After nearly five months of investigation, the office of the Special Counsel for the Russia investigation issued its first set of public indictments this week. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his longtime associate Rick Gates were formally charged with crimes such as conspiracy against the United States, tax evasion, and money laundering. They both surrendered to the FBI and were placed under house arrest to await trial after pleading not guilty. In an apparent blow to the "fake news" narrative of the administration, the Special Counsel's office also released information that a former foreign policy advisor (George Papadopoulos) to the campaign had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russian government officials during his time on the campaign. These are certainly major developments in the course of the investigation (unless you believe this is all just a massive government-wide conspiracy to bring down Trump, in which case there is likely little we could say to persuade you otherwise). This week, we'll take a look at the fall of Paul Manafort and other critical developments in the ongoing Russia investigation.
Few would characterize Manafort's career as prestigious or inspiring in a positive sense. He has spent much of his professional life lobbying for a variety of controversial world leaders like former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, former DRC dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. It is this last political connection that has caused the most controversy because the administration of president Yanukovych is commonly known to have been greatly influenced by Russian president Vladimir Putin (some would say, a "puppet"). Throughout the 2000s and even into his time on the Trump campaign, Manafort worked to support Yanukovych and his party. Part of this involved efforts to suppress and undermine the opposition parties, which ultimately saw the removal of Yanukovych from power after popular demonstrations. At the time, the United States was hoping to see Ukraine move closer into cooperation with western European nations. But Yanukovych attempted to veto a proposal to bring Ukraine into European Union cooperation, triggering the protests that led to his removal. It appears that Manafort earned millions of dollars for this work that he hid from federal authorities as part of a money laundering scheme.
Now, lobbying for a foreign government is not necessarily illegal for a United States citizen. However, this type of activity must be registered with the government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). This is done not only to ensure that any money earned in this service is properly documented, but also because such activity could be harmful to the interests of the United States. If, for example, a citizen with prior access to sensitive information began advising the Iranian government on ways to undermine U.S. operations in Iraq, that would definitely be something the government would want to know. Similarly, helping to prop up a Putin-friendly dictator in a country that is hoping to remove its Russian influences could also be important for the government to know about.
As far as Manafort's work in the campaign is concerned, he began officially working as campaign manager in March 2016. This was right around the time that the events from the Papadopoulos guilty plea shows that Russian officials began reaching out to some members of the campaign staff directly. As of right now, any direct links between Manafort and the Russians regarding the campaign itself have not been made public. That could certainly change as more information is released from the Special Counsel's office. Manafort was instrumental in developing the election strategy until August 2016 and seems to have also played a big role in the campaign's focus on a foreign policy position of warmer relations with Russia. But Manafort ultimately resigned from the campaign after details came to light about his undisclosed earnings from lobbying work for Yanukovych.
So we mentioned the Papadopoulos guilty plea a few times, but what is that all about. Well, he was a foreign policy advisor to the campaign who was brought on board around March 2016 as well. For the next couple months, he met several times with a Russian professor who he knew had close ties to the government. According to his testimony in the plea agreement, he passed this information on to at least a few high ranking members of the campaign. This calls to memory the now confirmed meeting that occurred between Trump Jr. and several Russian officials presumably about getting dirt on Hillary Clinton and the removal of sanctions against Russia. Though the link between these isn't directly confirmed in the testimony, it seems highly likely that this could be connected since this all occurred in a similar time-frame. For more on the Russia investigation, check out one of our earlier posts on the subject.
Why is all this significant? Who even cares if campaign officials work with foreign citizens to gain an advantage? (Do we seriously have to even ask theses questions?) From a legal perspective, it is against the law for campaign officials to knowingly solicit help from a foreign government in exchange for something of value. The reasons for this should be obvious. It's bad enough when lobbying groups use their influence to get favors from politicians, but it's far worse when foreign governments (and especially HOSTILE foreign governments) attempt to do it. From a national security perspective, it becomes a serious liability when someone in power is willing to work towards the benefit of another nation than to the one in which they were elected. What if the Trump administration decided to suddenly abandon an allied nation that depends upon the United States even though it would directly benefit a hostile foreign nation? Oh wait, that already happened in Ukraine!
This isn't fake news, it's a very real issue that cannot be ignored. We ought to take no satisfaction in the indictments that come down or the disturbing truths that are revealed. It is reassuring that more information appears to be coming to light and that those who have done wrong could face justice. But the truths uncovered must be met with acceptance and determination to prevent this conduct in the future. Distractions like legal uranium deals and sportsball players not "properly" honoring the flag won't solve this nation's problems, and suspicious behavior by people related to Hillary Clinton's campaign associates does not excuse illegal behavior by others. But in the perpetual echo-chamber of algorithm-driven internet news, do we really stand a change to determine truth from fiction anymore? Maybe we do, but it takes more effort than hitting a "share" button.