WASHINGTON — The criminal investigation President Trump often dismisses as “fake news’’ went from disquieting tremors to a full-fledged political earthquake Monday, creating further cracks in the Trump administration’s credibility and its ability to pursue his agenda.
Trump’s countless tweets about the Russia probe — “NO COLLUSION!’’ he said again Monday —
Former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and longtime sidekick Rick Gates pleaded not guilty in federal court to charges of operating a money-laundering scheme separate from the campaign. Manafort’s indictment was not unexpected. But an admission by former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that he lied to the government is more startling and potentially more politically damaging in the short term.
Now a cooperating witness for special prosecutor Robert Mueller, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in US District Court to charges he misled investigators about his bountiful contacts during the campaign with Russians who had ties to President Vladimir Putin’s government. That includes his discussion of the Russians’ offer of “dirt’’ on Hillary Clinton in April 2016.
It is the second piece of hard evidence, in addition to the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russians and campaign officials, that Russians offered the Trump team help in damaging Clinton’s candidacy.
There’s also a twist, hidden in the final line of the government’s detailed formal statement about Papadopoulos’s admitted deceits — which may give the president and his legal team some pause. Since his arrest at Dulles International Airport, according to the statement, Papadopoulos “met with the government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions.’’
That means he’s been flipped by the government in exchange for leniency and is talking about what he knows, legal experts said. Potentially, this could include the fuller story of his contacts as a Trump campaign official and Russia — and especially what he knows about whether Trump campaign officials gave in to the Russian temptation of information against Clinton.
The facts laid out in the Papadopoulos “Statement of The Offense,’’ along with the money-laundering and conspiracy indictment of Manafort and Gates, reinforces the importance of the relentless, careful, and methodical work that Mueller and his investigators have been performing behind the scenes.
“Papadopoulos is the big one — lesser charges but it is about collusion,” tweeted Richard Painter, the former White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush.
Mueller’s public filings indicate the probe is likely to produce more indictments, according to legal experts. And the issue, once clouded in anonymous sources, leaks, and classified briefings, is being laid bare for all the public to see.
The political damage could be severe. Midterm elections are little more than a year away and the Republicans are mired in an ideological civil war that is crippling their ability to govern. Now the first criminal charges have been brought in a far-reaching presidential campaign scandal that appears likely to worsen in the coming months.
“Members of Congress, and Republicans in particular, are going to be uneasy after these events. Because not only is this big news, it suggests that more may be coming and that this will be going on for a while,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian from Princeton University.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spent much of Monday’s press briefing trying to downplay the day’s news, insisting the White House had “no reaction” to the morning’s developments. “Today’s announcement has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president’s campaign, or the campaign’s activity.”
Attempting to separate Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulos from Trump’s campaign may be a hard sell.
Papadopoulos was an unpaid “volunteer” for Trump, according to the campaign, but he was once name-checked by Trump himself as a top foreign policy adviser.
“Excellent guy,” Trump said of Papadopoulos in an interview with The Washington Post.
In e-mail records released Monday, Papadopoulos seemed to see himself as an envoy between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, exchanging e-mails with unidentified campaign officials with the subject line “Messages from Russia.” Among other admissions, Papadopoulos told FBI officials that he attempted to make contact with a woman he believed was Putin’s niece and was congratulated by his superiors when he successfully did so.
Manafort served as Trump’s campaign chairman for three months and was lauded by conservative media for helping stabilize the candidacy in times of crisis.
“Nobody should underestimate how much Paul Manafort did to really help get this [Trump] campaign to where it is right now,” Newt Gingrich said on Fox News in August 2016.
Manafort’s indictment detailed a painstaking investigation of financial records, corporate records, property records, and Manafort’s income tax returns. It is not publicly known what other tax returns Mueller has obtained. If the prosecutor were to expand his investigation to include Trump’s business operations, he likely would seek the president’s IRS filings.
The new legal documents also provide a window into other aspects of Mueller’s investigation. Contrary to charges from critics, including the president, the prosecutors are able to keep key developments from leaking to the press. Papadopoulos was arrested on July 27 — and there’s been no hint publicly that he was ensnared in the investigation.
Experts said the investigation will continue to be a drag on the White House and staffers working there, even if it’s months before Trump becomes a focus (if he ever does). That’s even true for staff members who have nothing to do with the investigation.
The White House has so far had no major legislative accomplishment despite Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress. But the Trump administration has been hoping that a tax reform bill, due to be unveiled this week, will be approved by the end of the year.
Monday’s news will not help that push, said Matt Bennett, who worked for the White House amid investigations into President Clinton.
“It’s like working with a low-grade fever — you can feel it in the pit of your stomach at all times, but it doesn’t completely stop you from working,” Bennett said. “The anxieties are many — will the presidency survive? If not, will I have a job? Will I need a lawyer (and who will pay for it)? Will my work matter or will the scandal overwhelm everything?”Astead W. Herndon can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley. Annie Linskey can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.