Paul Manafort, President Trump's campaign chairman from June to August 2016, was indicted Monday along with an associate, Rick Gates, as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump's ties with Russia. Manafort was removed from the campaign after it came out that he had coordinated a secret lobbying campaign for pro-Russia elements in Ukraine — but Gates continued to work for Trump after that, and was part of the inaugural committee.
The indictment against Manafort includes 12 counts, including conspiracy against the United States, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, conspiracy to launder money, and numerous other financial crimes. It describes Manafort's behavior as shockingly brazen — receiving millions of dollars in secret illegal cash, laundering it through a Byzantine network of shell companies, and using it to buy up multimillion-dollar properties and expensive luxury goods, including $934,350 spent in an antique rug store.
Additionally — and more damningly — it was revealed Monday that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump, pled guilty to lying to the FBI on Oct. 5. He told investigators that before he joined the Trump campaign, a source had told him the Russian government possessed "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of emails, when in fact Papadopoulos had been told after he joined the campaign.
For his part, Trump tweeted this.
That settles that. I suppose Mueller should just pack it in and call it quits.
Of course, the Mueller probe is likely to end in a far different way. As witnesses flip, and criminal charges are attached to more members of Trump's inner circle, many observers expect Trump to just fire Mueller. The major question then becomes whether congressional Republicans will allow the president to escape from a criminal investigation of his associates (and maybe himself) by abusing the powers of his office. I bet they will.
Of course, neither Manafort nor Gates have been convicted, nor have any criminal ties to Trump been proven. But let's remember that shady financial practices and criminal connections are a constant theme in the business career of Donald J. Trump. There's the time his father bailed out his struggling casino by illegally buying $3.5 million in chips, or the time the Trump Taj Mahal admitted to violating rules to prevent money laundering, or Trump's many close personal connections to figures in organized crime, or how a former associate helped international fugitives invest money in the United States. Trump's world has long been populated by shady characters, including himself.
The way investigations like this typically proceed is by first charging subordinates or those whose crimes are more obvious, and pressuring them to testify or provide other evidence against people further up the chain. You can expect that prosecutors will try to get Manafort and Gates to testify against other potential conspirators. Mueller, who was appointed FBI chief under President George W. Bush and served until 2013, is widely known as a careful and thorough investigator. He is surely very deliberately covering every possible base here.
Trump and the Republican noise machine have been desperately rooting around for some kind of distraction to take attention off Trump, and provide an excuse to get rid of Mueller. They recently ginned one up in the form of a dusted-off report about Hillary Clinton and the Uranium One deal, and the news that the DNC and the Clinton campaign (and, amusingly, the conservative website The Washington Free Beacon) had helped pay for opposition research into Trump's past.
The president and his lickspittle hacks at Fox News quickly blared this narrative at maximum volume. Trump's press secretary went full Big Lie, accusing Clinton and Democrats of having colluded with Russia to influence the election:
The fact that they are straining this hard to find distractions is in itself highly suspicious. If Trump had nothing to hide, he could just be quiet and let the investigation proceed.
Of course, it's impossible to imagine him behaving that way. There is simply no way that President Trump will sit quietly as Mueller methodically issues more indictments, flips more witnesses, and grows ever closer to Trump. Our president has never shown restraint of any sort. He certainly won't when his own life and career is at stake.
So what happens if Trump fires Mueller and issues blanket pardons to all of his associates? Finding enough Republicans to vote to impeach, much less convict in the Senate, is not going to happen. However, it would only take a handful of Republicans — as few as three senators, or a couple dozen GOP lawmakers in the House — to gum up Trump's agenda permanently. Such a group of Republicans threatening to stop the Republican agenda if the investigation doesn't proceed would change the political calculus for the party as a whole — especially the business wing that is salivating for tax cuts.
But that would also put these lawmakers under tremendous pressure from Fox News and the rest of the conservative propaganda apparatus, which treats any opposition to Trump as blasphemy and treachery. The criticism of any Republican lawmaker pushing for Mueller's investigation to continue would be completely unhinged.
It has become virtually impossible to go wrong predicting the maximum possible level of perfidy, lies, and cowardice from the Republican Party. Allowing the president to stop an investigation into his possible criminal past — and just possibly how he colluded with a foreign power to influence an American election — is, sadly, entirely imaginable.
Robert Mueller better hurry up.