In late 2015, the National Security Agency received a disturbing communication from its British counterpart: It had become aware of suspicious interactions between individuals connected to Donald Trump and known or suspected Russian agents. The NSA passed on the information to the FBI and CIA, among other American intelligence agencies, and the investigation into what became known as the Russia scandal quietly got underway.
Now, two years later, the first criminal guilty plea has been revealed in the Russian plot to elect Trump by interfering in the 2016 presidential election with a multi-pronged
attack sabotaging the Hillary Clinton campaign through email hacking, disinformation and false news stories. The unprecedented assault from America's greatest foe on the bedrock of its democracy is the most explosive scandal since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago.
George Papadopoulos (top photo), one of Trump's early foreign policy advisers, was arrested in July, indicted in October and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about a contact with a Russian professor with close ties to Kremlin officials, the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller said. The plea revealed on Monday is the most explicit evidence yet connecting the Trump campaign to Russia's election interference, although more is likely to follow.
But they are only the opening salvo by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and the beginning of a lengthy legal process that could include dozens of indictments involving multiple players on charges going to the heart of Russia's interference involving espionage that would eclipse the Watergate scandal in scope.
Manafort and Gates, who surrendered to Mueller, were charged in a 12-count indictment with conspiracy against the U.S. involving money laundering, tax and foreign lobbying charges. Mueller said Manafort laundered more than $18 million to buy properties and services.
Both men entered not guilty pleas, while Manafort will be under substantial pressure to cooperate with Mueller as he digs deeper into the campaign collusion with Russia and what Trump himself knew.
Papadopoulos said in a statement in conjunction with his plea that he was told by the unidentified professor in April 2016 that Russia had "dirt" on Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails," according to court documents. The conversation is additionally important because it raises more questions about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower where Trump's eldest son, son-in-law and Manafort were similarly promised damaging information on Clinton.
The professor introduced Papadopoulos to an unidentified woman who is a relative of Putin and to someone in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while Papadopoulos repeatedly tried to arrange a meeting between the campaign and Russian government officials, according to court records. "We are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump," the woman told Papadopoulos in an email.
Gates is accused of transferring more than $3 million from offshore accounts. The two are also charged with making false statements."
As part of the scheme, Manafort and Gates repeatedly provided false information to financial bookkeepers, tax accountants and legal counsel, among others," the indictment reads.
According to the indictment, Manafort and Gates arranged to hire two Washington-based lobbying firms to work on behalf of their Ukrainian clients, arranging meetings with U.S. officials and boosting their public image in the United States. Prosecutors say, however, that Manafort and Gates arranged for a Brussels-based nonprofit to nominally hire the companies to hide the fact that their work was for Ukrainian government officials and would otherwise require registration under the Foreign Agents Registration
In fact, prosecutors allege, Manafort was communicating directly with then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych about the effort, promising in 2012 to provide him weekly updates about the effort. The former pro-Moscow Ukrainian president is a close Putin
Manafort, once referred to as Trump's consigliere and his presidential campaign manager for an eventful two months during the summer of 2016, has been a marked man for years because of his laissez-faire approach to financial wheeling and dealing with shadowy Russian figures abroad and corporate shell games and money laundering at home. His suburban Washington condominium was raided by FBI agents in July.
Gates is a longtime protégé and junior partner of Manafort and has been linked to companies Manafort's firm set up in Cyprus to receive payments from politicians and businesspeople in Russia and Eastern Europe.
A veteran Republican strategist, Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016.
Trump promoted Manafort to chairman and chief strategist in June 2016, a job that gave him control over day-to-day operations of the campaign. It seemed to be an unusual choice since Manafort had no experience running a national political campaign. What he did have was connections.
Manafort had lobbied on behalf of a rogue's gallery of corrupt foreign leaders, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seiko in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angolan guerrilla heavyweight Jonas Savimbi. It seemed inevitable that a person with Manafort's nose for really bad people would be attracted to some of the scumbags in Putin's orbit.
Manafort was present at the meeting at Trump Tower four days before his elevation to campaign manager, while U.S. intelligence agencies had begun collecting information revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political operatives were discussing how to influence Trump through Manafort and Michael Flynn, a campaign foreign policy adviser and later Trump's short-lived national security adviser.
Trump fired Manafort in August 2016 in after reports that he received undisclosed payments from Yanukovych.
Early this year, a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court order allowing investigators to wiretap Manafort was renewed and included a period when he was known to talk to by-then President Trump. While Trump is said to have severed all ties with Manafort, Gates has continued to visit the White House, coordinated behind-the-scenes inauguration planning and served on a Trump super PAC in the early months of this year.
The charges will further complicate the White House's argument that the Russia scandal is fake news and a witch hunt to assuage Clinton's election loss and that it actually was Clinton who colluded with Moscow, while the charges deny Trump and his apologists the argument that Mueller's investigation is politically motivated since Trump is never mentioned.
Trump's reaction to the initial indictments will be important, as well as whether he will issue pre-emptive pardons.
If the president is not able to direct his anger in a way that does not put him in deeper legal jeopardy or anger Mueller, he is exposed to still deeper risk at a time his approval ratings have hit a new low. There also is rampant speculation that Trump may seek to dismiss Mueller, which would trigger a constitutional crisis with echoes of Watergate.
Democrats quickly warned Trump not to impede Mueller’s investigation.
"The president must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel’s work in any way," said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader. "If he does so, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues."
Responding to the swirl of events, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fell back on the usual ad hominem line that people once integral to the campaign like Manafort and Papadopoulos were merely peripheral figures. Sanders added that Papadopoulos not telling the truth "has nothing to do with the campaign" because he never acted in an official capacity.
"Today's announcement had nothing to do with the president's campaign or campaign activity," she said. "We've been saying from day one there's no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and nothing in the indictment today changes that."
Although Trump would seem to be immunized against impeachment because of the Republican-controlled Congress, that legal process could include obstruction of justice charges stemming from his multiple efforts to try to end the investigation that led to his firing of FBI Director James Comey and Mueller's appointment. Or conceivably naming him as an unindicted co-conspirator in conjunction with charges against others. There is a significant historic precedent for that: The Watergate grand jury thusly naming Richard Nixon, which set in motion a series of events that led to his resignation.
A further burden on Mueller is that there is no legal meaning to the term "Russian collusion."
Manafort and other campaign insiders would not be charged as part of a group that joined in a conspiracy. This leaves Mueller to make the case that as individuals these players, who may also include Flynn, Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, longtime Trump confidante and dirty trickster Roger Stone, business associate Felix Sater and possibly the Trump Organization as a business entity, as well, broke federal law and should be so charged.
This could involve a range of charges, including criminal liability, breaking tax and banking laws, failure to register as an agent of a foreign government, lying on security clearance forms, and making misleading statements, which in any event seem much more likely to succeed than impeachment.
Although the Russia scandal did not come into public view until the latter stages of the 2016 campaign, its roots date back to 1980 when Manafort and Roger Stone, who were to become key members of Trump's inner circle, got together, and more recent years when Russian leader Vladimir Putin sought to consolidate power and increase his influence.
Putin saw the Internet as a way to do both. He also saw Trump, a billionaire New York real estate mogul and reality television star who fantasized about becoming president, as a vehicle for returning the former Soviet Union to its Cold War glory and undermining America's standing as the sole superpower, and so the seeds were planted for a clandestine collaboration.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.