The Most Significant Figure Right Now In The Mueller Investigation Is Probably A Guy You Never Heard Of Before
(We Hadn’t Either)
Head Spinning Revelations As Special Counsel Robert Mueller Makes Big Bold Moves
A quick recap:
• Former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and his colleague Rick Gates, are charged with 12 criminal counts including conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy against the United States (more on that in a sec), and lying to federal investigators. They both entered “not guilty” pleas.
• Mueller also unsealed a guilty plea from several weeks ago by a little-known Trump campaign staffer, George Papadopoulos. The charge: making false statements to federal investigators. (As Lawfareblog points out, this isn’t uncommon, but it shouldn’t be viewed as unimportant, especially in a first round of indictments, since “proving that someone is lying is often easier than proving that the underlying offense violates the law.”)
And (as Trump would say) Mueller got “great reviews” from the legal community (even from attorneys who are not necessarily on his side). “This is the way you kick off a big case” said a well-known Chicago defense lawyer, quoted by the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal’s editors got so flustered they preemptively published an Op-Ed amounting to little more than a how-to guide for Trump on firing Mueller. (In case you can’t read it because it’s behind a firewall, here’s a summary from Politico).
Let’s Look At George Papadopoulos First
On the surface, it might not look like there’s much there. The 30-year old former Trump campaign staffer and member of the President’s hastily thrown-together pre-election “National Security Team” is such a small fish the Washington Post seemed to have trouble putting together a coherent biography.
And people out to minimize the story (including the White House) are quick to point out “all” Papadopoulos pled guilty to is lying to the FBI. However, you’ll get a much more robust story if you look at Papadopoulos’ “Statement of the Offense”, which you should, because it’s not very long and it’s right here:
It details how Papadopoulos attempted to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton through Russian sources, and endeavored to arrange a meeting between Trump or a representative of his campaign and Putin (at times through an intermediary he apparently thought was Putin’s niece). It further details how at least some of the efforts were endorsed by Papadopoulos’ superiors in the campaign (although others were shut down).
As the New York Times points out this morning, Papadopoulus’ activity was not unlike the time Donald Trump, Jr. met with a Russian lawyer “for the same purpose”.
So the fact that “all” Papadopoulos pled guilty to is lying could very well mean that was the negotiated condition of his plea. Meaning Mueller expects to leverage this witness. Meaning he thinks he’s got a live one.
The way Mueller is handling his prosecution so far speaks volumes:
• Papadopoulos was interviewed voluntarily by the FBI on January 27th.
• After the FBI determined statements he made related to the timetable of certain events were untrue, he was arrested at Dulles International Airport on July 27th.
• He entered a guilty plea on October 5th, which remained sealed until Monday, October 30th.
That means while Mueller hasn’t formally said whether the former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor is currently cooperating with the investigation, it sure looks like it, and it’s been going on for at least 3 weeks and as much as 3 months without anyone knowing about it. (That’s also a testament to the extreme un-leakiness of the Mueller team).
That’s got to leave a lot of people in Washington shaking in their boots.
Who exactly? Several people are mentioned in Papadopoulos’ plea agreement, though not by name. However, the Washington Post speculates as to who they are, and one has confirmed the Post is right, it’s him. He’s Sam Clovis, a name you might recognize because Trump caused a stir by appointing him head scientist at the USDA, even though he’s not a scientist. Clovis, who was the Trump campaign’s co-Chair, is identified in the court papers as “the campaign supervisor”. At one point he urges Papadopoulus to visit his Russian sources: “make the trip, if it is feasible”. But Clovis’ lawyer tells the Post he didn’t actually mean that: he was just being a gentlemanly Iowan offering encouragement to an enthusiastic young man.
The Post also identifies a person referred to as “high-ranking campaign official” as former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, but Lewandowski would not confirm that. (The mysterious woman who appears to have “catfished” Papadopoulos by posing as Putin’s niece, remains unidentified…)
So Papadopoulos could bring down a lot of people above him. And that’s why getting that first guilty plea is crucially important to Mueller.
Garrett Graff’s excellent story in Wired explains in cases such as these, prosecutors seldom go after a single big-name individual first. Instead, the FBI “starts at the bottom or periphery of an organization and works inward, layer by layer, until it’s in a position to build a rock-solid case against the person at the top”.
Ironically, that technique was championed by Trump BFF Rudy Giuliani when he went after organized crime in New York in the 1980's.
Does Trump Even Know Papadopoulos?
The Washington Post released an audio clip of a meeting between Trump and the Post’s editorial board during the campaign in which he refers to Papadopoulos by name (although he’s obviously reading off a list) and calls him “an excellent guy”. It’s here:
In our opinion, It’s also completely meaningless. As we all know by now, Trump isn’t shy with the superlatives even for people he doesn’t know or care about at all. As we’ve mentioned before, Trump really didn’t know that many people in politics. That’s why after being elected, he relied on a lot of ex-military, and suggestions from Mike Pence and Steve Bannon.
During the campaign, instead of doing what any normal person would and say “I’m new to this, give me a sec to get organized” Trump insisted he was on top of everything, even though he was just throwing together lists of names so he could say he had things like a “national security team”. And that’s how Papadopoulos, originally with Ben Carson, ended up with a position in the Trump campaign.
We do know Trump and Papadopoulos were in a room together at least once. How do we know this? Because Trump Tweeted a photo (we added the circle around Papadopoulos, Trump is on the far right):
According to the Washington Post, it was likely at this meeting Papadopoulos bragged he had connections who could arrange a meeting between candidate Trump and Putin, an idea that was quickly shot down by Manafort.
Trump Tweeted this morning: “Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!”
But we actually believe that Trump doesn’t remember much about the meeting, since it really doesn’t seem to be much more than a photo op.
The Most Surprising Part Of The Manafort/Gates Charges: The Scale
The amount of money Trump’s former Campaign Chief is accused of laundering is astronomical: $18-million dollars for his personal use alone. And a total of $75-million flowed through offshore accounts he kept. Those funds largely came from work on behalf of a former President of Ukraine, with deep Russian ties. Manafort’s former partner, Rick Gates is accused of laundering $3-million. Then, Manafort used properties purchased with the allegedly illicit funds as collateral to borrow millions of dollars more.
The Washington Post provides an annotated version of the Manafort/Gates indictment, which can be found here.
“Conspiracy Against The United States” Is Not Treason
One thing that jumped out at a lot of people from the Manafort indictment (especially our friends on Facebook) was the charge of “Conspiracy Against The United States”. What this refers to is Manafort defrauding the government of the United States by failing pay taxes due, instead squirreling money away offshore. It is not related to anything having to do with plotting against the U.S. on behalf of a foreign power.
Though Not Charged, Mueller Investigation Appears To Cost Powerhouse Democratic Lobbyist His Job
One of the most powerful Democratic Party aligned lobbyists in Washington stepped down from the firm he founded, almost simultaneous with the announcement of the charges against Manafort and Gates. Tony Podesta is the brother of John Podesta, who was Chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Although not explicitly named in the Manafort indictment, two firms were mentioned as lobbying on behalf of Manafort’s Ukraine clients, paid directly from offshore accounts.
Strange bedfellows? Maybe. Then again, money is money.
White House Reaction: “You’re The Puppet”
Trump himself was uncharacteristically circumspect, initially limiting himself to two Tweets (1 1/2 really), the content of which however, was completely characteristic:
Trump is partially correct: a lot of what Manafort is charged with happened before he joined on with the Trump campaign (although his money laundering activities appeared to continue long after). But as Trump’s Tweets often do, they raise additional questions. In this case, since Manafort was long known to be associated with international political scandals, and his connection to a Russian backed politician in Ukraine was well known, why the hell did Trump hire him in the first place?
We think the answer is simple (and we’ve already discussed it a little): Trump didn’t know that many people in politics. Manafort was tough and savvy (he famously — and correctly — predicted of Election Day 2016: “Whoever is in the spotlight will lose”). Some of Trump’s friends recommended him. And he was a neighbor, with an apartment in Trump Tower.
Still, that hire is a constant and lingering reminder of Trump’s incredibly poor judgment: when Manafort came on in early 2016, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake wrote a piece entitled “Trump Just Hired His Next Scandal”. Not because he’s a soothsayer. Because it wasn’t hard to predict. And Manafort’s Eastern European connections were ultimately a large factor in why he quit as Chairman of Trump’s campaign, opening the door for Steve Bannon. (That and sagging poll numbers).
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (again) blamed Hillary, then asserted the Manafort charge “has nothing to do with the President”, and convolutedly explains all Papadopoulos did was lie to the FBI, so Trump and his campaign is in the clear. Yes, really. You can watch it here:
Sanders also denies Trump has any “intention or plan” to fire Mueller. So far Trump has really only expressed concern with being implicated personally in the Russia probe, and Mueller still seems pretty far from that.
Where Is Bob Mueller Headed Next?
Part of the reason he’s been so effective so far, is his team leaks next to nothing, and telegraphs very little.
At the same time, we don’t want to leave you with nothing to chew on: so here are the opinions of 11 different lawyers, courtesy of Politico.
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