Trump-Russia inquiry heats up as three key aides indicted

Paul Manafort and business associate Rick Gates indicted while ex-adviser George Papadopoulos pleads guilty over Kremlin contacts

The special investigation into Russian election meddling closed in dramatically on Donald Trump on Monday, as news violated that a former foreign policy adviser pleaded guilty to perjury over his contacts with Russians connected with the Kremlin, and the president’s former campaign director and the other aide faced charges of money laundering.

In a day of rapid and surprising developments in Washington, George Papadopolous, the former foreign policy adviser, was revealed to have pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to FBI researchers over his contacts last year with two people with apparently close ties to the Russian government. One was an unnamed professor- identified by the Washington Post as Joseph Mifsud- who offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Another was a woman who portrayed herself as” Putin’s niece “.

Meanwhile, in a federal courthouse in central Washington, Trump’s former campaign administrator, Paul Manafort, and a business associate, Rick Gates, pleaded not guilty to an indictment for fund laundering, tax evasion, failure to register as agents for foreign interests and conspiracy to defraud the US government.

A federal magistrate ordered Manafort and Gates to be confined at home and defined bail at $10 m for Manafort and$ 5m for Gates.

The indictments were the first issued by Mueller since he was appointed special counseling in May, with broad powers to analyse Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by members of the Trump campaign.

After the indictment of Manafort and Gates was exposed on Monday morning, Trump tweeted:” Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary& the Dems the focus ?????”

The president added: “… Also, there is NO COLLUSION !”

Later, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, played down the connection between the three men and the Trump campaign. She said of Manafort and Gates’s indictment:” Today’s announcement has nothing to do with the president, presidential campaigns or any campaign activity .”

Sanders played down the role of Manafort, who joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 as convention manager, focusing on winning delegates at the 2016 Republican convention, and was promoted to campaign manager in June 2016 before resigning in August over his links to Ukraine. She said:” Paul Manafort was brought in to lead the delegate process, which he did, and was dismissed not too long after that .”

She also insisted Papadopoulos’s lies to the FBI about his contacts with Russia on behalf of the Trump campaign had” nothing to do with the activities of the campaign”, and repeatedly dismissed Papadopoulos as” a volunteer member on an advisory council “.

However, Trump himself had announced Papadopoulos’s appointment as a foreign policy consultant in March 2016, describing him as” an excellent guy “. The charges, which Papadopoulos accepted as accurate as part of his guilty plea, said Trump was present at a meeting of national security consultants where Papadopoulos boasted of his Russian connects and said he could help organise a meeting with Putin.

The charges, to which Papadolous pleaded guilty on 5 October, state that the unnamed woman he was in linked with was not related to the Russian president. But Papadopoulos’s links with her and the prof led to extensive contacts with Russian officials considering a Putin-Trump meeting and other high-level exchanges.

The professor referred to in the charges against Papadopoulos is said to have told him that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of” thousands of emails” at a meeting around April 26 2016, months before the Russian hack of Democratic party emails became publicly known.

A prosecutor representing Mueller’s office, Aaron Zelinsky, said at the October hearing that the Papadopoulos case was just a” small proportion” of” a large scale ongoing investigation”, according to a transcript of the court conference, adding weight to anticipation that Monday’s charges are the tip-off of an iceberg.

Collusion itself is not a crime, unless it rises to the level of espionage or treason. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to inducing false statements to FBI agents about the extent and timing of his contacts with Russians, and about his awareness of their links to the Kremlin.

His indictment alleges:” The professor told defendant Papadopoulos about the Russians possessing’ dirt’ on then-candidate Clinton in late April 2016, more than a month after defendant Papadopoulos had joined the campaign .”

Papadopoulos was arrested in July at Dulles airport when he returned from a journey abroad. The tribunal newspapers note that he subsequently” met with the government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions “. He was charged more than two months later.

‘A cause for deep concern’

Paul Manafort listens during a round table discussion on security at Trump Tower in New York on 17 August 2016. Photo: Carlo Allegri/ Reuters

Summarising the day’s developments, Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes, editors of the Lawfare blog, wrote:” President Trump, in short, had on his campaign at least person or persons, and allegedly two people, who actively worked with adversarial foreign governments in a manner they sought to criminally conceal from investigators .”

Ultimately, the question over whether Trump committed” high crimes and misdemeanors” through his camp’s contacts with Moscow during the election will be decided by Congress, where Republicans control both chambers.

Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said after the charges were made public:” This is just the latest in a series of undisclosed contacts, misleading public statements, potentially compromising information and highly questionable actions from the time of the Trump campaign that together remain a cause for deep concern and continued investigation .”

Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty to 12 charges. The first was ” conspiracy against the United States”, an overall charge that refers specifically to the failure to inform the government of foreign income and foreign bank account, and failing to register lobbying work for foreign interests.

The indictment focuses on the business activities of the two men before Manafort joined Trump’s campaign, in March 2016, and Gates became a senior fundraiser.

The charges allege the two men worked extensively for political figures and parties in Ukraine and laundered millions of dollars in payment for that the project works by channelling it through a web of companies, mostly in the US and Cyprus. They are accused of constructing elaborated schemes to hide their earnings from the US government, and failing to register the foreign interests for which the latter are lobbying.

The indictment alleges $75 m in payments flowed through offshore accounts, of which Manafort laundered more than $18 m to buy property, goods and services in the US, concealing the income from the governmental forces. It says Gates transferred$ 3m from the offshore accounts to other accounts he controlled.

” In order to conceal Ukraine pays from United States authorities, from approximately 2006 to at least 2016, Manafort and Gates laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank account ,” the indictment claims.

It notes that Manafort utilized” his concealed overseas wealth to fund a lavish lifestyle, without paying taxes on that income “.

The charges were approved by a grand jury on Friday. Although the indictment says the two men’s moneymaking activities lasted until at least 2016, the charges do not mention the role of the two men in the Trump campaign.

An attorney for Manafort, Kevin Downing, said there was no evidence the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.

” Mr Manafort represented pro-European Union campaigns for the Ukrainians and in the course of that representation he was seeking to further democracy and to assist the Ukrainians come closer to the United States and to the EU ,” Downing said in a statement.” Those activities ended in 2014, two years before Mr Manafort served in the Trump Campaign .”

Trump’s lawyer, Ty Cobb, told the Guardian there was ” no angst at the White House “. Manafort had been alerted to expect an indictment and Cobb recently told the New York Times he was confident the former Trump campaign chair had no damaging informed on the president to offer in exchange for leniency.

However, the Mueller investigation is widely expected to produce farther indictments and many legal commentators had predicted it would start with charges related to financial crimes as a style of pressuring defendants to provide more information on the Trump team’s relationship with Moscow.

” The amount of money that Manafort received is staggering ,” said Scott Horton, a US expert on international law with extensive experience of fiscal cases and eastern Europe.” The Russian/ Ukrainian side is complicit in its routing and overshadowing the fact of pay.

” That’s significant because it means they had knowledge of serious criminal acts by Manafort which they could hold over his head and use to force him to do their bidding. The suspicion would naturally be that they were a driving force behind his volunteering to serve the Trump campaign for free .”

Manafort left his apartment in northern Virginia soon after 8am, shielding his face from television cameras. He entered the FBI field office in Washington at 8.15 am, accompanied by his lawyer. He and Gates appeared in court early in the afternoon.

The Ukraine connection

Before becoming Trump’s campaign manager in the summer of 2016, Manafort had extensive business ties to Ukraine, where he represented prominent pro-Moscow figures. Gates joined his firm, Davis Manafort, in 2006.

Both humen were involved in extensive business dealings with a Russian billionaire, Oleg Deripaska, who is close to Vladimir Putin. Deripaska sued them both in the Cayman Islands in 2014, claiming they had taken virtually $19 m intended for investments and then failed to account for the money.

Manafort’s relations with Deripaska appeared to revive when the lobbyist was hired by Trump in March 2016. Leaked emails prove Manafort offering to provide Deripaska with private briefings on the campaign in July 2016, less than 2 week before Trump accepted the Republican nomination.

The Mueller indictment does not mention Deripaska. Instead, much of it discusses the defendants’ lobbying work for Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, and his Party of Regions.

Gates was involved in setting up subsidiary companies in Cyprus that received fund from east European sources, though he has insisted there was nothing illegal about them. Like Manafort, he worked on the Trump campaign.

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White House: No sign of collusion in campaign aides’ indictments- video

Manafort was told to quit his campaign post in August 2016, after just five months in the job, when revelations of his business dealings in Ukraine came to light. Sources told the Guardian at the time Trump never really bonded with Manafort. Gates remained part of the campaign and worked on the Trump inaugural committee. He was reported to have been a frequent visitor to the White House since the Trump administration took office.

Manafort started working in Ukraine in 2005, when he was hired by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, a steel magnate from Donetsk. Akhmetov was a close ally of Yanukovych, who had won a fraud-marred presidential election in 2004 but was stopped from taking office by the Orange Revolution.

Manafort was tasked with dedicating Yanukovych’s image an overhaul. In 2010, he won a new election more or less fairly, after receiving image and strategic advice from Manafort. Manafort became one of Yanukovych’s most powerful advisers, house links with other oligarchs and industrialists from Russia and Ukraine.

Yanukovych, whose rule was marked by rampant corruption in his inner circle, fled to Russia during the Maidan revolution in February 2014. In August last year, an alleged” black ledger” surfaced in Kiev that appeared to show millions of dollars of under-the-table pays to numerous Yanukovych friends, including Manafort.

Ukraine’s National Anticorruption Bureau posted 22 pays to Manafort between 2007 and 2012 with various vague descriptions such as “sociology” or “services”. The pays totalled $12.7 m. Manafort said he never received any illegal pays but the scandal inspired him to resign from Trump’s campaign.

Manafort’s appearance at the centre of US presidential politics was sudden. Former colleagues said his past work as a Republican operative induced him a specialist in corralling referendums at party conventions. Manafort helped Trump, who was unprepared for the grinding process of winning delegates , not only win the majority needed but also avoid any unpleasant floor fightings in Cleveland.

A longtime Republican operative, Manafort helped guide Gerald Ford to victory against Ronald Reagan in 1976, then worked for Reagan in 1980. He has advised several other Republican, including former chairperson George HW Bush and Bob Dole, who lost the 1996 elected to Bill Clinton. His international career precluded him from taking a position with John McCain’s campaign in 2008.

Although Manafort did not formally presume control of the Trump campaign until 20 June, when campaign administrator Corey Lewandowski was fired, Lewandowski said after his expulsion:” Paul Manafort has been in operational control of the campaign since 7 April. That’s a fact .”

Manafort also played the decisive role in ensuring that Trump picked the Indiana governor, Mike Pence, to be his running mate.

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