No matter how the White House tries to spin it, it’s a bad day when your one-time campaign chairman is indicted.
But just how bad Paul Manafort’s current legal problems are for President Trump depends on Manafort. Does Trump’s former campaign chairman cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign? Or does he take one for the president?
The big problem for Trump is that Manafort was present at a meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. That meeting in Trump Tower was also attended by Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
However, for those who can’t wait to get impeachment rolling, that’s not what this indictment is about. Manafort, a veteran Republican operative who once ran the Trump campaign, and a longtime associate, Rick Gates, surrendered to federal authorities on Monday on charges that include money laundering and tax evasion. According to the indictment, Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents of the government of Ukraine between 2006 and 2015. In that capacity, they generated “tens of millions of dollars in income.” To hide the payments, according to the indictment, they laundered the money through US and foreign corporations; falsely reported their incomes; and concealed from the United States their work as agents of Ukraine and its political parties and leaders.
Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 and was appointed chairman and chief strategist that May. He resigned in August after The New York Times reported that investigators were looking into $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments to Manafort from former Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych.
In the run-up to the Manafort indictment, Trump did his best to throw the Russian meddling muck back at Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Last week, The Washington Post reported that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid $12 million to fund research that resulted in a dossier containing allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia and possible coordination between his campaign and the Kremlin. Trump and the GOP will keep pushing this line to obscure the real story: Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s effort to manipulate the 2016 presidential campaign by hurting Clinton and helping Trump.
Trump’s frantic tweets about Clinton may play big on Fox News. But to Mueller, the pushback from Trump signals presidential worries about collusion claims. And that’s likely to increase the pressure on Manafort. Trump’s lawyer, Ty Cobb, said the president “has no concerns” about anything Manafort has to say. But prosecutors know how to amp up those concerns.
The news that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser, pleaded guilty to the FBI about a conversation he had in April 2016 about getting “dirt” on Clinton from the Russian government is one way to do it. The conversation Papadopoulos lied about preceded the June meeting in Trump Tower, where dirt on Hillary was also on the agenda.
What about public perception? If you’re a Trump hater, the perception will be that Manafort ran the Trump campaign and attended that June “Russia meeting.” Therefore, collusion. If you’re a Hillary hater, you want another investigation into her e-mails, along with investigations into the funding of the Trump dossier and whatever other alleged scandals Republicans can drum up.
If you’re Mueller, you patiently do your job. With Manafort, you push cooperation. If this indictment doesn’t do it, there are doubtless other charges to be brought against Manafort.
Monday was a bad day for Manafort. It can get even worse for him and for Trump.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.