This morning’s announcement of the federal indictment in DC of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates is, at long last, a sign that special counsel Robert Mueller has been building a case. But it may not produce the quick fireworks that Trump’s critics hope for.
The good news, for those hoping that the legal process will draw a net around the president, is threefold. First, the simple fact that Trump’s former campaign manager has been indicted is a blow to his “drain the swamp” rhetoric, particularly when that campaign manager is a longtime lobbyist who was just indicted for his role as an agent for a foreign government, and specifically, a foreign regime (Ukraine) that is a tool of Vladimir Putin. Manafort was dirty and everyone knew he was dirty, he shouldn’t have been put in that job, and doing so was part of a larger pattern of (at a minimum) undue willingness by Trump to surround himself with people too favorable to Putin and in a number of cases compromised by Putin.
Second, there’s the hope that Manafort and/or Gates know something that could implicate Trump or other high-value targets, and the indictment creates leverage to get them to talk (then again, if that something is dirt related to Putin, Manafort might rationally prefer to take his chances going to jail. Honestly, given Manafort’s ugly background working for Putin’s Ukrainian puppets, it never made sense to expose himself to the glare of a presidential campaign unless he had more to gain – or lose – with his foreign patrons than the risk of legal jeopardy).
Third, there’s always the distinct possibility that Trump will badly overreact to the news and do something (as with his firing of Jim Comey) that blows up in his face and gets him into more trouble. (For now, no state charges have been brought – Trump can’t pardon Manafort from those – so we don’t have a crisis yet over the need of New York’s Attorney General to recuse himself from the probe). If Trump is tempted to fire Mueller over this indictment, which looks well-founded and not especially political, there will be a political firestorm, and Congress should seriously consider impeachment.
The good, or at least relieving, news for Trump and his supporters? First, of course, Manafort was not the kind of intimate Trump associate one would normally expect in a campaign manager. He wasn’t a longtime Trump friend, he was promoted to campaign manager to replace the more populist Corey Lewandowski for a specific purpose (to wrangle and strong-arm delegates at the convention, a process in which Manafort had relevant experience from the 1976 Ford-Reagan fight), and he left the campaign not long after. Trump deserves criticism for hiring a notorious bagman for that job, but he’s not actually likely to have deep knowledge of Trump’s business enterprises, and may not even have had time to really figure out who was doing what on the campaign.
Second, and more importantly in the short run, nothing in the indictment itself relates to Trump or the rest of his inner circle, or to the 2016 election. The entire indictment focuses on Manafort and Gates receiving income for lobbying work for the Ukrainian government and failing to properly disclose it, including tax offenses and violations of federal lobbyist disclosure rules. There will be a lot of headlines about Count One, the “Conspiracy Against the United States” charge, but that simply means they conspired to commit crimes with the United States as the victim – and the indictment specified that those crimes are the tax and lobbying disclosure violations. This is not the stuff of spy novels here, it’s just the swamp. And given the involvement of Hillary’s campaign with the other faction in Ukraine, it will be easy enough to muddy the waters.
As I’ve noted in previous writings (see here, here, and here), the Russia/Mueller probe was, despite originating as a counterintelligence probe, always likely to spin off some collateral criminal investigations of things like disclosure violations. That’s exactly what we have here, and Manafort and Gates may not be the last ones indicted for such things. But if you’re waiting for a smoking gun, today is not your day.