Sarah Huckabee Sanders can be as breezy as she likes, but there's no way she can minimise the Mueller indictments

She agreed a photograph existed of Trump and Papadopoulos in a meeting together last year, but dismissed it as ephemera. He’s been in ‘thousands’ of pictures with ‘millions’ of people, she said

David Usborne
Tuesday 31 October 2017 12:23 GMT
The White House press secretary was quick to deny that the President has been shaken by the indictment of his former campaign manager
The White House press secretary was quick to deny that the President has been shaken by the indictment of his former campaign manager (AP)

Like many around the world who watched her, you may have marvelled at Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ attempt at contemptuous breeziness in the West Wing press room in the wake of the not unarresting news that Robert Mueller had successfully obtained indictments for Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and a close associate, Rick Gates.

It might have gone a little better for her if Mueller HQ had stopped at that. But no. Swift on the heels of the first bulletin had come the revelation that a former foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign named George Papadopoulos had already pleaded guilty to lying about contacts with Russia directly to do with providing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

Sanders was clearly nervous. Actually she looked at times like she wanted to be sick. Trump had been huddled in the presidential apartments upstairs in the White House, not showing up in the Oval Office, for most of the morning fretting and fulminating as both pieces of news dropped and cable TV went into overdrive digging through it all. Obviously, he would be watching again as she set about telling reporters that what had happened was of no concern to him at all. None!

She agreed a photograph existed of Trump and Papadopoulos in a meeting together last year, but dismissed it as ephemera. He’s been in “thousands” of pictures with “millions” of people, she said. If she means being snapped at his rallies, I could almost make the same claim. Oh, and yes, she stood by her assessment that Mueller would be ending his work soon. No, he won’t.

Of course the White House will continue to distance itself from the Mueller problem and do everything it can to obfuscate and throw up distractions. Thus Sanders’ repeated insistence that charges against Manafort and Gates, including money laundering, related to work done for a pro-Putin political party in Ukraine that pre-dated the campaign. And watch as they continue to push the narrative that it’s Hillary Clinton who should be investigated, not them.

Pity Sanders; this will be a mission largely impossible. There are questions to be answered by the Clinton campaign as to money paid secretly to a firm called Fusion GPS to research past Trump activities in Russia. But there is no equivalency between that affair and the Trump collusion probe. Nor would any wrong done by Clinton right any wrongs done by Trump. As for Trump’s assertions that Clinton personally profited from a 2010 deal involving the purchase by Russia of a North American uranium mining company, they are demonstrably false.

There really is no minimising, meanwhile, the events of Monday. The first charge against Manafort and Gates, regarding “conspiracy against the United States” turned on allegations of their “impeding, impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of a government agency, namely the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury” – relates to actions “from in or about and between 2006 and 2017”. 2016 is in there somewhere.

Nor is it is easy to pretend that neither man was anything but central to Trump and his campaign. His nomination convention in Cleveland was entirely engineered by Manafort, who was campaign chairman at the time. Although he was to depart the campaign soon after following press reports of his Ukraine links, Gates stuck around, including through the Trump transition.

Trump-Russia investigation: who has been charged in the Mueller probe

Then there’s young Papadopoulos who plead guilty to lying to investigators about a meeting with a professor in Italy in April 2016 who told him the Russians had emails to share that might be damaging to Clinton. True, he was only a volunteer on the Trump campaign and seemingly that meeting that Trump also attended was seemingly a one-off. But over the succeeding months, he repeatedly attempted to persuade the campaign it should follow the Russia trail. He even attempted to flog the notion of a “historic” meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin.

His surfacing will have obliterated any sense of relief the White House may have felt when the story was at first only about Manafort and Gates. (They had been deeply afraid that the promised indictments might have targeted former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.) It is a signal from Mueller he has no intention of skirting clear of the campaign itself. It also shows what many had long expected: that Mueller means to flip participants, however small-fry, so they will help bring bigger fish to justice. Assuming there are any, of course.

However minor his role, the Papadopoulos factor is important because it tells us that the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s interest in subverting the election as early as April 2016. And it was aware well before Manafort, Donald Trump Jr and Jared Kushner attended a meeting in Trump Tower in June 2016 with a lawyer with Kremlin connections.

What is missing still is any clarity about whether anyone in the Trump campaign actually conspired to take delivery and make use of whatever Russia was offering and, more importantly, whether they gave any encouragement to Moscow. Papadopoulos may have attempted collusion with Russia, but does that mean the campaign did? And if so, who on the campaign did?

So we still have far to go. And so does Mueller. If you believe this affair might be wound up by Christmas, you have spent too much time listening to Sanders. Out on $10m (£7.5m) bail, Manafort now faces a trial that is unlikely to get under way for at least a year – maybe just in time for next November’s mid-term elections. Unless he switches his plea and decides to cooperate with the government. That might speed things up. The White House should be careful what it wishes for.

And so Trump must forge on, trying to look like a successful president with Mueller settling round his neck like a poisoned ermine shawl. He must wear it on his trip to Asia that starts on Friday. And it will be there as he tries to chivvy Congress to passing his promised tax overhaul. Sanders can be as breezy as she likes, but the bouts of nausea won’t let up soon.

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