As the dust settles following the indictments Special Counsel Mueller issued yesterday I cannot avoid the feeling that Mueller has wielded a gigantic sledge-hammer only to hit empty air.
A quick rundown of the two indictments shows why:
Manafort and his associate Rick Gates have pleaded not guilty to all twelve counts of the indictment. They have also issued a defiant statement denying collusion with the Russians during the election campaign, rejecting arguments that they ‘looted’ Ukraine and insisting that on the contrary they helped put Ukraine on a pro-European course, and ridiculing the suggestion that their transfers of money from overseas accounts into the US amount to a conspiracy against the US.
On their claim that they assisted Ukraine to pursue a pro-European course they are unquestionably right.
As many have pointed out it was President Yanukovych – whom they advised – who took the fatal decision to negotiate an association agreement with the EU, which if President Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions had been really pro-Russian he and they would never have done.
For the record Yanukovych never refused to sign the association agreement. He merely postponed signing it until certain trade related problems which arose as a result of the association agreement were ironed out in further negotiations with the EU and the Russians.
Whatever view is taken of Paul Manafort – and I have already made mine clear – it is in my opinion by no means a foregone conclusion that a US court will find him guilty of the charges which are set out in the indictment.
Such cases are vastly difficult to prosecute with the defence always having the advantage over the prosecution in that it knows far more about the complex transactions that are the subject of the case than the prosecution does.
It is not a foregone conclusion that a jury will prefer the prosecution’s opinion of these transactions to the explanations of the defence, and as it happens I believe I am right in saying that most cases of this sort which are defended and do not end in a plea bargain end with an acquittal.
The most important point however about the indictment against Manafort and Gates is that it does not touch on the collusion allegations which are central to the Russiagate scandal at all.
Instead Mueller has committed himself to prosecuting a very complex fraud case against Manafort and Gates on a wholly unrelated Ukraine connected topic which is going to drain his resources.
What is going to make it even more difficult to motivate Mueller’s prosecutors who will have to conduct this case is that at the back of their minds they must know that it is highly likely that even if they secure Manafort’s and Gates’s conviction the case will end with a Presidential pardon.
One way or the other it is difficult to see how this indictment of Manafort and Gates takes the Russiagate conspiracy theory further forward at all.
Frankly it looks to me so far removed from the Russiagate claims, and the case it seeks to bring is so complex, that I strongly suspect that before long the US public and the US media will become bored with it.
Since I wrote my two previous pieces on this indictment – which is currently dominating the headlines – (see here and here) a great deal more information has come to light about the background behind it.
Firstly, it turns out that Papadopoulos has never been asked to give evidence to either the Senate Intelligence Committee or the House Intelligence Committee, both of which are supposed to be investigating the Russiagate case.
Putting the tortuous explanations for this omission which have been given by the members of these two Committees to one side, that reinforces the view that Papadopoulos is small-fry whose activities do not touch on the central Russiagate allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and who is not a credible witness.
I say that because the academic who plays such a central role in the indictment has now come forward and in an interview with the Daily Telegraph has poured scorn on the whole story set out in the indictment. Here is what the Daily Telegraph reports him to have said
The London professor is not named in the official court documents but the Telegraph can disclose his identity as Professor Joseph Mifsud, honorary director of the London Academy of Diplomacy, which is affiliated to the University of Stirling in Scotland.
Prof Mifsud confirmed he was the London professor described in the document drawn up by special counsel Robert Mueller but vehemently denied any wrongdoing. He told the Telegraph: “I have a clear conscience.”…..
Prof Mifsud poured scorn on the FBI case, insisting he had no knowledge of any emails containing ‘dirt’ on Mrs Clinton.
His denial bolsters suggestions that Papadopoulos may have fabricated or at least exaggerated claims of his Russian connections to impress Trump campaign bosses back in the US.
Prof Mifsud said he had introduced Papadopoulos to the director of a Russian think tank because it was right for him – as one of Mr Trump’s then advisers – to understand better Russian foreign policy.
“We are academics,” said Prof Mifsud, “We work closely with everybody.”
He said he had also tried to set up Papadopoulos with experts linked to the European Union.
Prof Mifsud, a former official with Malta’s ministry of foreign affairs, confirmed some of the details of the inquiry – such as he met Papadopoulos at a meeting in Italy in March 2016 and ten days later in London.
But Prof Mifsud disputes the contents of the further crucial conversation said by the FBI to have taken place at a London hotel in April 2016.
According to the court document: “During this meeting, the Professor told defendant Papadopoulos that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials.
“The professor told defendant Papadopoulos that on that trip he (the Professor) learned that the Russians had obtained ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Clinton.”
Prof Mifsud told the Telegraph he was “upset” by the claims because they were “incredible”.
He also described as a “laughing stock” a suggestion in the report that he had introduced Papadopoulos to a “female Russian national” described as a relative of President Vladimir Putin. The FBI statement later asserts that the claim by Papadopoulos that the woman was a relative was not true.
Papadopouls also appeared to over-exaggerate the extent of his Russian contacts in messages to the Trump campaign, according to court documents. In one email sent to the Trump campaign Mr Papadopoulos says he has just been introduced to the Russian Ambassador in London. He has since admitted the pair never met.
(bold italics added)
Professor Mifsud’s account appears to support the second theory about Papadopoulos which I outlined in my second article about him yesterday: that he is a Walter Mitty character with an uncertain grasp of reality.
It is worth remembering that the only two witnesses to the now famous conversation between Professor Mifsud and Papadopoulos in April 2016 during which Professor Mifsud is supposed to have made his comment about the Russians having “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and possessing thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails were Professor Mifsud and Papadopoulos.
Professor Mifsud categorically denies making the comment. Papadopoulos admits to lying to the FBI and it now seems certain that it was he who fabricated the tales of his dealings with “Putin’s niece” and with Russia’s ambassador to London.
There is no reason to doubt Professor Mifsud’s denial, whilst Papadopoulos’s conduct strongly suggests that it was he who made the comment up.
The trigger was obviously the furore over Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private server for her emails whilst she was Secretary of State, which was approaching its peak at the time the comment was supposed to have been made.
As to Papadopoulos’s motive for making up the comment, it was obviously done Walter Mitty style in order to impress his bosses at Trump campaign headquarters.
That was why Papadopoulos also misrepresented the nature of Professor Mifsud’s contacts with the Russians and the background of the Russian woman with whom he was having dealings – whom he sought to pass off as Putin’s niece – and why he invented a meeting with Russia’s ambassador Yakovenko which never took place.
In the event, it is clear from the indictment that by the time Papadopoulos reported the comment no one at Trump headquarters was any longer taking him seriously. That was why the comment was never followed up.
The “evidence” of a Walter Mitty character – which is anyway not evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians – is not evidence which can be taken seriously, which is why Papadopoulos has only been charged with lying to the FBI, and why the Senate and House Intelligence Committees have shown no interest in him.
In no sense is Papadopoulos any sort of “star witness” and I cannot believe Special Counsel Mueller thinks he is.
Over the next couple of days and weeks I expect this to become clear, and Papadopoulos to fade from view.
Social media claims
To my mind these claims constitute the single most absurd element of the whole Russiagate conspiracy theory, though given the way these claims are being used to clamp down on dissident opinions they are also the most dangerous.
(1) As RT has rightly pointed out the alleged ‘Russian election posts’ constituted no more than 0.74% and 0.004% of the content carried by Twitter and Facebook respectively, most of this material was published either the year before or after the election, and much of it concerned material of no conceivable relevance to the election, including material about puppies. The level of absurdity reached in discussing this material is best illustrated by the fantastic theories about the ‘weaponising’ of Pokemon Go;
(2) As RT has also rightly pointed out, Twitter actually pitched a proposal to RT for RT to spend millions on advertising during the election, a fact Twitter neglected to point out to the US Senate Intelligence Committee and which has been almost completely ignored by the media; and
(3) Google now says that there is no evidence that RT manipulated YouTube or violated its policies during the 2016 US Presidential election campaign.
This is not really a case of a mountain moving to produce a mouse, since the mouse in this case is so infinitesimally small that it can only be seen through a microscope.
The idea that a tiny number of advertisements and comments on Facebook and Twitter – some in the case of Twitter actively pitched for by Twitter itself – swung the US Presidential election towards Donald Trump in the face of the mass artillery of the US media – which overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton – ought to be too ridiculous to take seriously. That anyone believes that anyone in Moscow honestly thought that they would is even more ridiculous.
Frankly, apart from a tiny minority of truly paranoid people, I doubt anyone who is properly informed about it genuinely believes it.
The swirl of revelations over the last few weeks has therefore produced the following:
For the Russiagate conspiracy theory: two indictments neither of which refer to collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, one of which is concerned not with Russia but with Ukraine, the other of which is against a Walter Mitty character because he lied to the FBI, and a mass of claims about a Russian influence campaign on YouTube and social media which essentially amount to nothing.
Against the Russiagate conspiracy theory: confirmation that both the foundation documents of the Russiagate conspiracy theory – the CrowdStrike report into the alleged Russian hacking and the Trump Dossier – were paid for by the DNC and in the case of the Trump Dossier also by the Hillary Clinton campaign. For a detailed discussion of the implications of this see this excellent article by Joe Lauria.
It should not be difficult to see on which side of the ledger the evidence is building.
In the meantime the sum total of what has come out of the Manafort and Papadopoulos indictments can be summed up quickly: nothing at all.