Mueller Starts Coming for Team Trump

First arrests in special counsel's Russiagate probe are Paul Manafort and Rick Gates

Paul Manafort Credit: Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/AP

Update: Minutes after announcing the indictments against Manafort and Gates, Mueller announced a plea agreement with George Papadopoulos, a former Ben Carson aide who served as one of Trump's foreign policy advisers starting in March 2016, on a team overseen by then-Senator Jeff Sessions, now the U.S attorney general. In a stunning revelation, Papadopoulos has admitted covertly seeking to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin, engaging in regular contact with Russians – including a woman alleged to be a relative of Putin's – who told him that they had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton along with "thousands of emails," and lying about it to federal investigators.

Robert Mueller's relentless Russiagate inquiry has now resulted in the indictments and arrests of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's longtime associate and 2016 campaign manager, and Manafort's close aide and associate Rick Gates. Manafort and Gates sit atop a tangle of ties to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and a host of shady real estate deals, and last July the FBI, acting for Mueller, executed a pre-dawn, no-knock raid on Manafort's home in Alexandria, Virginia. Since then, rumors have swirled that Manafort would be the first in what could be a series of further Russiagate indictments. In anticipation, Team Trump has gone into full-blown panic mode.

The charges against Manafort, according to the office of the special counsel, include "conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act] statements, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts," and charges that Manafort laundered at least $18 million, much of it tied to his work on behalf of a deposed, pro-Russian politician in Ukraine.

The Manafort and Gates arrests give rise to a host of critical questions, ones not faced since Watergate: Will Manafort and Gates turn state's evidence and tell Mueller what they might know about possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign? Who's next? Will the president pardon any or all of those accused? Will he have Mueller fired? Will a serious move to impeach the president begin? And even: Will Trump be forced to resign?

In the immediate weeks and months ahead, plenty of other dominos might now fall, including Trump's former national security adviser, General Mike Flynn; Donald Trump Jr.; Jared Kushner; Roger Stone, the gleeful provocateur who maintained ties to Russian hackers and WikiLeaks last year and a former Manafort business partner; Carter Page, a Russia-linked foreign policy aide in 2016; and on and on.

But already the White House and its allies in Congress and in the pro-Trump media have launched an all-out counter-offensive designed to deny, derail and obfuscate charges that the president's campaign may have secretly cooperated with Russia in 2016.

The centerpiece of the Trump-led counterattack is to highlight a report last week that top Democrats, including a leading Democratic law firm and officials at the Democratic National Committee, paid the opposition research company Fusion GPS for part of its work last year. (The rest, earlier in 2016, was reportedly paid for by anti-Trump Republicans.) Team Trump is using the fact the Democrats hired Fusion GPS to argue, unconvincingly, that the damaging and highly controversial content of the dossier the group produced should be dismissed as a Democratic concoction. Describing himself as a "victim" on Twitter, Trump went far beyond any available evidence – in other words, he lied. "It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump," he tweeted.

Coupled with the effort to discredit the Trump-Russia dossier is a parallel and wildly unsubstantiated effort by Trump and his allies to portray Hillary Clinton, and not Trump, as being under Russian influence. (It's a direct echo of one of the 2016 campaign's most viral moments. In one of their debates, when Clinton charged – exaggerating, it would appear – that Trump was a "puppet" of Putin's, Trump interrupted: "No puppet. No puppet. You're the puppet.") Last week, Trump tweeted there was "collusion with [Hillary Clinton]," not him, basing his charge on discredited and disproven seven-years-old allegations that Secretary of State Clinton improperly engaged in a U.S.-Russia uranium deal. Along with Trump, leading that charge is none other than smarmy GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a member the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, the architect and leader of the seemingly endless anti-Clinton Benghazi investigation, which dragged on from 2014 through 2016. Needless to say, what makes the idea of Clinton-Russia collusion in 2016 especially absurd is that it was the Democratic National Committee and her campaign manager, John Podesta, whose emails were hacked and leaked.

As for Trump's assertion that it is "commonly agreed" there was no collusion between Russia and his campaign, in fact official Washington – including the Mueller investigation and the House and Senate intelligence committees who are conducting parallel inquiries – has agreed on no such thing, which is why they're continuing to investigate, call witnesses and subpoena documents. But as Mueller closes in, the stakes get higher and higher, and it's indeed possible the special counsel will eventually issue a scathing report about Trump and Russia, perhaps in 2018, that could unleash widespread calls in Congress for Trump's impeachment. Alternately, if Trump becomes convinced Mueller is getting too close, the president could ask the Justice Department to fire the special counsel or persuade his allies in Congress to defund Mueller's work, something that Trump's emphasis on the "costly" nature of the investigation suggests may be an option he's considering. Either action – firing Mueller or defunding him – would trigger a political firestorm that, in itself, would accelerate calls for impeachment.

As for the notion that the Russiagate story is a fiction perpetrated by allies of Hillary Clinton, it's important to remember that the core of the story rests not with the Fusion GPS dossier – verified or not – but with the official U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment published in January. In that report, available at the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency all concluded that Russia was behind the cyberattack and leak to WikiLeaks, that it was designed to help elect Donald Trump, and that it was ordered directly by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It's true that, so far, allegations that the Trump campaign cooperated with or encouraged Russia's intervention are unproven. But there's plenty of smoke. There are new revelations about the meeting held in June 2016 in Trump Tower in New York between a delegation of Russians – who promised to deliver "high level and sensitive information [that] is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump" – and a trio from the campaign, including Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort, alleging that the meeting was coordinated with the Russian state prosecutor. More suspicious smoke has also arisen thanks to emails from a Trump operative in Moscow, Felix Sater, to Trump's attorney, in which Sater said: "Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. … I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this." And a passel of Trump officials and aides has been found to have numerous, overlapping business and financial ties to a range of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs close to Putin.

But, toward the end of 2016, it all started with the dossier. Under the direction of Fusion GPS, a firm run by three former Wall Street Journal reporters, and in collaboration with London's Orbis Business Intelligence, a former member of Britain's MI-6 intelligence service named Christopher Steele assembled a series of memoranda totaling 35 pages that purported to reveal, in extensive and often sordid detail, evidence of a years-long pattern of Russian government efforts to get close to Trump. (It was published in full by BuzzFeed in January.) Its first sentence reads, "[The] Russian government has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least five years." In it, numerous contacts and connections were alleged to have occurred between top Russian officials and members of Trump's inner circle and, in its most controversial section, the Russians were said to have used "microphones and concealed cameras" to record Trump engaging in "(perverted) contact" with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel.

How much of it is true? That's for investigators to determine. But, based on recent comments from members of Congress who are investigating Trump's alleged Russia connections, the allegations contained in the so-called Steele dossier are considered worthy of efforts to confirm them. By pooh-poohing the dossier, says Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who sits on HPSCI, the GOP is "making a mockery of the process" and seeking to "discredit the Steele dossier and then try to undermine" the investigation. "There are parts of the Steele dossier that are starting to come into focus, like Carter Page, like doing business in Russia, like Trump Tower, like the Sater-Cohen email exchange," Swalwell tells Rolling Stone. Appearing on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show late last week, Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on HPSCI, added, "Indeed, some of the dossier has been corroborated." During the summer, according to CNN, Mueller met with Steele himself, and Glenn Simpson, one of the founders of Fusion GPS, met behind closed doors with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for 10 hours, reportedly telling the senators he "stands by" the dossier's findings.

No wonder, then, that Trump and his allies have shifted into high gear in an effort to call the dossier – and, in fact, the whole Russiagate story – a "hoax." Seizing on a report in The Washington Post that the DNC and the Clinton campaign paid for some of Fusion GPS's work, the president tweeted, "Clinton campaign & DNC paid for research that led to the anti-Trump Fake News Dossier." The Post's scoop became fodder for nonstop hand-wringing on Fox News for days afterward, and an editorial in The Wall Street Journal went so far as to compare Russiagate to the Reichstag fire, the false-flag action that helped propel Adolf Hitler to power, saying that the dossier was "full of Russian disinformation … based largely on anonymous, Kremlin-connected sources." Added The Journal, "It appears that Democrats paid for Russians to compile wild allegations about a U.S. presidential candidate. Did someone say 'collusion'?" And, echoing calls from other Republicans – such as Chris Christie, who said on the Laura Ingraham show that Mueller ought to "wrap it up" – The Journal told Mueller to quit. "He could best serve the country by resigning," it said.

Comments like those of Trump's, calling the dossier a "hoax" and tossed about wildly and with little or nothing to back them up, may help the White House rally its supporters, and they might provide Trump with cover in Congress among Republicans inclined to defend the president. But they'll do nothing to deter or dissuade Mueller and his team of seasoned prosecutors, criminal law experts and Department of Justice officials.

True, the Democrats didn't exactly help themselves by trying to hide the facts about who paid for Fusion GPS's work last year. However, for nearly a year it's been widely reported that part of the firm's activity was paid for by the Democratic Party, though it wasn't known exactly who. Now we know exactly who it was, namely Marc E. Elias and his law firm, Perkins Coie, on behalf of the DNC and the Clinton campaign, as The Post reported. But that doesn't say anything, one way or the other, about its contents. "We have a lot of work to do on behalf of some of the claims in the dossier, but it doesn't add much value to learn who paid for it necessarily, and I view this as the effort to discredit [Steele], which doesn't really advance the investigation," said Schiff on MSNBC.

John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA's clandestine service, penned a lengthy and important analysis of the Steele dossier last month for Just Security, arguing the dossier is indeed worth looking at point by point. While expressing skepticism about some parts of it, and noting that in the intelligence profession the whole thing consists of "raw intelligence" and not a finished product, Sipher said the dossier presents "a coherent narrative of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign" and "an overarching framework for what might have happened based on individuals on the Russian side who claimed to have insight into Moscow's goals and operational tactics." He concluded, "I think it is fair to say that the report is not 'garbage,' as several commentators claimed. The Orbis sources certainly got some things right – details that they could not have known prior. Steele and his company appear serious and credible."

It'll take a while before America finds out if, and to what extent, Trump's campaign coordinated with or took advantage of Russia's intervention in the 2016 election, including its hacking-and-spearphishing attack on the DNC's and Podesta's email accounts and then its covert release of the data to WikiLeaks. In Congress, it's becoming increasingly apparent that, with the possible exception of the Senate intelligence committee, the Republicans can use partisan maneuvering and obstructionist tactics to prevent progress in their inquiries. But Mueller, unless his team is shut down by the White House, will continue apace – and it's likely that will be how the public learns about Trump-Russian collusion, if it exists.

This story has been updated from when it was originally published on Monday, October 30th at 10:25 a.m.

Watch below: The White House responds to Monday’s indictments of former Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort.