As Monday dawned, the political world waited with bated breath for the identities of the defendants named in grand jury indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian influence in the 2016 election. Over the weekend, some predicted that Mueller had finally prepared a mortal blow to the Trump administration. Others predicted a disappointing low-level indictment that would not advance the story at all, other than demonstrate a partisan attack on the White House by Mueller. Still more wondered why the indictment had been sealed in the first place.
By Monday afternoon, most of the predictions had turned out poorly. But everyone was claiming they had been right all along.
International lobbyists Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, two figures from the Trump campaign, found themselves under house arrest after being charged with 12 felony counts — all relating to activities that had nothing to do with Russia-Trump collusion. Tony Podesta, one of the most influential Democratic lobbyists in Washington, found himself out of the lucrative business he'd built on K Street. And a low-level Trump campaign aide, the heretofore mostly unknown George Papadopoulos, found himself at the center of the probe into Russian contacts.
Mueller's first indictments gave everyone an opportunity to claim they were right. Liberals howled collusion while conservatives largely shrugged and said, "This is all you've got on President Trump?"
For those convinced that the Mueller probe will uncover Trump campaign collusion with Russians, the Papadopoulos indictment provides some justification for those suspicions. Papadopoulos started off the 2016 election cycle working for Ben Carson's campaign, but moved over to Team Trump by March 2016 as a foreign policy adviser when Carson withdrew and endorsed the eventual nominee. Papadopoulos took it upon himself to find ways to acquire the missing emails from Hillary Clinton's secret server from the most likely source — the Russians.
According to the allocution filed in federal court with his guilty plea, Papadopoulos first came into contact with an "overseas professor" whom he understood to "have substantial connections to Russian government officials." The professor contacted Papadopoulos to offer him access to "thousands of emails" from the Clinton server, presumably the product of Russian intelligence. After in-person contacts with the professor and a Russian woman with other supposed links to the Russian government, Papadopoulos began a months-long effort to get a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin, with the promise of the emails the apparent motive.
Well … not so fast.
The original collusion accusation was that the Trump campaign might have worked with Russian intelligence to hack emails at the DNC and of John Podesta at the Center for American Progress, not the Clinton server. The Clinton server got taken down in early 2013, more than two years before Trump ran for office. Even if Papadopoulos had somehow gotten Clinton's "thousands of emails" from his Russian contacts, it wouldn't necessarily have been illegal. Papadopoulos only ran afoul of the law when he lied about his contacts to investigators; he's charged with several instances of making false statements, not of espionage.
Furthermore, the allocution suggests that the Trump campaign didn't take the bait. They knew that Papadopoulos had gone abroad seeking contacts, but that isn't unusual for a foreign-policy adviser. Neither would it be unusual for such an adviser to attempt to set up meetings between a candidate and world leaders, though Putin was politically radioactive by this point in the presidential campaign. The Trump campaign's disinterest in meeting with Putin gets a mention from prosecutors in a footnote in the allocution. A campaign official, identified later as Manafort by NBC News, wrote that they "need someone to communicate that DT [Trump] is not doing these trips."
On the other side, Trump supporters have seized on the Manafort-Gates indictment to point out how little connection it has to the Trump campaign. With the exception of charges on making false statements to investigators, all of the activities described in the indictment took place before Manafort or Gates went to work for Team Trump, mainly between 2006 and 2014. The name "Trump" doesn't make a single appearance in the indictment.
However, it does involve another president, and both sides of the political aisle in lobbying. According to the indictment, Manafort and Gates conspired with two lobbying firms to cover up efforts to spread the influence of the pro-Russian regime of Victor Yanukovych in Ukraine, attempting to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Ukraine. One aim of the partnerships was to use their influence to gain access to "the president" — Barack Obama — by "Paul" to brief him on the successes of the Yanukovych government in Kiev. The two firms were also tasked with lobbying Congress, in part to convince them of the necessity of Yanukovych's imprisonment of rival Yulia Tymoshenko, for which Manafort and Gates allegedly funneled $4 million from their offshore accounts.
None of these firms registered as foreign agents until this year, despite clearly working on behalf of a foreign government. Mueller's investigators apparently found documentation of efforts to evade detection, in part by conspiring on cover stories and the use of front organizations on both ends. They found an email to Gates that warned of "a lot of email traffic that has you much more involved than this [cover story] suggests." While the message assured Gates that they wouldn't disclose it, it also warned, "Heaven knows what former employees … might say."
The indictment didn't name the firms, but earlier reporting linked Manafort and Gates to Mercury LLC, run by longtime Republican politician and lobbyist Vin Weber, and the Podesta Group, the progressive lobbying shop set up by brothers John and Tony Podesta. John served as Obama's transition chair in 2008, and later as his chief of staff in 2014-15. Tony ran the Podesta Group — until he abruptly resigned hours after the Manafort-Gates indictment was published.
Aha! Mueller couldn't find anything on Manafort relating to the campaign!
Well … perhaps. But we still have yet to see how far this goes.
Mueller makes clear with both indictments that Trump and his campaign did a very poor job of vetting their appointments. The Manafort-Gates indictment puts K Street's lobbying industry squarely in the middle of the swamp, and Manafort and Gates in an even more central position. Plus, we now have three former members of the Trump campaign under indictment, and Papadopoulos has been cooperating with prosecutors for months prior to the unsealing of his plea and allocution.
That balanced outcome extends the credibility of the Mueller probe, and leaves room for more revelations to come. That give all sides reason to cheer … and to fear.