Politics & Policy

Mueller’s First Indictments

Robert Mueller on Capitol Hill in June 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Little evidence, so far, against President Trump

Robert Mueller has made his first strike. He indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, and reached a plea agreement with former Trump foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos.

Between 2006 and 2015, Manafort and Gates worked as lobbyists for a Ukrainian political party that is a cat’s paw of the Kremlin. The indictment alleges that the two, among other things, failed to register as foreign agents during their work, concealed the millions of dollars in revenue they made as unregistered foreign agents, and conspired to launder the money. As Andy McCarthy argues on the home page, Mueller may be guilty of over-charging (two counts cover the same offense of lying on a form) and over-dramatizing (what would usually be described as a “conspiracy” is instead deemed a “conspiracy against the United States”). This looks to be of a piece with the pre-dawn raid of Manafort’s house last July, i.e., a pressure campaign to try to flip Manafort against the White House.

None of which is to suggest that Manafort isn’t a legitimate target for prosecution. An ethical cloud has long followed him as he has represented the world’s reprobates for lucrative paydays. One of the least unexpected things about Donald Trump’s unexpected rise in American politics is that his association with Paul Manafort has resulted in embarrassment and entanglement with the legal system.

Yet Manafort’s alleged crimes have nothing to do with “collusion,” the suspicion that the Trump campaign illegally coordinated with the Russians to hack and then publicize Democratic emails.

The Papadopoulos case bears more directly on Russia. Papadopoulos was a low-level foreign-policy adviser to the campaign who admitted to lying to the FBI about his interactions with unnamed actors, who claimed to have ties to the Russian government. He tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin, and had repeated contact with a man who informed him that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails.

Papadopoulos was a marginal player in the Trump campaign with little connection to Trump’s inner circle, and nothing came of his repeated attempts to schedule a Putin–Trump meeting. The stipulation produced by Mueller indicates that the Russian side didn’t take him very seriously — a woman who he was told was Putin’s niece was not, and a promised introduction to the Russian ambassador in London never materialized.

On the other hand, this shows that people with purported Kremlin ties wanted to establish a relationship with the Trump campaign, and some officials in the Trump campaign were clearly interested in that possibility.

No one can know what any of this will amount to. The media and the Left feel a fierce certainty that Mueller’s investigation will result in impeachable offenses — as a matter of faith rather an estimation of the facts as we know them. For their part, Trump’s most fervent supporters want Mueller’s head.

Manafort’s alleged crimes have nothing to do with suspicions of ‘collusion.’

We continue to be concerned by the unbounded scope of Mueller’s investigative brief. Special-counsel investigations tend to become fishing expeditions as prosecutors with unlimited time and resources inevitably look to justify their probes. That possibility was especially likely with this investigation, because Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave Mueller such a foolishly wide berth. Yet there is nothing to suggest yet that Mueller is abusing his power.

As a practical matter, if Trump were to fire Mueller, it would result in a political firestorm that would be very difficult to control. Preemptive pardons would also be highly controversial, and would stain Trump with the alleged wrongdoing of anyone benefiting from a pardon. If Trump is as confident in his clean hands as he says, he should let the investigation play out and crow about his vindication at the end.


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