The Mueller Indictments Explained

Recently, Special Counsel Robert Mueller made the first indictments in his probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Three Trump campaign staffers are facing charges, not all of which are directly related to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates, who also worked on Trump’s election effort, turned themselves in to authorities Monday after being indicted on tax and money laundering charges. The charges are related to work prior to joining the Trump campaign for interests in Ukraine. Both have plead not guilty.

Separately, George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about contacts with Russia last year.

Neither indictment directly implicates President Trump in Russian meddling in the election. However, it adds to the mounting evidence that Team Trump was willing to accept Russian offers to help Trump win the election.

The recent indictments are also likely an effort on Special Counsel Mueller’s part to compel cooperation in the larger Russia election probe.

The allegations against Manafort and Gates stem from lobbying activities on behalf of a Ukrainian billionaire and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and work for Ukraine’s former pro-Russian President Victor Yanakovich.

Manafort and Gates are accused of using a series of overseas shell companies to hide millions of dollars that flowed from their Ukrainian clients and lying to investigators about the the whole sordid mess.

Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March of 2016, eventually becoming its chairman. But, Trump parted ways with Manafort a few months later as reports about Manafort’s Ukraine activities began appearing in the press. Gates remained in Trump’s orbit in various capacities until April of this year, when he was ousted from a lobbying group set up to support Trump’s agenda.

Who is George Papadopoulos?

While the indictments against Manafort and Gates are not directly related to collusion in Russia’s election meddling, the charges against George Papadopoulos, have a more direct link.

In March of 2016, Papadopoulos, who had previously served as a foreign policy advisor to Ben Carson’s campaign, secured a new role on Trump’s foreign policy advisory committee

Shortly after being invited to join Trump’s campaign, Papadopoulos met a professor in Italy, reportedly Joseph Mifsud, director of the London Academy of Diplomacy.

Mifsud, who claimed close connections to the Russian government, took a keen interest in Papadopoulos after learning that he would be serving on Trump’s foreign policy team.

It was around this same time that US intelligence agencies believe hackers associated with Russia’s intelligence services breached the Gmail account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and penetrated email servers of the Democratic National Committee.

Two days later, in a meeting with Washington Post editors, President Trump listed Papadopoulis as a member of his foreign policy team, noting that Papadopoulis was an “excellent guy.” It was the first time many in Washington had ever heard the name George Papadopoulis.

Over the next few weeks, Misfud introduced Papadopoulos to officials at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as a woman purporting to be Vladimir Putin’s niece. Working with his new Russian contacts Papadopoulos attempted several times over the next few months to set up meetings between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

In late April Papadopoulos met with Misfud again in London. It was at meeting that Misfud revealed that the Russian government possessed a trove of thousands of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign.

Three months later, as the Democratic Party’s convention got underway Wikileaks began releasing the hacked emails of Podesta and other democratic officials, which were believed to be the fruits of a Russian government hacking operation.

It’s important to note that merely talking to Russian officials is not necessarily illegal. It is lying about those conversations that got Papadopoulos in trouble. In this case, as in so many others, it was the cover-up that was the crime.

In July of this year, FBI agents quietly arrested Papadopoulis at Dulles airport. He reportedly has been cooperating with authorities ever since.

Alongside earlier revelations that Mr. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. enthusiastically embraced an offer of incriminating information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government in taking a meeting with a Russian lawyer, there is now little doubt that Russia offered help Trump’s campaign and at least some on his team were happy to accept it. While that meeting did not apparently yield dirt on Hillary it bears noting that Mr. Manafort also attended.

Plea Deals 

The indictments against Manafort and Gates demonstrate that Mueller is taking a wide-ranging approach to this investigation. It seems likely that this may also be part of an effort to secure testimony on the broader issue of collusion in Russia’s scheme to influence the election. For the 68 years old Manafort, the up to 20 years in prison he is now facing provides a strong incentive to cooperate.

The White House, predictably, hauled out its all purpose rebuttal — it’s all fake news. Trump  tweeted that Papadopoulos is a liar, and downplayed his association with the Trump campaign.

But, there is likely more to come. At Papadopoulos’s plea hearing this month, Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, a prosecutor on Mr. Mueller’s team, said “there’s a large-scale, ongoing investigation of which this case is a small part.”

In other words, we are closer to the beginning than the end, of the Russia investigation.

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