Mueller’s indictments for Manafort and Papadopoulos spell bad news for Trump

The US president has publicly attacked the investigation as a “witch hunt” with no basis in fact.

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Following weeks of intense speculation in Washington, Bob Mueller, the special investigator looking into Russian interference in the presidential election, has revealed his first indictments – and they could spell bad news for Donald Trump.

The headline name was Paul Manafort, who served as chairman – the campaign's most senior figure – from June to August 2016, the turbulent months between Trump's victory in the primaries and the Republican National Convention. Manafort surrendered to the FBI on Monday morning; his former business partner, Rick Gates, was also named on the indictment. 

Trump's morning then got even worse. It emerged on Monday that George Papadopoulos, an early advisor to the Trump campaign on foreign policy, pleaded guilty three weeks ago to lying to the FBI about his own contact with Russia.

This indictment, which was sealed until Monday, describes how Papadopoulos, while working for the campaign, was contacted by a Russian professor with Kremlin ties who offered him “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails”. It says that Papadopoulos even met with then-candidate Trump and stated "in sum and substance, that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin". According to reports, Papadopoulos is now co-operating with the Mueller investigation.

The Manafort indictment accuses Manafort and Gates on 12 criminal charges: one each of “conspiracy against the United States” and “conspiracy to launder money”; seven counts relating to failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts; one count of acting as “unregistered agents of a foreign principal”, another of making false statements under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and a final, more recent charge of making false statements to the Department of Justice in November 2016 and February 2017. 

“Between at least 2006 and 2015, Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents of the government of Ukraine (a Ukrainian political party whose leader Viktor Yanukovych was President from 2010 to 2014), Yanukovych, and the Opposition Bloc (a successor to the Party of Regions that formed in 2014 when Yanukovych fled to Russia),” the indictment states, continuing that the pair “laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts”. 

Both entered pleas of not guilty.

In total, the indictment alleges, more than $75m flowed through the network of foreign accounts, of which Manafort is personally accused of laundering $18m and Gates $3m. Among the juicier details from the indictment are that almost a million dollars was laundered through an antique rug store in Alexandria, Virginia, and almost $900,000 through a men's clothing store in New York. The indictment mentions that Manafort and Gates conspired “together with others” to conceal their crimes, hinting at more to come.

In the immediate sense, Papadopoulos' indictment is more directly dangerous to Trump than Manafort's. The indictments issued for Manafort and Gates are for financial crimes, covering a period of under-the-table patriation of foreign money through the purchase of luxury goods, rather than directly about Russian tampering in the 2016 election. While one of the counts is for a conspiracy charge, it is a conspiracy to defraud and launder money, not a conspiracy to commit treason.

Unlike with Papadopoulos, there is nothing in the Manafort indictment itself that links to the Trump campaign, nor does it come as a huge surprise, since FBI agents raided Manafort's apartment in August and the fact that he was under investigation was already public knowledge. Nonetheless, the fact that he was Mueller's first public collar is probably worse news for the Trump administration.

Despite Trump's protestation as the investigation ramped up in August that Manafort had been with the campaign for a “very short period of time”, Manafort was the senior figure in his campaign at possibly its most important moment, the three months leading up to the Republican National Convention. He also had a previous personal connection with Trump: he lived in Trump Tower, and the two were friends before the election.

Trump has publicly attacked the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” with no basis in fact, but the indictment on federal criminal charges of a senior figure in his campaign will certainly make that assertion nearly impossible to maintain with any credibility.

The danger for the Trump administration with Manafort is twofold: one, that a public trial of Manafort could be a long, embarrassing experience for the Trump campaign. It would be a drawn-out and inescapable reminder of the president's lies that even his supporters with their heads deepest in the sand – his voting base, congressional allies like speaker of the house Paul Ryan and his loudest cheerleaders like Fox News – might find it difficult to ignore.

The second and perhaps more important peril for Trump is how much leverage Manafort's arrest now gives Mueller as his investigation progresses. The scale of the indictments Manafort faces means that despite today's not guilty plea he might later bow under pressure and, like Papadopoulos appears to have done, strike a plea-deal that could include offering information that might lead to details relevant to the core of Mueller's investigation: Russian interference in the election.

Papadopoulos adds to the weight of evidence that Russia was offering help to multiple junior campaign aides, but Manafort could give Mueller a way to connect that to the very top of the campaign.

Some of those cracks are already in the public domain, from Trump's public entreaty of Russia to hack Clinton's emails, and the details of a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising damaging details about Clinton attended by Trump's son Don Jr and his son-in-law Jared Kushner – a meeting that was confirmed when Don Jr released the relevant section of his own emails on Twitter in July in an attempt to get out ahead of the story. Papadopoulos adds another damning example to that list, with the added twist that he has flipped and is working with Mueller.

Trump's personal lawyer, Ty Cobb, said on Monday: “The president has no concerns in terms of any impact, as to what happens to them, on his campaign or on the White House.” But of course, this is meaningless. Mueller, a former Marine and prosecutor who served as director of the FBI, is widely known as a thorough, honest, and relentless investigator. A deal with Manafort would give him an extremely powerful lever with which to pry open the numerous cracks already showing in Trump's circle.

Trump's supporters are fond of saying that he is playing a game of “three-dimensional chess”, explaining his more bizarre outbursts as smart moves in a game beyond the comprehension of most. If so, then today marked, not checkmate, but what may yet prove to be a major turning-point in the flow of the game. Papadopoulos pleading guilty is a big deal. If Manafort flips too, though – we could be heading for endgame.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.