Mueller Monday sure lived up to its hype, didn’t it? Indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his top aide Rick Gates, along with a surprise guilty plea from campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, went beyond all the breathless speculation over the weekend. The only other campaign chairman ever indicted was none other than John Mitchell, the former attorney general who ran Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign. Mitchell was ultimately convicted for his role in the Watergate break-in and did 19 months in prison. It looks like Paul Manafort is just making America great again.
Lawfare published a succinct description of what happened in the courthouse yesterday morning:
The first big takeaway from Monday morning’s flurry of charging and plea documents with respect to Paul Manafort Jr., Richard Gates III and George Papadopoulos is this: The president of the United States had as his campaign chairman a man who had allegedly served for years as an unregistered foreign agent for a puppet government of Vladimir Putin, a man who was allegedly laundering remarkable sums of money even while running the now-president’s campaign, a man who allegedly lied about all of this to the FBI and the Justice Department.
The second big takeaway is even starker: A member of President Trump’s campaign team [Papadopoulos] admits that he was working with people he knew to be tied to the Russian government to “arrange a meeting between the Campaign and the Russian government officials” and to obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of hacked emails — and that he lied about these activities to the FBI. He briefed President Trump on at least some of them.
The authors added, “as opening salvos go, it’s a doozy.”
But it is only an opening salvo. It’s clear that Papadapoulos has been cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team for some time. There’s language in the documents that some legal observers have said probably means he’s been working on Mueller’s behalf for a couple of months. That may be making anyone who’s spoken with him recently quite nervous. Some prosecutors have speculated that Mueller unsealed this plea agreement yesterday in order to send a message to anyone who may have been aware of Papadopoulos’ activities that they should probably cooperate because he knows where all the bodies are buried.
This “Papadopoulos stipulation” provided some juicy details, including the fact that at a meeting in March of 2016 with Trump and the foreign policy advisory committee, Papadopoulos allegedly said he had connections to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin. Apparently the president, who insists he has the greatest memory in the world, forgot about that on all the times he insisted that neither he nor his campaign ever had any dealings or interests in Russia.
The Manafort and Gates arrests were a different sort of opening salvo. The criminal indictments all had to do money laundering of millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains in the years between 2006 and 2015. When these were announced on Monday morning, Trump himself tweeted that it all had nothing to do with him, declaring “No Collusion!” When the Papadopoulos plea was announced he went quiet, presumably because of all the collusion involved.
But he shouldn’t have been so sure of himself to begin with. It’s highly likely that Mueller’s office is working hard to get Manafort to “flip.” One of the members of the special counsel’s team, former prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, was in the courtroom on Friday. That’s one of Weissmann’s specialties, honed in the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s office prosecuting organized crime with colleague George Stamboulidis. According to Reuters:
In 1997, [Weissmann] and trial partner George Stamboulidis brought down one of the country’s most powerful mob bosses, Vincent “the Chin” Gigante, with the help of turncoat witnesses.
“We cut our teeth in the organized crime section,” said Stamboulidis, now in private practice. “And the only way you can make those cases is to get people to cooperate, even when the oath of Omerta (a Mafia code of silence and non-cooperation with authorities) was strong and in full play.”
How that talent might be used in this Russia probe is anyone’s guess, but we know already that Manafort and Gates are implicated in money laundering and various financial crimes. If one wanted to “flip” a person to gain cooperation in understanding a larger conspiracy, this is the sort of crime an aggressive prosecutor would use as leverage. For what it’s worth, Betsy Woodruff of the Daily Beast reported that federal prosecutors who have worked with Weissmann in the past believed that the early-morning raid on Manafort’s condo a few weeks back had his name written all over it. This case could be his baby.
Even if Manafort doesn’t flip on Trump, or simply doesn’t have any evidence that Trump knew what was going on, his arrest has to have kept Trump up all night. By indicting Manafort on charges of money laundering, and doing so with an apparent go-ahead from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees his office, Mueller has made it clear that he will pursue the investigation wherever it leads, including into financial crimes that are not related to the campaign. Trump is almost definitely exposed.
Back in May I wrote about Trump’s long history of suspicious financial dealing, specifically money laundering, which is extremely common in real estate and gambling. In fact, Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City was known as a particular haunt of Russian mobsters and was cited repeatedly for money laundering. Just four months before Trump announced his presidential campaign, Fortune magazine reported that the Trump Taj Mahal had settled charges that it had violated money laundering laws by agreeing to a $10 million civil penalty for violations going back to 2003.
The list of possible dirty dealings in Trump’s foreign businesses and real estate holdings (including an unrelated FBI investigation into a Russian money laundering ring in Trump Tower) is a long one. By indicting Manafort on charges that fall outside the election collusion investigation, Mueller has put Donald Trump on notice. He’s going there.