In any normal situation, an admission by a presidential campaign adviser that he had talked to a mysterious professor with links to the Russian authorities about obtaining “dirt” on the rival candidate, ought to be jaw-dropping news.
More than that, some might consider it evidence of the sort of collusion with Moscow that has been alleged of the individual who won that contest and now lives in the White House.
But this is 2017, Donald Trump is the US President and as we have been forced to hurriedly to learn, precedent and normality count for little. Every day, something else becomes “the new normal”.
Here’s what we know: five months after he was appointed to head an investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has announced indictments against three former Trump associates.
Former campaign manager Paul Manafort and business associate Rick Gates, have been charged with 12 counts, including money laundering, conspiracy and failing to register as foreign agents. The allegations mostly, but not all, relate to 2006-2015, which as Trump was quick to point out was before Manafort joined the campaign. They could face decades in jail if convicted.
But Trump may very well be more worried about the news regarding former foreign police adviser, George Papadopoulos, who has pleaded guilty of lying to FBI agents. Buried within the 13-page indictment, are the details of Papadopoulos meeting with an unidentified professor and a Russian national, who were keen to improve US-Russia relations under a Trump presidency. He was told the Russian government had dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails”.
It sounds significant and it may well turn out to be so. But bear in mind, that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Manfort, have all already admitting attending a meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in June. They did so after Trump Jr said he was offered incriminating material on Clinton.
When Trump Jr was told about the prospect of dirt on his father’s rival, he responded by saying: “I love it”.
After this bombshell dropped, the White House sought to brush it off. It claimed the officials had no idea Veselnitskaya was linked to the Kremlin and her real aim, was to get rid of a set of anti-Russian sanctions, known as the Magnitsky Act.
Trump himself said he saw nothing wrong with what happened.
“I think from a practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting,” Trump told reporters during a joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris in July. “I think it’s a meeting that most people in politics probably would have taken.”
Another thing is worth stressing. Trump has become use to getting his way, of being able to seemingly brush off the most damaging revelations and news. Even now, his support among those who voted for him remains rock solid and he retains the approval of a third of all voters.
That may be about to change. It was very noteworthy that although Papadopolous was arrested on 27 July and his admission to FBI agents was taken on 5 October, not a word of this emerged until Mueller unsealed the two indictments on Monday morning. Also, the indictment stated that since his arrest, Papadopolous “met with the government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer question”. There must be fears in the White House, he will seek a plea deal with prosecutors.
If there was further proof needed that Mueller is a serious, tight operator, then we received it this morning. Clearly this investigation has a long way to go. Clearly Mueller has no intention of being anything other than utterly persistent.
For all of Trump’s claims he is the victim of a “witch hunt” and that Clinton is the real offender, he will surely be sleeping a little less easily after today’s developments.
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