Now that the first indictments have been handed down in the Mueller investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, the path forward will be determined by the presentation and evaluation of actual evidence. These charges almost certainly represent the first of more to come in the weeks and months ahead. But there should be no mistaking the significance of what is happening here. The primacy of the rule of law is being asserted and it must prevail if the U.S. is to remain a free, liberal and democratic society.
The indictments named Paul Manafort, ex-Chairman of the Trump campaign and an associate of his named Rick Gates. They were charged with money laundering (as predicted) and making false statements to the FBI. Manafort is also charged with tax evasion. The money laundering and tax evasion charges are related to Manafort’s lobbying work in Ukraine. Neither of the men, now under house arrest, was charged with crimes directly related to the Trump campaign.
However, a third player named George Papadopoulus who is described as a Trump foreign policy advisor, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contact with a professor with ties to the Kremlin.
With indictments handed down, partisans of every stripe are going to spend considerable time in the days ahead trying to frame the debate in ways designed to flatter their respective sides. But there is only one side that matters: Truth. The facts need to come out—all of them—in court. Let us not forget that the Nixon White House may have contained the Watergate affair but for Judge John J. Sirica’s refusal to accept (the bought off) plea agreements of the defendants. In so doing he set in motion the final unmasking of the conspiracy.
That said, there is a long distance standing between the indictment of campaign staffers and the criminal culpability of a President. If it turns out that the charges in the indictment are true, they still may not have any bearing on the underlying question as to whether Trump himself actually colluded, cooperated or coordinated his campaign activities with agents of the Russian government. That remains to be seen. But the indictments are a big first step in the path to find out. And Mueller obviously means to squeeze all the information he can out of Manafort and Co.
Now that these matters are going to be tried in the courts where they belong, it is probable that very few of the players are going to emerge unscathed, included those who were not named in the original indictments. For instance, it now turns out that Mueller is investigating Tony Podesta, brother of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. Together they founded the lobbying firm Podesta Group, with Tony Podesta operating as CEO. It seems that the powerhouse K Street firm worked with Manafort on the Ukraine account. That caught Mueller’s attention, and now there is a criminal inquiry considering whether the Podesta firm violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In the event, Podesta announced he was stepping down for the duration of the inquiry.
It is also the case that John Podesta had an investment in Joule Unlimited, a firm that received significant financial assistance from a company called Rusnano, a Kremlin backed investment fund founded by none other than Vladimir Putin. Rusnano ponied up about 30% of Joule Unlimited’s financing needs after John Podesta was named to its board. Also on the board: a senior Russian official named Anatoly Chubais and oligarch Ruben Vardanyan, who was appointed to a Russian economic modernization council by—Vladimir Putin. And, oh yes, Vardanyan used to serve as the head of the investment banking division of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, which also had a $170,000 contract with—the Podesta group. After Hillary Clinton lost the election, Joule Unlimited closed up shop as their Russian backers walked.
It should be noted that none of this proves that anyone committed a crime. But it is easy to see how the Podesta firm wound up in the cross hairs.
Before this is all over, it would not be in the least bit surprising to see officials from both of the campaigns, related party organizations and perhaps even principals, facing criminal indictments for corruption in various forms. If the evidence is there, those officials should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But if the criminal law is simply turned into a political weapon, we will be in even worse shape than we are now. And that’s pretty bad.