Conspiracy against the United States. Conspiracy to launder money. Failure to file reports of bank accounts to the U.S. Treasury. Failure to register as an agent of a foreign power. These are very serious charges filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team of investigators, and they are only a fraction of the twelve counts that Paul Manafort and Richard Gates are now facing. Both Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, and Gates (Manafort’s former business associate and Trump campaign deputy) surrendered to federal authorities this afternoon and filed a “not guilty” plea in court through their attorneys.
A junior staffer on the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team, George Papadopoulos, also entered a plea agreement with Mueller. According to the agreement unsealed today, Papadopoulos admitted to giving false statements to federal authorities about the nature of his communications with people he suspected were close to the Russian government — including one woman he believed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s niece. Documents and emails Mueller has collected during his investigation show a low-level staffer almost radically committed to pushing a meeting between Trump and Putin, so much so that a senior campaign staffer was beginning to worry that Papadopoulos didn’t understand that Trump would not be taking any of these meetings.
The indictments have transfixed Washington, as many expected they would. The fact that the charges against Manafort and Gates are unrelated to the issue of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign is a reminder of how expansive Mueller’s investigation is.
The former FBI Director has extremely wide authority to look into who he wants and where he wants, when he wants; he can thank Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for that. Like Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel who turned an inquiry over a sketchy land deal in the backwoods of Arkansas into a thorough and graphic look into President Bill Clinton’s adultery with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky, Mueller’s power is seemingly limitless. Any matter that arises during the course of his case work is on the table, which means that the special counsel’s office could be up and running well past the 2018 midterm elections. The Whitewater investigation, after all, lasted six years and cost over $50 million; while nobody is predicting the Russia inquiry will take that long, Mueller would at least have some precedent to probe other areas of the matter if he believes illegal activity was conducted.
All eyes will be on the White House this week, especially its communications strategy and how angry or defiant Trump himself will be in public. The worst possible thing Trump could do would go after Mueller’s integrity and credibility — which is unimpeachable in Washington across both sides of the aisle — or hint, however slightly, that Mueller is overstepping his bounds. To short-circuit Mueller or do something as politically stupid and indeed irrational as dismissing him would pile a heap of political pressure on the entire administration and possibly even convince congressional Republicans that legislation is required to protect the special counsel’s operations. It’s something that a conventional president wouldn’t even think about, knowing that the “I word” would be thrown around town and that a successor to Mueller would look even deeper into possible obstruction of justice. Yet, a conventional president wouldn’t have fired an FBI director conducting an investigation that could touch the White House, so we can only guess what’s bubbling in Trump’s head.
Get ready for a long, exhaustive criminal inquiry that will inevitably turn into a political war between Republicans and Democrats and (if Trump goes off the reservation) maybe even between Trump and members of his own party.