Mueller strikes with first charges

Special counsel Robert Mueller on Monday revealed the first charges in his investigation of Russia’s election interference, dramatically escalating a probe that had been kept tightly under wraps.

In back-to-back bombshells, Mueller indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on nine criminal counts, including money laundering and tax fraud, and announced that another Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russians.

The 12-count indictment against Manafort, 68, also includes charges against Richard Gates, a long-time business associate who also worked on the Trump campaign.

Both Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty at their arraignment on Monday afternoon.

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The stunning turn of events ignited speculation that Mueller may be seeking to leverage all three men to build a case against more high-ranking officials from the Trump campaign — or potentially even against President TrumpDonald John TrumpCEO of American investment firm believed Michael Cohen could bring in GOP donors for deals: report NAACP slams NFL for gag rule on national anthem Pelosi: Republican meeting over informant will 'nix' possibility of bipartisan briefing MORE himself.

The White House on Monday downplayed the charges against Manafort and Gates, saying they had nothing to do with the campaign and did not show collusion with Russia.

Yet the court documents unsealed Monday morning represented a clear warning shot at other potential targets of Mueller’s investigation.

The documents related to Papadopoulos, the 30-year-old foreign policy adviser, provide perhaps the most concrete evidence yet that the campaign may have been aware of the Russian government’s attempts to help Trump win the White House.

Papadopoulos in January insisted during an interview with the FBI that he was not part of the Trump campaign when he spoke with a professor known to have connections to the Kremlin. The professor told him that the Russians had thousands of emails containing “dirt” on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMueller moves ahead with Papadopoulos sentencing What's wrong with the Democratic Party? Just look at California BBC: Ukraine paid Cohen 0K to set up talks with Trump MORE.

According to the FBI, Papadopoulos was lying about when the conversation occurred; it actually happened after he joined the Trump campaign and just a month after the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta were hacked.

Papadopoulos was arrested in July but did not enter a guilty plea until Oct. 5. He has cooperated with investigators since his arrest, meeting with the government on “numerous occasions” to prove information, according to court filings.

“Special Counsel Mueller appears to have a cooperating witness, George Papadopoulos. That is significant. Time will tell how significant,” tweeted former U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara, a vocal Trump critic who was fired by the president.

The charging documents paint Papadopoulos as eager to leverage his relationships with the professor and a Russian woman to bolster his standing in the Trump campaign.

On numerous occasions, he tried to negotiate a meeting between Trump, his campaign officials and “members of President Putin’s office,” as well as the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Those meetings never occurred, but high-ranking officials in the Trump campaign appeared to encourage his efforts.

When Papadopoulos told a campaign supervisor of his attempts to set up a meeting with the professor, the official emailed: “Great work.” 

And when Papadopoulos told the campaign of a potential “off the record” meeting with Russian officials in August, his campaign supervisor responded to “make the trip, if it is feasible.”

The indictment also hints heavily that Mueller’s team knows far more than it is disclosing to the public.

“These facts do not constitute all of the facts known to the parties concerning the charged offenses; they are being submitted to demonstrate that sufficient facts exist that the defendant committed the offense to which he is pleading guilty,” reads the statement of offense.

There is also a curious omission in the sprawling, 31-page indictment of Manafort: It makes no mention of his role as Trump campaign chairman.

Yet the allegations overlap, at least in part, with a period where Manafort was marshaling convention delegates for Trump.

According to prosecutors, Manafort and Gates were paid tens of millions of dollars to lobby for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. They then laundered that money through offshore accounts, prosecutors allege, “in order to hide Ukraine payments from United States authorities.”

Some $75 million moved through the offshore accounts, according to the indictment. Manafort did not disclose his foreign holdings to the IRS, prosecutors allege, nor did he register his lobbying work for Ukraine, as required by law.

In sum, the charges against Manafort and Gates are that they “knowingly and intentionally conspired to defraud the United States by impeding, impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of a government agency, namely the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury” — a common charge in tax cases.

Some legal experts said Mueller’s decision to move forward with an indictment of Manafort is a signal that he is trying to “flip” him — or convince him to act as an informant about the inner workings of the Trump campaign.

Notably, the indictment against Manafort mentions that he bought luxury goods “for himself and his extended family” using money wired from offshore accounts, raising the potential for others to be caught up in the charges.

“This is consistent with an early indictment to get Manafort to flip,” tweeted Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor who is running for Illinois attorney general as a Democrat.

“Indictment makes clear that Mueller is seeking a ton of forfeiture--I imagine that gives him some serious leverage over Manafort,” tweeted Carissa Hessick, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina.

Or, others say, Mueller may also simply believe that he has sufficient evidence against Manafort to prove charges in court — or both.

Trump on Monday morning tweeted that the charges against Manafort are “years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” adding, “There is NO COLLUSION!”

Manafort began working for the campaign in March 2016 and was ousted that August. According to the indictment, Manafort tried to hide his work in Ukraine — and millions of dollars in payments from it — from around 2006 to 2017.

Both Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty. Kevin Downing, Manafort’s attorney, called the charges “ridiculous” in a brief press appearance outside of the courthouse Monday afternoon.

“President Donald Trump was correct. There is no evidence the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government,” Downing said in a fiery statement.

The indictment drew a frenzy of media attention Monday, dominating headlines and cable news.

Dozens of camera crews surrounded the D.C. District Court, and reporters packed wall-to-wall into the federal courtroom where a judge released Manafort into house arrest on a $10 million bail bond Monday afternoon. 

In a striking image, Manafort entered the courtroom with hands held clasped behind his back.