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Manafort indictment, adviser's guilty plea only the beginning, experts say

Richard Gates (left, with President Donald Trump) and Paul Manafort (right, with attorney Kevin Downing) are facing a total of 12 felony counts under an indictment filed Friday. (CNN)

Three people with close ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign have been ensnared in Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, court documents unsealed Monday revealed, but experts diverge on how damaging, legally or politically, the news is for the White House.

Paul Manafort and Richard Gates were indicted Friday on multiple felony counts for alleged crimes unrelated to their roles as top campaign officials. Prosecutors also announced Monday that George Papadopoulos, a campaign adviser, pleaded guilty on October 5 to charges of lying to FBI agents.

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Manafort served as chairman of Trump’s campaign for about six months, with Gates as his deputy. Gates remained with the campaign and assisted with inauguration planning before joining a pro-Trump advocacy group.

Manafort and Gates face a total of 12 charges, including conspiracy against the U.S., conspiracy to launder money, and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. The charges relate to nearly a decade of lobbying work in the U.S. on behalf of Ukrainian political leaders.

Manafort allegedly laundered more than $18 million through foreign accounts, using the funds to pay for homes, vehicles, and antique rugs. He is also accused of using money from offshore accounts to fraudulently secure mortgages and loans.

Manafort and Gates entered not guilty pleas Monday. A judge set bond for Manafort at $10 million and $5 million for Gates, and the two will remain under house arrest. Both could face more than 10 years in prison if convicted of all counts.

Kevin Downing, an attorney for Manafort said outside the courthouse that the allegations against his client are “ridiculous.” A spokesperson for Gates, Glenn Selig, said in a statement that “this fight is just beginning.”

“He welcomes the opportunity to confront these charges in court,” Selig said of Gates. “He is not going to comment further until he has had a chance to review the lengthy indictment with his legal team.”

Although word that an indictment had been filed was leaked late Friday, the announcement of the guilty plea by Papadopoulos, which occurred three and a half weeks ago, came as a surprise to many.

Trump had described Papadopoulos as one of his foreign policy advisers and “an excellent guy” in an interview with the Washington Post last March. The White House dismissed his role Monday as that of a low-level volunteer.

According to charging documents, Papadopoulos lied to FBI agents about the nature and timing of contacts with people who had ties to Russian officials, including one who he apparently believed was related to Vladimir Putin.

Although Papadopoulos initially claimed conversations with Russians were inconsequential and occurred before he joined the Trump campaign, subsequent investigation uncovered that he worked to obtain “dirt” on Clinton and set up meetings with Russian officials for months after he was named as an adviser. Emails quoted in the charging documents indicate Manafort and other top campaign officials encouraged his efforts to secure Russian support through at least August 2016.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders maintained Monday that nothing revealed in either case refutes the administration’s position that there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

"Today's announcement has nothing to do with the president and nothing to do with the president's campaign or campaign activity," she said.

According to Glenn Altschuler, Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, the danger for Trump lies less in what Manafort and Gates are currently charged with than in what could happen next.

“These indictments are part of a process, a somewhat lengthy process, to increase the pressure on both those who are indicted, those who had contact with the person who was indicted, and others about their own vulnerability,” he said.

The seriousness of the charges and the apparent evidence in support of them creates enormous incentive for both Manafort and Gates to be more forthcoming with investigators.

“Money laundering and lying to federal officials could well result in convictions and jail time and therefore put a lot of pressure on Mr. Manafort to cooperate,” Altschuler said. “Secondly these charges, especially the money laundering, may be picked up by attorneys general in some states and if they were able to get convictions, they would be beyond the power of the president to pardon.”

The indictment alleges that Manafort and Gates used companies they controlled in at least four states to facilitate their “scheme.”

According to Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, the Papadopoulos charges could prove a greater political liability for the president than his campaign chairman’s outside activities.

“The news that an unpaid foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, has admitted that he lied to federal investigators about contacts with Russia has much more significant ramifications, especially if he is cooperating as many are speculating,” he said.

Democratic strategist Matt McDermott also noted Papadopoulos’ apparent willingness to provide information to investigators as a danger for Trump.

“It is now established fact the Trump campaign tried to coordinate with Russia and lied to federal officials about it,” he said. “Given the stipulations in the guilty plea, all indications suggest that Papadopoulos is now cooperating with federal officials and potentially supplying evidence against other senior members of Trump's campaign team.”

The Papadopoulos charging documents state that he has been cooperating and providing investigators with additional information since his arrest in July.

However, David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, suggested Trump’s critics are overestimating the impact either of these cases will have.

“In and of themselves, neither is particularly noteworthy,” he said.

Manafort’s dubious business dealings in Ukraine were previously known and Trump fired him when particularly troubling details were revealed last August. What Papadopoulos lied about doing would be more shocking if Donald Trump Jr. had not already admitted he did something similar when he arranged a meeting with Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016.

“We already have evidence of people much closer to Trump doing what Papadopoulos was doing, which is responding to inquiries from Russians who claimed to have dirt on Clinton,” Barker said.

In response to the indictment Monday, Trump returned to his frequent complaint about alleged wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton and Democrats that is supposedly being ignored. Sanders echoed that position from the Briefing Room podium, claiming that Clinton’s campaign engaged in collusion with Russia, an allegation former Clinton aides adamantly deny.

A law firm retained by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid an opposition research firm to investigate Trump last year. That company, Fusion GPS, hired a former British intelligence official, Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier of unverified raw intelligence on Trump’s connections with Russia. Steele reportedly paid Russian informants for some information.

Clinton campaign officials have said they were unaware of the dossier’s existence prior to the election. Information contained in it only became public when it was published by Buzzfeed in January.

Mackowiak believes there are legitimate questions to be asked about Hillary Clinton’s conduct and her dealings with Russia, but he doubts raising them is going to diminish the troubles those associated with Trump are facing.

“Even if Hillary now has legal problems, that does not end any future legal problems for the Trump White House,” he said. “My sense is that Mueller’s investigation is nowhere near complete and will become far more serious, but no one knows what he has and whether other individuals are cooperating.”

McDermott said the Trump administration’s focus on Clinton is simply a distraction.

“Voters can see through the smokescreen,” he said.

He pointed to Trump’s latest approval numbers, which hit a new low of 33 percent in the Gallup tracking poll Monday and have not been much better in other recent surveys.

“The facts are clear, regardless of the Trump administration's attempts at propaganda parroting, and the American people are demanding accountability,” McDermott said.

Barker warned that Democrats may be getting ahead of themselves in celebrating Monday’s developments.

“The Dems would be well advised to not overplay this hand and create a backlash,” he said. “This is not the sort of thing that independent voters are going to fry Trump or the GOP for.”

Barring a real smoking gun that ties President Trump or his family to criminal activity personally, Republicans who still support Trump may not be fazed by charges against secondary figures like Manafort and Papadopoulos.

“Republican voters already think this is all made up by the so-called ‘liberal media’ as justification for Clinton losing,” Barker said. “They will not be demoralized by this. In fact, the more of a media story it is and the more the Dems jump up and down, the more it encourages Republican voters to circle the wagons and support the tribe.”

News of the indictment and guilty plea came amid calls by prominent Republicans for Mueller to step down and efforts by GOP lawmakers to shut down congressional probes of election interference. A serious indictment alleging a dozen felonies practically guarantees Mueller’s probe and subsequent legal activity will continue well into the 2018 campaign season, though.

“This is going to turn out to be one of the most complicated investigations in American history, with many, many, many, many players and moving parts,” Altschuler said, and that means more developments and possibly more indictments will shake out before the midterms.

The court filings unsealed Monday do not necessarily contain the entirety of the special counsel’s evidence against any of these three men, and it is not uncommon for prosecutors to work from the outside in, using charges against peripheral players to obtain evidence against more prominent targets.

“It is true that there is of yet no claims of collusion by Mr. Mueller,” Altschuler said, “but I wouldn’t take a lot of consolation from that fact if I were in the White House or I were in Mr. Mueller’s crosshairs.”

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