On Friday, the office of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller issued a twelve-count indictment against former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Manafort’s close lieutenant Richard Gates. This indictment was released to the public today. Also released today is a four-week-old indictment against George Papadopoulos for providing false information to the FBI. Papadopoulos was a second-tier foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign. Sorry, but I’ve not a ton of time this morning to digest all the applicable law and write a thorough explainer. But here’s a few high points for you all to consider.
The name “Donald Trump” is not found anywhere in the Manafort/Gates indictment. The activities alleged in the indictment do not directly concern the Trump for President campaign; rather, they focus on Manafort and Gates’ involvement in providing political advice and assistance to Victor Yanukovych, former Prime MInister and President of Ukraine. Yanukovych is friendly to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his power base is in the east of Ukraine, which is the more heavily ethnically Russian portion of his nation.
Manafort’s involvement with Yanukovych has never been a secret from anyone. What has been a secret has been just how much money Yanukovych steered Manafort’s way to obtain his services — a staggering $75,000,000. Given that this is an order of magnitude more than campaign consultants legitimately make to elect Presidents of the United States, there was quite clearly more of value exchanged than political consulting.
Interestingly, another name that’s not in the indictments is Michael Flynn. The former National Security Advisor appears to have engaged in very similar activity as Manafort stands accused of — receiving money from a foreign power, in Flynn’s case Turkey, without making the required disclosures that he was attempting to influence the American government on behalf of that foreign power. There is also some smoke, but as far as I can tell not yet any visible fire, that smells like a connection of Flynn to Russian interests through Flynn’s consulting firm created shortly after his retirement from the military.
One of the items of relief requested is forfeiture of Manafort’s and Gates’ assets. This includes some rather nice real estate in New York City and Arlington, Virginia that Manafort owns, and of some interest to me, a universal life insurance policy. This is interesting because a universal life policy is a financial product likely to be protectable from collection in civil judgments, but can be borrowed against at favorable interest rates, and therefore used as a semi-liquid asset and repaid with apparently clean funds, providing further washing of the money.
The use of a raft of domestic and foreign entities1 to receive funds from Yanukovych and his constellation of associates to purchase real estate — in the United States — is a principal means described of laundering money. I wouldn’t ever give actual advice about how to launder illegally-received money, of course, but I can say that real estate in the United States is a pretty open asset: ownership of the asset and any loans secured by that asset are matters of readily-obtained public records.
It continues to at least appear to be the case that one does not get into legal trouble for what one does, but rather that one gets into trouble for lying about it, trying to cover it up, and not paying taxes. That’s true but also not true in this case. One of the purposes of sunshine laws such as Manafort and Gates are accused of violating is at least in part to deter people from engaging in corrupt transactions in the first place. Another point of these laws is to make it easier to punish such transactions when the underlying corruption is strongly suspected but there is difficulty involved in proving elements of subjective intent.
And charges like conspiracy, money laundering, and providing false information to law enforcement strongly imply that other criminal activity was afoot — and there are not yet charges or allegations involved there. Some of us might “want” the President to have been personally implicated in this as-yet-uncharged criminal activity, but it’s reading tea leaves to say that this indictment on Manafort is preliminary to accusing Trump of participating in, or aiding and abetting, or even contenancing, that illegal activity. Nor, of course, should anyone “want” the President to have engaged in criminal activity, no matter how much we dislike that person being President for any number of reasons.
Special Prosecutor Mueller’s mandate is to investigate attempts by the Russian government to influence elections in the United States, as well as related incidents. This is only a “related incident.” But it’s also coming well before Mueller or his team have made any substantial statement about the core of their mandate. The “relation,” however, is plain and obvious: Manafort had taken $75,000,000 from a pro-Russian political cause over the course of twelve years before becoming a significant figure in Donald Trump’s election campaign and therefore was already in the orbit of influence of Russia when he took over running that campaign.
It’s easy to overlook how the Papadopolous case fits in to the Manafort case. But Papadopolous has already pled guilty to lying about the extent of his involvement with apparent agents of or proxies for the Russian government as part of his involvement with the Trump for President campaign. There are also reports that Papadopolous is “cooperating” with Mueller and the FBI. Which means Papadopolous has been “flipped,” and will be expecting a lienient sentence in exchange for testimony about the extent to which he knew higher-ranking officials within that campaign — meaning Manafort — were aware that assistance to the campaign was coming from the Kremlin.
Finally, it’s worth noting that none of these indictments were leaked before today. Unlike, say, the White House, it appears that Robert Mueller is leading a team of people who are not interested in using the media as a tool to leverage some sort of result they desire. And there isn’t a whole lot more information coming out of the Special Prosecutor’s office, either. So this journey is not done yet. These indictments are a milepost, and don’t doubt for a second that their public release is intended to put pressure on other people.
If you ask me, it appears to be working as the person who seems to be the ultimate beneficiary of all of this illegal activity has returned to his very favorite gaslight:
Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 30, 2017
So it looks to me like we’re reaching the point where real inquiry into how much the President actually knew about and participated in the influence from Russia was going on, and the opening of a formal public case against Paul Manafort is aimed at that very question. Doesn’t mean that President Trump is guilty of anything, although if the allegations in the indictment are proven, it would mean that at minimum, he was indifferent to and ignorant of some things that as a candidate, he should have known about and controlled for. It’s not looking to me like this minimum is going to be the ceiling of reasonable inquiry, either.
So I’ll leave you with a bit of poetry.
Jockeys go to the track,
And lawyers go to Court.
For the foreseeable future,
It’s gonna suck to be Paul Manafort.
Enjoy your discussion.
Image by DonkeyHotey