so far as to fire Mueller, or try to, at which point the rest of us will have front-row seats for political Armageddon. Richard Nixon ran that number on Archibald Cox way back when, and it was for all practical purposes the end of his presidency.
The wheels of justice turn slow, counsels the ancient proverb, but grind exceedingly fine. It has begun.
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