The indictment of President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and the guilty plea of a campaign adviser who lied about Russian contacts still fall short of definitive evidence of collusion with Russia.
But they are the first shoes to drop, heavily, and there will be more from the investigation led by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.
So when White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders says such stunning events have “nothing to do with the president or his campaign’s activities,” the facts already contradict her. Big time.
What’s already clear – from the plea by ex-foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and the behavior of Paul Manafort – is that Moscow was eager to give the Trump campaign illegally obtained dirt on Hillary Clinton and the Trump team was eager to obtain it. In other words, eager to collude with a country whose leader, Vladimir Putin, is hostile to the United States and was interfering in a U.S. election.
What we don’t know yet is whether the Trumpsters’ yen to collude with Moscow ever led to a concrete deal.
To understand where the Manafort and Papadopoulos pieces fit into the bigger picture, you need some history.
First point: Manafort was known to be in Russia’s pocket well before he became Trump’s campaign manager in March 2016. He had been a longtime public relations lobbyist for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt Kremlin crony who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2014. The Ukrainian leader was closely tied to Russian oligarchs, some of whom Manafort also got involved with – notably Putin buddy Oleg Deripaska, to whom Manafort owed $17 million.
The federal indictment accuses Manafort and his protigi Rick Gates of laundering more than $75 million they received from Yanukovych and his political parties from 2006 to 2016 via offshore accounts and overseas shell companies without paying taxes. A huge chunk of the money went to fund his luxurious lifestyle.
This was a man indebted to the Kremlin, in hock to a Putin ally, dogged by deep secrets that opened him to potential blackmail. He had every reason to want to collude with Moscow irrespective of U.S. interests. At the Republican National Convention, Manafort’s minions excised wording from the platform that would have provided Ukraine with defensive arms to counter Russian aggression.
The Washington Post reported that less than two weeks before Trump won the Republican nomination, Manafort offered to provide Deripaska with private briefings on the race. “The relationship with Deripaska raises questions about Manafort’s relations with Putin,” says John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
So, while the indictment of Manafort doesn’t directly link to campaign activity, it does provide the backdrop to Mueller’s quest to learn if any Trumpsters colluded with Moscow.
Second point: Putin held a deep grievance against Hillary Clinton, whom he blamed for 2011 protests in Moscow after Russian elections (the Kremlin blames every popular revolt in the former Soviet Union on Washington). So Moscow was eager to help Trump and undermine Clinton, including handing over hacked emails to Wikileaks. The Russians also thought they could more easily manipulate Trump: The New York Times reported that top Russian officials discussed how to influence Trump aides last summer.
Third point: Candidate Trump made publicly clear he was open to Kremlin assistance, urging Moscow to hack Hillary. “Russia, if you’re listening, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said on July 27, 2016. He also said Russian hacking “gives me no pause.”
This brings us to Monday’s guilty plea by Papadopoulos, one of the campaign’s early foreign policy advisers. He admitted to lying about an April 2016 meeting with a source closely linked to the Russian government who told him Moscow had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” Federal court documents indicate senior campaign officials, probably including Manafort, encouraged Papadopoulos to pursue this route.
In case you buy spokeswoman Sanders’ argument that Papadopoulos was unimportant, please recall a similar meeting with Russians in June 2016 that included the Trump family. Donald Trump Jr., First Son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Manafort met in Trump Tower with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who had promised to deliver documents that would damage Clinton. “I love it,” Trump Jr. responded via email to the intermediary who set up the meeting.
So how does all of this add up?
We (and the feds) know that Manafort was in touch with Kremlin contacts as campaign adviser in ways that were deeply improper.
We know that Papadopoulos, along with Manafort, Kushner, and Trump Jr., were seeking dirt from Moscow on Clinton, including emails hacked by Russia as part of an effort to disrupt the U.S. election.
We still don’t know if these dots will link up to reveal indictable offenses, nor what former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s Russian adventures might add to the picture. But Monday’s events reveal the Trump team’s intentions.
In normal times, this information alone would discredit an administration (and there is no comparison here to the Democrats’ opposition research – whose goal was to expose, not collude with, Kremlin misbehavior).
But these times are not normal. The president’s campaign adviser and family followed his lead in seeking to collude with the Kremlin to undermine a U.S. election. Yes, they won the ballot, but they have dirtied themselves.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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