Robert Mueller probe: What do we know so far and what does this mean for Trump?

Robert Mueller revealed charges against three former Trump campaign officials.

US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump

For the Trump administration, Monday marked an unwelcome Judgment Day. Special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating potential ties between figures in President Donald Trump's orbit and Russian officials, revealed charges against three former Trump campaign officials in what is believed to be just the opening salvo of the former FBI director's potentially wide-reaching probe.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime business partner Rick Gates were charged with conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, and making false statements, as my colleagues reported. Both pleaded not guilty after hearings on Monday, were ordered confined to house arrest and had their passports confiscated on the grounds that they posed a flight risk. Court papers detail a slew of alleged offenses, including the concealment of millions of dollars earned while Manafort was working with a Ukrainian political party close to Moscow.

The White House, including Trump himself, moved quickly to argue that none of this was connected to Manafort's efforts during his brief stint at the head of Trump's election bid. Yet at a minimum, Trump's hiring of Manafort despite his compromised past suggests a problematic lapse in judgment by a man who repeatedly trumpeted his ability to recruit only "the best people."

But the really juicy information to emerge Monday involved the confessions of George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty this month to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with figures he thought had links to the Russian government. One of these contacts included an April 2016 exchange with a foreign professor with Russian affiliations who claimed the Kremlin had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails."

This is quite possibly a reference to Democratic National Committee emails hacked by suspected Russian agents and later disseminated by WikiLeaks. It amounts to the single most damning piece of evidence that people within the Trump campaign may have sought to collude with Russian officials.

"The charges collectively show how Mueller is aggressively probing the lives of those in President Trump's orbit - digging into their personal finances while also exploring whether they might have coordinated, or tried to coordinate, with Russia to influence the 2016 election," my colleagues wrote. "Papadopoulos ultimately admitted to lying to the FBI about his interactions with people he thought had connections with the Russian government. He has been cooperating with investigators for months, according to a court filing, and has met with the government on 'numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions.' "

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That last detail may disturb the White House most. A coterie of unnamed witnesses and other suspects probably will also come forward in the days and weeks ahead. Manafort and Gates, facing possibly lengthy prison sentences, may also feel compelled to cut a deal with investigators and deliver testimony that could potentially implicate other Trump officials - or even the president himself.

"This is the way you kick off a big case,'" Patrick Cotter, a lawyer in Chicago who once worked alongside the federal prosecutor spearheading the prosecution of Manafort and Gates, said to my colleagues. "Oh, man, they couldn't have sent a message any clearer if they'd rented a revolving neon sign in Times Square. And the message isn't just about Manafort. It's a message to the next five guys they talk to. And the message is: 'We are coming, and we are not playing, and we are not bluffing.' "

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders played down Trump's relationship with Papadopoulos, describing his "volunteer" involvement in the campaign as "extremely limited." But Trump himself, in a meeting with The Washington Post in 2016, mentioned Papadopoulos as a foreign policy adviser, "an energy and oil consultant, excellent guy." In March 2016, he even tweeted an image of a campaign foreign policy meeting where Papadopoulos was also in attendance.

As my colleagues reported in 2016, the 30-year-old Papadopoulos was hardly a heavyweight of any sort. He seemed to falsify his resume and even cited attendance at a model U.N. summit as proof of his expertise - although it appears he actually didn't even show up to this event. Nevertheless, he flitted into Trump's world and courted connections with a curious global network that included prominent figures in the Greek far right as well as Israeli settlers.

Papadopoulos seemed to operate along the same current of hard-line ideology and shadowy opportunism that moved other former Trump officials. For his part, Manafort seems a less ideological figure who amassed a huge amount of wealth as a consigliere to various overseas interests and political parties.

Serhiy Leshchenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker who helped uncover a "black ledger" that allegedly detailed $12.7 million in secret cash payments to Manafort, told Radio Free Europe that the indictment was "great news."

"I'm very much satisfied, because Manafort was involved in high-level corruption in Ukraine. He helped one of the most corrupt persons in the world to be elected president," said Leshchenko, referring to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled office in 2014 following mass protests in Kiev. "I believe this is money stolen from Ukrainian taxpayers."

Back in Washington, speculation swirls whether Trump may move to fire Mueller and bring the investigation to a premature end. On Monday, right-wing outlets such as Fox News ran reports seeking to cast doubt on Mueller's credibility and impartiality in pursuing the case. Analysts liken Trump's potential firing of Mueller to impeached President Richard M. Nixon's attempt to ax Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox - a politically toxic move that could doom his presidency. But it shouldn't be written off.

"There is simply no way that President Trump will sit quietly as Mueller methodically issues more indictments, flips more witnesses, and grows ever closer to Trump," columnist Ryan Cooper wrote in The Week. "Our president has never shown restraint of any sort. He certainly won't when his own life and career is at stake."

Washington Post

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