The White House talking points must have gone out early on Monday morning. Because, before the charges filed against Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, and Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime deputy, had been unsealed, Congressman Sean Duffy, a Republican from Wisconsin, was on CNN saying that the federal case against them “could be a nothing-burger” if it concerned events that happened before the 2016 election.
Shortly after 9 A.M., the Times and other news organizations posted online the indictment filed against Manafort and Gates. Some of the charges it contained, such as money laundering and failure to register as a foreign agent, did relate to the years before 2016, when Manafort’s political-consulting firm, for which Gates also worked, received tens of millions of dollars from a pro-Russian party in Ukraine and then, according to the complaint, diverted much of this money through banks in Cyprus and other tax havens.
The response from the pro-Trumpers was immediate. “Wire transfers 12 years ago & Ukraine? So nothing to do with @realDonaldTrump, the election, & Russia?? @CNNPolitics etc. will be sad,” Sebastian Gorka, the former White House aide, tweeted. In another message, Gorka added, “Get this straight: The news is an old wire fraud charge. But Hillary received $145 MILLION as she approved our Uranium sale to RUSSIA.” Just after 10:30 A.M., Gorka’s former boss chimed in with a couple of tweets of his own. “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?????” Trump said, before adding, “….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
By Trump’s standards, this was a low-key response. Around the same time, the White House let it be known that the President wouldn’t be calling for Mueller’s firing, at least not today. That reassured fans of the rule of law, as well as Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who appear to be more narrowly concerned about being put in a tough political spot. At least for now, they won’t have to answer the question of whether, if Trump did get rid of Mueller, they would appoint another independent prosecutor to replace him.
But, of course, Trump’s relatively muted reaction doesn’t mean that the White House’s ongoing disinformation and propaganda campaign against Mueller is over. As the special counsel’s investigation continues, this effort will surely expand and intensify, with conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton continuing to feature prominently. And, judging by the last few days, plenty of Republicans on Capitol Hill will be willing to join in this great diversion.
Mueller, a Washington veteran, will be prepared for this. It was almost certainly not a coincidence that it was also revealed on Monday morning that, earlier this month, Mueller’s office had reached a coöperation agreement with George Papadopoulos, a young former foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign. In a court filing dated October 5th, Papadopoulos admitted to lying to the F.B.I. earlier this year about his contacts with two people connected to the Russian government. A campaign volunteer with limited major foreign-policy experience, Papadopoulos seems unlikely to prove a central figure in the unfolding story of the Russia investigation. Yet he was a campaign figure actively seeking coöperation with Russia—Papadopoulos met early last year with an unnamed professor, who told him the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton—and his guilty plea was the first one directly related to the 2016 campaign. The plea gave lie to claims that Mueller is pursuing an old story.
Actually, so did the indictment of Manafort and Gates. The first charge against them, “Conspiracy against the United States”—to wit, “impeding, impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of a government agency, namely the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury”—relates to actions “from in or about and between 2006 and 2017.” So it covers the period in 2016 when Manafort was chairman of the Trump campaign, and Gates was working with him.
Similarly, the twelfth charge alleges that, “on or about November 23, 2016 and February 10, 2017,” in seeking to distance themselves from Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian former President of Ukraine, and his party, Manafort and Gates made false statements and created fictitious documents. Manafort cut his official ties to Trump last August, after the Times reported on some of his activities in Ukraine. But, in November, Gates was part of the Trump transition team. And, this February, he was working for a pro-Trump super PAC. Even after he left that job, in March, he reportedly made multiple visits to the White House.
These details from the indictment attracted less initial attention than some other, more colorful details—the $934,350 Manafort spent at an antique-rug store in Alexandria, Virginia; the $849,215 he spent at a men’s-clothing store in New York; and the $520,440 he spent at another store in Beverly Hills. But what brings the indictment together is the way that these details are all being used by Mueller and his high-powered team of prosecutors to dramatically ramp up the pressure on people around Trump to coöperate with their investigation.
In their efforts to flip witnesses, we now know that Mueller and his colleagues are willing to bring charges not directly related to the 2016 campaign. The Papadopoulos guilty plea, meanwhile, indicates that they are on the alert for anybody lying to them. And they are also willing to file felony indictments for crimes that don’t normally merit them—such as failing to register as a foreign agent.
Among the individuals who have surely gotten the message is Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser. According to news reports, he, too, earned money from foreign governments without disclosing it or registering as a foreign agent. But Flynn isn’t the only Trump associate who has been accused of questionable financial dealings. Back in June, the Washington Post reported that Mueller was looking into Jared Kushner’s finances, too.
As Mueller’s squeeze play expands, another question will be how much Trump knew about Manafort’s efforts to promote pro-Russian interests when he hired him to help his campaign, last March, and when he elevated Manafort to the role of campaign chairman, in June. According to the indictment, Manafort was a foreign agent at that time, and should have been registered as such. It beggars belief that Trump, who was busy praising Vladimir Putin and encouraging the Russians to hack Clinton’s e-mails, knew absolutely nothing of Manafort’s business dealings.
An even bigger question is what damaging information, if any, Mueller suspects that Manafort, Gates, and others, such as Flynn, have to offer. We can only assume that the special counsel’s office believes some of this information may relate directly to Trump. This weekend, Wired published an article by Garrett M. Graff, the author of a book about Mueller’s tenure as director of the F.B.I., pointing out that most large-scale F.B.I. investigations now follow the same template: “Work on peripheral figures first, encourage them to cooperate with the government against their bosses in exchange for a lighter sentence, and then repeat the process until the circle has closed tightly around the godfather or criminal mastermind. There’s no reason to think that this investigation will be any different.”
Also over the weekend, the Times reported one of Trump’s lawyers, Ty Cobb, as saying that the President had “no concerns” about what Manafort or Flynn might tell the special counsel. Cobb also said he thought that Mueller’s investigation might be nearing its end. Right now, that looks like wishful thinking in the extreme. Or, perhaps, it is a case of telling the client, whose approval rating in the Gallup poll has just hit an all-time low of thirty-two per cent, what he wants to hear.