There is an old story about a man who comes upon another man in the dark on his knees looking for his wedding ring under a street lamp. Sympathetic, the man joined the stranger on his knees and looked for almost an hour until he asked if the man was sure that he dropped it here. “Oh no,” the stranger admitted, “I lost it across the street, but the light is better here.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller clearly followed the same logic in looking for crimes where the light is better in his charging of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former deputy, Richard Gates. In the 12 count indictment, Manafort and Gates received the first major charges to come out of the special counsel investigation into possible Russian collusion during the campaign. The problem is that the center of gravity of the indictment is well removed from the campaign, which is not even mentioned in the charging documents.
In other words, Mueller found an obvious interest of Russians to influence Trump’s inner circle. However, this remains a charge based on Papadopoulos’s false statements and not an underlying crime of conduct by the campaign or its presidential candidate. There is still a conspicuous omission of alleged facts or evidence in the charging documents to indicate obstruction or collusion crimes that remain the focus of the controversy.
While removed from the campaign, the charges against Manafort and Gates are extremely serious, and the supporting evidence is damning. There are an array of foreign accounts and transactions that prosecutors allege were an effort to evade tax and reporting requirements. The “conspiracy against the United States” count references these transactions, but not any conspiracy involving the election.
The 12 counts involve crimes that are difficult to defend against in a federal trial. Most involve the failure to file proper forms or reveal required information. They include the violation of the Foreign Advisers Registration Act (FARA), violations rarely charged criminally. Jurors often treat such charges as easily established by prosecutors. The focus of defense counsel will remain with the big ticket charges of tax fraud, money laundering and conspiracy against the United States.
The difference between the tax fraud and FARA violations is the difference of being chased by rottweilers or chihuahuas. You tend to focus on the rottweilers. However, FARA charges are likely a concern for others like Michael Flynn and Tony Podesta. Mueller is signaling that he is prepared to charge anyone on anything done at anytime within the scope of his mandate. For those threatened with charges like FARA, that threat just became all too real. The White House can take solace in its narrative of the charges against Manafort and Gates. However, there remain obvious risks.
First, the White House is continuing to struggle with message control, including new and ill-advised tweets by the president himself. Then there was the incredibly dimwitted statement issued by an unnamed “source close to the White House” that “the bad behavior of Manafort and Gates has little to do with the Trump campaign or Russia investigation. These guys were bad guys when they started. They were bad guys when they left. The indictment has nothing to do with any relationship to Russia.”
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Obviously, between the start of these bad guys and the leaving of these bad guys was their selection by the president for key roles in his campaign. If these were bad guys “when they started,” there remains the long-standing question of why Trump would ever want them to be his “bad guys.” Moreover, the underlying facts do involve activities that overlap with the campaign period, though the underlying crimes are well removed from campaign functions.
Finally, the subject of Papadopolous’s alleged lies were connections to Russians during the campaign. The number of campaign-related people with Russian ties and, more importantly, interests in Russia is worrisome. If Manafort and Gates were guilty of these crimes, they were not just vulnerable to discovery but to disclosure. To the extent that Russians or foreign nationals knew of illicit conduct, there could have been leverage over their conduct and advice in the campaign. Ultimately, Mueller could move this influencing “light” a bit closer to his long-sought “ring.”
In the end, this first salvo falls considerably short of the White House grounds. There is no indication that Trump had the slightest inkling of these connections or influences. There was clearly an astounding failure of the campaign to properly vet Manafort, who was well known in Washington as someone with fairly shady relationships and clients.
However, there remains a difference between omission and commission in such criminal allegations. The question is whether any of these targets have anything that would shine a bright light on the White House. Thus far, there is more heat than light in both the coverage and the charges when it comes to either obstruction or collusion.