As widely predicted, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russiagate probe has now formally indicted Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, in what the media is calling the ‘first indictment’ in the Russiagate investigation.
Manafort was warned at the time of the search of his home that he would be indicted so the news of the indictment is not surprising.
The timing of the indictment does however raise some interesting questions.
It comes after what was in all other respects a disastrous two weeks for the true believers in the Russiagate conspiracy with the revelation that the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign financed the ‘research’ which resulted in the Trump Dossier, and with mounting claims that (as I had previously suspected) the now notorious meeting between Donald Trump Junior and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was indeed a sting set up by Fusion GPS, the intermediary company used by the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign to fund the Trump Dossier.
In light of this there has to be some suspicion that the decision to press charges against Manafort and one of his aides now was intended at least in part to distract attention from the revelations and to regain control of the Russiagate narrative, which has been increasingly falling apart.
What reinforces this suspicion is that news of the indictment was leaked – disgracefully – to the media over the weekend even though the indictment had been sealed by a Federal Judge.
On the face of it that is a serious contempt of court, and if it was done by someone working for the Special Counsel’s team or for the Justice Department then it is or ought to be a very serious matter. The depressing reality of the Russiagate affair is however that its partisans have never shown much respect for these important procedural safeguards, and nor have they ever been held to account for not doing so.
Turning to the actual charges against Manafort, Zerohedge has now published the complete indictment which can be found here.
In my opinion the major points about the indictment are:
(1) that there is no reference in the indictment to collusion between Manafort and the Russians or between the Trump campaign and the Russians during last year’s Presidential election.
Importantly there is no reference in the indictment to the central claim made by supporters of the Russiagate conspiracy theory: that the Trump campaign (including presumably Manafort) colluded with the Russians to release the emails which were allegedly stolen by the Russians from the DNC’s and John Podesta’s computers and which were published by Wikileaks.
(2) All the charges against Manafort are of an essentially financial nature and appear to centre on Manafort’s well-known dealings with the former government of Ukraine.
The portentous language about Manafort engaging in a ‘conspiracy against the United States’, which will doubtless be seized upon by the Russiagate partisans, appears to concern exclusively Manafort’s attempt to conceal his allegedly corrupt activities from the US authorities, including from the US tax authorities.
For what it’s worth my opinion is that the single most serious item in the whole indictment and the one which Manafort will have the most difficulty in explaining away is the claim that he doctored documents to conceal his activities.
(3) It is possible that buried deep in the various financial dealings outlined in the indictment there are dealings between Manafort and individuals or companies in Russia. That however is not obvious and so far as I can see the indictment does not actually say this. It would anyway be a matter of doubtful relevance to the Russiagate collusion allegations even if it were true.
(4) Though Manafort like everyone else is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and though proving the charges in the indictment in a court of law may not be at all easy – it is important to remember that we have not so far heard Manafort’s side of the story – I for one am perfectly willing to accept that these charges may be true.
However the charges do not seem to have any direct bearing on the Russiagate collusion allegations, which were the allegations which caused the Russiagate investigation to be set up in the first place, and that does beg the question of why Mueller is bringing the charges rather than simply passing the case on for further investigation to the FBI
Briefly, the answer is that from the moment he took over the inquiry Mueller has focused on Manafort whose complicated financial dealings have made him an obvious target. The idea clearly was to put pressure on Manafort to get him to talk about the collusion allegations.
The fact that Mueller has now been obliged to bring formal charges against Manafort shows that this strategy has so far failed and looks increasingly unlikely to succeed. Manafort has not only failed to ‘crack’ but continues to deny publicly the collusion allegations and to insist that he has done nothing wrong.
To have done nothing in the face of this defiance would have made the earlier threat to bring charges look like a bluff, and it was to avoid that happening – which would have destroyed the credibility of the inquiry – that made Mueller act by issuing the indictment.
An important point to understand is that legally speaking the effect of the indictment is to transition the Russiagate inquiry as it relates to Manafort from an investigation of Manafort into a prosecution of Manafort.
That means that Mueller’s investigators can no longer question Manafort about the matters that make up the indictment (save in very exceptional circumstances) because by charging Manafort they have committed themselves to proving in court their charges against Manafort on the existing evidence.
Whilst technically that does not mean that Manafort cannot be questioned on the collusion allegations – which are not part of the indictment – the extent to which that can happen is now open to doubt. Personally I would not be surprised if on the advice of his lawyers Manafort henceforth refuses to answer any further questions put to him by Mueller’s investigators on any subject at all.
If so then that effectively ends Manafort’s role in the Russiagate inquiry.
Cases like the one which has just been brought against Manafort are unfortunately far from unusual in the notoriously sleazy world of top end political lobbying and influence-peddling, which is the world in which Manafort chose to do his business.
Though his business has made Manafort a very rich man, at the back of his mind he must have always known that he was running serious risks by engaging in it. In a sense those risks were an occupational hazard which Manafort accepted in order to make himself the very rich man that he is now.
It is unfortunately also the case that cases like the one which has just been brought against Manafort rarely attract much attention, and usually end with a plea-bargain in which the accused admits to some of the lesser charges and agrees to pay a large sum of money to the authorities in return for a lighter sentence usually involving payment of a large fine. That I suspect is how this case will end.
Mueller may still entertain hopes that Manafort will agree to admit to collusion with the Russians during the election as part of a plea-bargain. However that is most unlikely to happen.
Not only would that require Manafort to admit to something which never took place – which is always something very difficult and problematic to do – but Manafort’s lawyers would almost certainly advise him against doing it since it would involve him admitting to something far more serious than what he has been charged with in the indictment. Even in return for an offer of immunity that would be a very risky thing for him to do.
In this particular case there is the added complication of the very high possibility of an eventual Presidential pardon.
Ultimately the reason a case is being brought against Manafort is not because of his past financial dealings but because he has been placed in Mueller’s crosshairs as a result of the Russiagate collusion allegations.
That must make an eventual Presidential pardon a very real possibility and Manafort and his lawyers will not want him to jeopardise that prospect by admitting to something which is extremely serious and which is anyway untrue.
The indictment against Manafort is therefore a predictable outcome of the tactics Mueller has been following over the course of the Russiagate inquiry.
Though there may be other indictments pending – for example one against General Flynn – none of the other individuals named in the Russiagate scandal appears to have a past anywhere near as complex as Manafort’s.
Ultimately it is not in Mueller’s interests to fire off a volley of indictments on marginal issues which do not touch on the central Russiagate collusion allegations, since doing so will in the end only serve to damage the credibility of his inquiry by making it look even more like he is running a witch-hunt. Already there are attacks on him alleging precisely that in connection with the charges he has now brought against Manafort.
Since the Manafort indictment looks to have been the best shot in Mueller’s locker, the fact that Mueller has now been forced to shoot it means that from now on he is going to start looking increasingly short of ammunition.
If so then this indictment, though it will doubtless dominate the headlines for a few days, is in truth a further sign that the Russiagate scandal is drawing to a close.