The Big Fish yesterday was, of course, the indictment of Paul Manafort. Though it had next to nothing to do about conspiring with Russia, at least on the surface (more on that in a moment), the charges are nonetheless significant. They show that if Robert Mueller is looking into Manafort’s money laundering and tax evasion, and indeed making them core to his very first indictment, then this should raise Trump's concern about his own money laundering with Russian oligarchs and any resultant tax evasion -- of particular note for someone who has refused to release his tax returns...as well as infamously said during the presidential debates that not paying income tax "makes me smart." Moreover, these are indictments that notably and extensively included all the documented paperwork, which is no small matter. From all the legal experts I heard throughout the day, charges that rely on basic documentation rather than "connecting the dots" kind of cases that lead a jury to a larger picture, are the hardest to defend. Many called it almost a near-certainty (one expert even said a "slam dunk"), which makes me suspect that Mueller was going for an Early Win initially, rather than try first to prove a twisting case of Russia conspiracy and obstruction, setting the groundwork for that later..
Indeed, I think Manafort's own lawyer was ill-advised to do his sort of dance in front of the courthouse yesterday, since also wouldn't be sure if these are the last charges we'll hear about his client. It doesn't seem unreasonable that the indictment could be amended later on, given the questions about what was done by him when head of the Trump campaign that was Russia-related because of all this money laundering and financial problems he was having. (Lest we forget things like the change of the Republican platform about Ukraine, which didn't come from nowhere.) In fact, further questions about Manafort's Russian involvement even reared their ugly head only two hours after his indictment. Mainly, though, I think the indictment on Monday was mostly about Mueller presenting his easiest case to prove with Manafort so that he has the best bargaining chip to get him to negotiate what he knows about the Trump campaign and will be willing to testify against in exchange for leniency.
But keep in mind one other very critical thing about money-laundering charges, which cover a far larger path than just Paul Manafort. Mark down in your notebooks that a lot of this money laundering with Russia centers itself not around Russia or even Ukraine, but rather the Bank of Cyprus. If that name isn't familiar with you, hold on to it. And know for now that the vice-chairman of the bank, which is well-known for money laundering, was Trump’s own Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. I think the Bank of Cyprus will become a major story in the investigation.
For all that, however, as big a fish as Paul Manafort may have appeared, I think that the biggest story was the littlest, most unknown name of the day -- perhaps even one of the least known in the administration. George Papadopoulos pleading guilty is a major deal.
Yes, he was just a "volunteer." Yes, he only plead guilty for lying to the FBI. But what this speaks to is substantive.
That he was a volunteer is meaningless, no matter how much the administration squawks about it. (Hey, Paul Manafort was unpaid when campaign chairman, making him a volunteer.) George Papadopoulos was an adviser to Trump on foreign affairs, one of the first two foreign affairs advisers Trump himself proudly brought up to the Washington Post during his campaign. And being "only" charged with lying in many ways was likely the whole point for Mueller -- because what that did was send a massively loud message to all future witness that the Special Counsel takes lying very seriously, so don't even think about it except at your own risk.
Further, with Papadopolous, not only is there now an actual guilty verdict of misconduct in the administration in regards to collusion with Russia, but he plead guilty a full two months ago and has been testifying ever since in order to get leniency, turning over all his emails, so as low-level as the administration may want to dismiss him as, Robert Mueller knows exactly who Papadopoulos has been talking to and what they’ve all been saying. Which, in turn, Mueller can use in setting up timelines for what others have been saying in public or testifying to him about.
For instance, it had previously been presumed that we all found out in June about Russia trying to influence the election, and that date allowed the Trump administration to raise the uncertainty and claim that Don Trump Jr, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort didn't know about it before they met with Russian government officials at Trump Tower. However, thanks to Papadopoulos's testimony and emails, we now know that the Trump campaign had been dealing with Russian contacts as early as April. So, any attempt for those three to insist on ignorance is gone.
But there's something else with George Papadopoulos that's significantly important here. It's a matter that occurred to me early in the day on Monday. And that's the possibility -- or even likelihood -- that he was wearing a wire for the past two months. I didn't hear anyone else discuss it, though, and yet the thought grew even more probable to me later in the day when I heard details of his sentencing. For all the charges, he could have gotten up to 5 years in jail and as much as a $20,000 fine. However -- the judge said because Papadopoulos has been cooperating so well with the Special Counsel that, if he continues, his sentence could be as low as...zero days and $500. You don't get a deal like that even if you are first cousin to Monty Hall. You have to be cooperating above and beyond. And then --
-- as the day wore down, I heard two experts say that they, too, not only thought that Papadopoulos could be wearing a wire, but they were even sure of it. One of them was former Watergate prosecutor Nik Ackerman who is on MSNBC a lot and is terrific. And he put it far more explicitly:
“It’s quite obvious that Mueller is playing this out very skillfully. First of all that [Manafort] indictment is a slam-dunk, as I said before, it’s proven by documents. But then you look at the Papadopoulos one that they put under seal all of this time.
“He’s plead guilty, plead guilty to a felony, lying to the FBI. He’s basically, if you looked through his allocution, you have to allocute. They don’t name names, it’s against Justice Department policy to do that. But he refers to campaign officials, other officials — it’s very obvious he has information on lots of people and on top of that, he’s been cooperating since July.
“If I were the prosecutor, and I guarantee you Robert Mueller has done this, he’s had him out there wearing a body wire, playing dial-a-crook on the phone, trying to get recorded conversations to use as evidence against other people,” he asserted. “If I were the other people, and they know who they are in that information, I’d be extremely nervous right now.”
So, we are just starting out on this. Any Trump supporters who think this is all Mueller has, this is it with the investigation are fooling themselves very badly. But then, these are the same people (including Trump) who have been insisting for months that Robert Mueller has nothing because he hasn't indicted anyone! And now, bam, two indictments and a guilty plea for breakfast. This is just an expert prosecutor starting to lay his case out. The "third inning" of a nine-inning game is who legal experts put it all day. There's more coming as a result of George Papadopoulos. There's even far more involvement from Paul Manafort -- and this is where Russia comes back for him because...he is who Papadopoulos reported to! We now know more of the timeline, and some of the pieces that no longer fit the public protestations. It's all just starting.
And one last thing.
All of the smokescreens and lies coming from Trump, his staff and especially from his official spokesperson, the press secretary, have been -- up to now -- just been political game-playing. But as legal experts noted last Friday, that all changed when it was announced there were sealed indictments. Because now there is an actual court case. And smokescreens and lies are never a good thing during an actual court case, most especially one that deals in part with obstruction of justice. And then things got ratcheted up even higher because not only are there indictments how, but there is an actual guilty verdict. So a person lies and obfuscates at his or her own risk.
Buckle your seatbelts.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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