Panic in Trumpland, But Clinton Camp Should Be Wary

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions seated at bottom-left, and President Donald Trump at the opposite end, foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos (third from left) attends a meeting during last year's presidential campaign. (Photo: Twitter)

Panic in Trumpland, But Clinton Camp Should Be Wary

Even before the Manafort/Gates indictment was unsealed and Papadopoulos' guilty plea revealed, Trump's most dogged boosters were displaying signs of what can aptly be termed a collective nervous breakdown.

It's no longer a rumor. The first grand jury indictment drafted by Justice Department special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been filed. As expected by many who have followed Mueller's work since his appointment in May, Paul Manafort Jr., Donald Trump's former presidential campaign manager, has been charged with violating federal law. Less anticipated was the indictment of one of Manafort's business partners, Richard W. (Rick) Gates III.

The 31-page indictment, which CNN first reported Friday, was unsealed early Monday. Signed by Mueller himself, it charges Manafort and Gates with 12 counts, including conspiracy against the United States, money laundering and making false statements, among other offenses, stemming from their work as political consultants on behalf of the former pro-Russian government of Ukraine.

The indictment alleges that Manafort and Gates failed to register, as required by federal law, as foreign agents of Ukraine. Manafort, specifically, is charged with laundering and failing to pay income taxes on over $18 million in payments received from Ukraine between 2008 and 2017 that he funneled through "scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts." Gates is accused of laundering more than $3 million. Both are alleged to have used the laundered funds to buy goods and services and, above all, real estate in New York City, the Hamptons, Long Island, Virginia, Florida and Beverly Hills, Calif.

Manafort and Gates were arraigned Monday in federal District Court in Washington, D.C. They entered not guilty pleas and were ordered to be held under house arrest at their homes pending trial. Both have surrendered their passports. Bail was set at $10 million for Manafort and $5 million for Gates.

In another development on Monday--and one that, as far as I can discern, few saw coming--Mueller and his team disclosed that George Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old and heretofore obscure former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, had entered a guilty plea in a federal District Court in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 5 to a single count of lying to the FBI about his knowledge of, and involvement with, the Russian government's efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.

The charges against Papadopoulos are set forth in a 14-page Statement of Offense, signed by Mueller. In return for the guilty plea, Papadopoulos is reportedly cooperating with Mueller on other aspects of the Russia probe.

The Manafort/Gates indictment is a body blow to the Trump administration. The Papadopoulos guilty plea is a mortal threat--one that could, conceivably, bolster an obstruction-of-justice charge against the president, leading eventually to a call for impeachment. It is also, as explained below, a potential threat to the Clinton campaign.

Even before the Manafort/Gates indictment was unsealed, Trump's most dogged boosters were displaying signs of what can aptly be termed a collective nervous breakdown.

Leading the pack of Trumpsters gone wild was Roger Stone, the longtime GOP operative and former Trump campaign adviser, who worked as a partner with Manafort in a D.C.-based lobbying firm from 1980 to 1996. Ripping into CNN anchor Don Lemon, who had devoted part of his Friday evening program to the initial rumors of an indictment, Stone launched a Twitter tirade, calling Lemon a "covksucker" (sic) and a "dull witted arrogant partyboi" (sic). Stone's outburst was followed by another tweet in which he defamed New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who had appeared on air with Lemon, as a "piece of shit." As a result of his potty-mouthed harangue, Stone's Twitter account has been suspended.

Stone was by no means alone. Sebastian Gorka, also taking to Twitter, went straight after Mueller. Shedding his phony academic persona, as if returning to his authoritarian Eastern European roots, Gorka wrote, "If this man's team executes warrants this weekend he should stripped (sic) of his authority by @realDonaldTrump, Then HE should be investigated."

And not to be outdone, Fox News sycophant Sean Hannity, exhibiting clear symptoms of denial (the proverbial first stage of grief), tried to spin reports of the indictment into a positive for the president, tweeting: "This has been a HORRIBLE week for Mueller, Special Counsel's office. THIS IS ALL A DISTRACTION."

By Sunday morning, Trump, too, was in meltdown mode, tweeting: "Never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton," referring to such vintage Clinton scandals as "the uranium to Russia deal, the 33,000 plus deleted emails, the Comey fix and so much more." Imploring his supporters to take action, he added: "The [Democrats] are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics. ... There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!"

Continuing his attacks on Clinton, Trump tweeted early Monday: "Sorry, but this [referencing the acts set forth in the indictment] is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????"

Although Trump tweeted nothing about Papadopoulos, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee was quick to discredit the former campaign adviser in a Monday afternoon news conference, during which she referred to the onetime Trump aide as a mere "volunteer" who had no authority to act on behalf of the campaign. Huckabee also echoed Trump's tweets, insisting that the Manafort/Gates indictment has nothing to do with the core allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to sway the presidential election.

Not so.

While the indictment centers on financial misfeasance by Manafort and Gates in connection with their work for Ukraine, the alleged wrongdoing continued during Manafort's three-month tenure in 2016 as chair of the Trump campaign, right under the future president's nose. At the very least, the decision to hire Manafort raises serious questions about Trump's competence in vetting people brought into his inner circle. Worse, the indictment raises the possibility that either Manafort or Gates will seek to strike a plea deal with Mueller to avoid lengthy prison terms in exchange for incriminating information against others in the Trump camp regarding collusion with the Russians.

Further, and of far more significance, the statement of offense lodged against Papadopoulos strikes at the very heart of the collusion issue. The statement details that on March 14, 2016, a Russian professor with ties to the Kremlin (who is not named in the statement) contacted Papadopoulos, knowing that he would shortly be named a Trump campaign adviser. On March 24, in a meeting in London after Papadopoulos was officially brought on board the campaign, the professor introduced Papadopoulos to a Russian female, who was purported (falsely, as the statement also reveals) to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's niece and said she had connections to senior Russian government officials.

In late April, the professor told Papadopoulos that he and the Russian female had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails." Thereafter, and continuing through the middle of August 2016, according to the statement, Papadopoulos corresponded and "communicated" with high-ranking Trump campaign officials, as well as the professor and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs "in an effort to arrange a meeting between the [Trump] Campaign and the Russian government."

In a potentially explosive footnote on Page 8, the statement alleges that a Trump campaign staffer, who is not named but was included in the unfolding Papadopoulos email loop, cautioned with regard to the proposed meeting: "We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal."

The statement does not disclose whether the proposed meeting, or some variant of it, ever took place. What got Papadopoulos indicted was that he lied to the FBI about his dealings with the professor during an interview on Jan. 27 of this year.

So who were the high-ranking Trump campaign officials with whom Papadopoulos communicated? The finger of suspicion points, above all others, directly at Manafort.

In this regard, the infamous Steele dossier--a 35-page intelligence report prepared by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele from April to December 2016--alleges, among a litany of other sensational charges, that Manafort managed a conspiracy to exploit Russian-supplied information on Clinton with the goal of assisting Trump's candidacy and to "sow discord both within the US itself, but more especially Within the Transatlantic alliance."

Where, then, does Mueller's investigation go from here, and whose head is likely to roll next? Clearly, Donald Trump Jr., the president's oldest son, is a candidate for his role in arranging the June meeting at the Trump Tower in Manhattan with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, for the purpose of obtaining damaging information on Clinton. The president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and once again, Manafort (on additional charges), who both attended the meeting, also are in Mueller's crosshairs. And let's not forget Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, who allegedly lied about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December about the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia.

But while Mueller may have built strong cases against Papadopoulos for lying and Manafort and Gates for financial transgressions, the task of turning the collusion issue into an indictable offense won't be easy. This is because collusion per se is not a federal crime.

However, it is a crime, in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and regulations promulgated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), to solicit or receive any "thing of value" from a foreign national in connection with an American election. It is a matter of debate among legal commentators whether information, as opposed to cash or other tangible assets, is such a "thing of value."

There is no federal case law directly on point that answers the question. If information, as common sense would seem to dictate, is indeed a thing of value, then Donald Jr. and perhaps even the president himself are in jeopardy of being charged with conspiracy to violate the FECA.

But so, too--and here is where the Mueller investigation could take another very ironic and unexpected turn--would be the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and the Democratic National Committee for funding the preparation of the Steele dossier. According to a complaint filed with the FEC last week by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center (CLC), the Clinton campaign failed to accurately disclose payments related to the Steele dossier in its FEC paperwork.

According to the CLC's complaint, the Clinton campaign and the DNC paid over $12 million to the Washington, D.C., law firm Perkins Coie, but listed the funds as only payment for "legal services" and "legal and [election law] compliance consulting."

The Clinton campaign and the DNC didn't reveal to the FEC that part of that $12 million was remitted to Fusion GPS, a D.C. research and strategic intelligence firm. Fusion had initially been hired by the Washington Beacon, a conservative news outlet that opposed Trump's nomination, to conduct anti-Trump research.

In April 2016, after ending its relationship with the Beacon when it appeared Trump would secure the GOP nomination, Fusion approached the DNC and the Clinton campaign with a proposal to work for them to defeat Trump in the general election. The Clinton camp agreed to retain Fusion, and Fusion, in turn, retained Orbis Business Intelligence, a British firm founded by Steele, to dig up dirt on Trump's ties to Russia. The notorious dossier, based largely on Steele's longstanding contacts with Russian sources, was the product of those efforts.

As a matter of principle, if Mueller concludes that Donald Jr. and other Trump insiders are guilty of conspiring to violate federal election laws by colluding with Russia to obtain damaging information about Clinton, he also may be compelled to conclude that officials from the Clinton campaign and the DNC are similarly guilty for colluding with Steele, Orbis and their Russian sources to obtain compromising information about Trump. It shouldn't matter that Steele is a friendly foreign national, while Putin and the Kremlin are seen by many as archenemies. Equality under the law--a time-honored principle that Mueller is duty-bound to respect--should demand nothing less.