Robert Mueller indicts three members of Trump's campaign in almost unprecedented day of White House drama

The President dismissed the investigation as a 'witch hunt'

Alexandra Wilts
Washington DC
,Andrew Buncombe,Clark Mindock,Kim Sengupta
Monday 30 October 2017 21:36 GMT
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The Special Prosecutor probing alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia has indicted three former members of the President’s team – sharply escalating the political stakes and raising the prospect of more charges to come.

Five months after he was appointed to lead the investigation after Mr Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Robert Mueller announced 12 charges, including money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the US, against former campaign manager Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates.

Both subsequently pleaded not guilty to all counts when they appeared in a federal court in Washington DC and were set bonds of $10m and $5m respectively, with Mr Mueller’s office asking for home arrest as condition of their bail. The charges could mean decades of prison time for the pair if they are found guilty, with the money laundering charges alone carrying up to 20-year sentences. That is not to mention the potential for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Mr Mueller’s investigation also unsealed documents that revealed a former presidential foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had admitted lying to the FBI when being questioned about his contact with two Russians with apparent close ties to their government. Mr Papadopoulos’s guilty plea – coming hours ahead of Mr Manafort’s and Mr Gates’s court appearance – made him the first Trump campaign official to face charges relating to links to Russian contacts. The FBI said that his “false statements” had slowed their investigation.

The indictment said Mr Papadopoulos admitted discussing obtaining “dirt” about Hillary Clinton with an unnamed Russian professor, while he also met with a woman calling herself the “niece” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, it is the “dirt” allegation that many critics of Mr Trump will claim proves collusion between his campaign and Moscow.

The developments mark an important milestone in the investigation and are a worrying turn of of events for Mr Trump, who has always denied that his campaign in any way cooperated with Vladimir Putin. He has said the various investigations amount to a witch hunt and has claimed the campaign of his rival, Ms Clinton, ought to instead be investigated.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner – the vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is also investigating Russian meddling – called the charges “a significant and sobering step in what will be a complex and likely lengthy investigation by the Special Counsel”. Other leading Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, called on Mr Trump not to interfere in Mr Mueller’s work. Meanwhile, a number of Republicans, including New York Representative Peter King, said the indictments put Mr Trump and his campaign in the clear.

Mr Trump was also quick to distance himself from the announcement of the indictments and pointed out that the charges against Mr Manafort and Mr Gates related to events said to have taken place between 2006 and 2015, a period when the pair were not associated with his campaign.

“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?????,” he wrote on Twitter.

Mr Papadopoulos’s admission related to events after he became an adviser on foreign policy issues to the Trump campaign in March 2016, according to the FBI, despite Mr Papadopoulos’s initial insistence that they did not relate to his time connected to the campaign. Yet White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the incidents of Mr Manafort and Mr Gates predated their association with the President.

“There were no activities or official capacities in which the Trump campaign was engaged with Russia,” Ms Sanders said.

As for Mr Papadopoulos, she said the 30-year-old was only a volunteer on the campaign and had little influence.

“He asked to do things [and] he was basically pushed back or not responded to in any way,” she told a news briefing. “Any actions that he took would have been on his own.” That is despite the FBI indictment indicating that Mr Papadopoulos had mentioned his conversations concerning Russia to a number of campaign staff.

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

Ms Sanders also tried to minimise Mr Manafort’s role in the months he was in the White House, a claim somewhat underminded by the fact Mr Manafort was no doubt part of Mr Trump’s inner circle for a time.

Asked if hiring Mr Manafort and Mr Gates was a bad idea, Ms Sanders said: “These were seasoned operatives, not regular offenders.” She said she was unable to answer whether Mr Trump regretted hiring them.

Asked about possible pardons for anyone convicted, she added: “I haven’t had any conversations with him about that. I think we should let the process play through before we start looking at those steps.”

The court documents released on Monday – without a word of the details leaking, other than an initial report by CNN last Friday that someone was to be charged – revealed that while Mr Manafort and Mr Gates may have pleaded not guilty, Mr Papadopoulos has been cooperating with investigators for months. He was arrested as long ago as July 2017.

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This may be of concern for other members of Mr Trump’s campaign team who are worried that they could be implicated by information he provides to Mr Mueller’s team.

The documents say Mr Papadopoulos had close interactions with “foreign nationals” who he thought had links to senior Russian government officials. Those interactions included speaking with Russian intermediaries who were attempting to line up a meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Putin.

The 14-page indictment against Mr Mr Papadopoulos, who once studied at the London School of Economics, reveals several meetings with an unidentified “professor”, who he believed has a close association with Moscow. At one meeting with the professor, Mr Papadopoulos was told the Russian government had incriminating material about Ms Clinton.

“They have dirt on her,” he told Mr Papadopoulos, according to the documents. “They have thousands of emails.”

A few months later, Mr Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mr Manafort attended a meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. They did so after Mr Trump Jr said he was offered incriminating material on Ms Clinton.

When Mr Trump Jr was told about the prospect of dirt on his father’s rival, he responded by saying: “I love it."

Mr Papadopoulous would also be of interest for any information he may have provided about Carter Page, also a Trump foreign policy adviser, and who has also been under investigation by Mr Mueller. Mr Papadopoulous and Mr Page had been in London at the same time.

The indictment filed against Mr Manafort and Mr Gates accused them of funnelling payments through foreign companies and bank accounts as part of their political work in Ukraine.

The indictment laid out 12 counts, including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, making false statements – and several charges related to failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts. The indictment alleged the men moved money through hidden bank accounts in Cyprus, St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Seychelles.

Mr Manafort, 68, was fired as Mr Trump’s campaign chairman in August 2016 after allegations that he had orchestrated a lobbying operation on behalf of pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. Mr Manafort denies any wrongdoing as part of his work in Ukraine.

In the charges laid out in a district courtroom in Washington DC on Monday, it is alleged two men worked extensively for political figures and parties in Ukraine and laundered millions of dollars in payment for that work by channelling it through a web of companies, mostly in the US and Cyprus. They are accused of constructing elaborate schemes to hide their earnings from the US government, and failing to register the foreign interests for which they were lobbying.

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

The drama in the courtroom attracted visitors from all over America, with one family from San Francisco cancelling part of their afternoon activities to attend the hearing. Both Mr Manafort and Mr Gates walked into the courtroom with their hands behind their backs before their not guilty pleas were logged and the issue of bail tackled. Mr Manafort walked in wearing a black suit and royal blue tie, while Mr Gates wore a navy suit with no tie.

The attorney for the Justice Department said the government was having trouble ascertaining the value of Mr Manafort’s and Mr Gates’s assets, making it difficult to set bail. He called both individuals a “flight risk”, meaning they could easily flee the US because of their “significant ties abroad”.

Mr Manafort’s lawyer said, Kevin Downing, said he disagreed with the strength of the indictment. However, he said his client was willing to accept home confinement.

Mr Gates, was represented by a public defender, which are generally appointed to represent people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. With Mr Gates’ assets valued to be worth up to $30m by the Justice Department. Mr Gates’s court-appointed lawyer said Mr Gates planned to hire private counsel.

Outside court after the hearing, Mr Downing said: “I think you all saw today that President Donald Trump was correct. There is no evidence that Mr Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government”.

“Mr Manafort represented pro-European Union campaigns for the Ukrainians and ... was seeking to further democracy and to help the Ukraine come closer to the United States and the EU,” Mr Manafort’s lawyer said. “Those activities ended in 2014 over two years before Mr Manafort served in the Trump campaign.”

A spokesman for Mr Gates, Glenn Selig, said: ”Rick Gates pled ‘Not Guilty’ today. He welcomes the opportunity to confront these charges in court. He is not going to comment further until he has had a chance to review the lengthy indictment with his legal team... This fight is just beginning”.

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