“You can succeed in politics just by showing up, because most people don’t. Once you are in the room there’s no limit to the possibilities.”
~ A former state party chairman
President Trump wants to make one thing clear; he is not under federal investigation. He is so sure of this he called the New York Times to specifically inform the world. But of course, he is under investigation and as a practical matter he is the target.
Special counsel Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI, is leading an investigation into reports of possible collusion or collaboration between the Russian government and the Trump presidential campaign. This fact alone puts Trump at the center of the bullseye, because any prosecutor seeks to get as close to the top as he can. As we analyze the first two indictments and one guilty plea resulting from the Mueller probe, it is obvious Mueller’s team is circling Trump and is already close.
Trump and his team are trying to distance themselves from former campaign manager Paul Manafort, his business partner Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos. Manafort and Gates have been indicted on charges of money laundering related to their work in Ukraine and Papadopoulos has entered a guilty plea to lying to investigators. The Trump team argues the charges against Manafort and Gates pre-date Manafort’s time as campaign manager and that Papadopoulos was a low level volunteer who only met Trump once.
As is often the case in the world of Donald Trump, these kernels of truth ignore the larger point. While documents filed in the cases of the first three defendants in the Trump matter do not name the president as a co-conspirator they do reveal patterns of behavior that begin with him and run as themes through his long public career as a celebrity and seem to be family traits passed on to his children and son-in-law.
The indictment of Manafort and Gates reads like an accounting playbook for the super rich. Learning how these two international lobbyists sold their proximity to power in the United States to overseas clients, hid payments in shell companies, and laundered that money to finance extravagant spending while avoiding U.S. taxes, confirms for the average American that there is another set of rules once you achieve a certain level of wealth. There are loopholes money can buy.
When Manafort arrived on the scene of the Trump campaign in the middle of last year’s primary season, Washington insiders were a bit confused. Manafort was not a conventional choice for the role and to many his selection was another symptom of a campaign that most believed was headed toward inevitable collapse. On the other hand, it was a very good deal for Manafort. If Trump lost, Manafort would be viewed as a top level team player who did his best. If Trump won, Manafort would be positioned as an influential lobbyist with direct access to the new president.
Manafort’s selection tells us a few things about Trump and his campaign. Any serious vetting of Manafort should have revealed his extensive overseas client list and some of the specifics of that list. The first task of any campaign is to avoid controversy. Any seasoned campaign operative would know Manafort’s dealings with foreign countries could come back to hurt the candidate. He should have been disqualified for the role based on the exercise of extreme caution.
On top of the shady lobbying contracts, there is the flashy display of money around Manafort. It made him look out of place as a campaign operative. How Manafort makes his money and how he uses it should have been seen by someone in Trump’s operation as problematic. As the indictment shows, both are at the center of the government’s charges against him.
Why did Trump’s team not see the warning signals? During the campaign Trump faced almost daily questions about his tax returns and whether he had paid any taxes at all. The evidence suggests he never intended to release his returns publicly and may never do so willingly. On the other hand, he was more than willing to argue that his ability to use tax law and bankruptcy law in his favor showed how smart he is. He argued the American people should want someone as smart as he is to run the country. His ability to keep his tax bill low was evidence that “he alone” knew how the system works and therefore “he alone” could fix it.
In this respect Manafort was part of the elite club of people Trump likes to count among his friends who bend the rules and use money to make more money. While Trump’s name does not appear in the Manafort-Gates indictment, his lifestyle does.
Why is Trump so eager to end the Mueller investigation? Trump knows Mueller will not limit himself to the question of whether his campaign worked hand in hand with the Russians. The investigation will follow the evidence wherever it leads and it is reasonable to think any poking around Trump will eventually lead to his family business. How has Trump used the rules to make himself a wealthy man? How close to the edge has he played it?
The Papadopoulos Plea
My father always said, “every major crime begins with a lie.”
It was his way of warning me that even lying about how many cookies I had stolen from the cookie jar could lead to more serious crimes and eventually land me in prison. President Trump is a known liar and many of the people most closely associated with him are as well. It is notable that the first person to plead guilty in the Mueller investigation pled guilty to lying to investigators.
Reading the plea agreement of George Papadopoulos is a window into the daily operations of the Trump administration. The first instinct(and Papadopoulos’s first instinct)is always to lie and deny.
Like Manafort, Papadopoulos found a place high up in Trump’s political operation by placing himself in the room. Once there, either at someone’s direction or on his own, he immediately began trying to establish contacts with the Russians in what looks like an attempt to create a new world order, led by Trump, that would turn the United States and Russia into strategic and economic allies. It looks like he was encouraged by some and discouraged by others.
At the very least, the guilty plea shows a disturbing timeline of events that begins with the initial Russian contacts, is followed by hints from Trump and others close to his campaign of a possible coming bombshell that would damage the Clinton campaign, and then the release of emails that proved embarrassing to Clinton in the final weeks before the election.
The plea agreement shows the knee jerk lies Papadopoulos told during his first meetings with investigators before Mueller was even on the case. It raises more questions about what Attorney General Jeff Sessions knew about Trump campaign contacts with the Russians. It raises questions about why Sessions, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner all have had problems telling the truth, or sharing all they know, whenever the subject of Russia comes up.
Critics of Trump are quick to call him a liar. Even some Republicans are now straying into that uncomfortable political space where the “L” word is thrown about freely. The Papadopoulos plea proves the point and exposes a pattern, on the part of Trump, that may lead to serious legal and political trouble.
The Big Lie
In the spring of 2016 it began to look as if Trump might actually have a shot at winning the Republican nomination, which meant he would have a chance to become the next president, which meant the press had to start taking him seriously. His foreign policy credentials were being questioned and he was being asked to explain his view of America’s role in the world and who he looked to for advice on such matters.
Trump did not have a ready answer, because he did not have a foreign policy team. In advance of a meeting with the Washington Post he decided to cobble one together. When he was asked at the Post to name his foreign policy advisors he read off a list of names. George Papadopoulos was the second name on the list. In conventional terms this would be like George W. Bush answering that his top foreign policy advisors were Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. On Trump’s list Papadopoulos would be Rice. No one had ever heard of him and no one heard from him again until his guilty plea was revealed to the public.
On that day at the Post, Papadopoulos, according to Trump himself, was a top foreign policy adviser to the future president. Now he is described by various members of the Trump administration and its supporters as a low level volunteer and a “coffee boy.” Let’s agree that is the case, for the sake of argument. George Papadopoulos is nothing more than an ambitious young man who was able to position himself at the table for one meeting with candidate Trump — a meeting no one remembers. That still leaves us with the big lie that shows the character of the ultimate target of the Mueller investigation: President Trump.
At the Washington Post, facing a challenge, Trump lied. He did not have a foreign policy team and Papadopoulos could not be on a team that did not exist. This is not really a small lie. It’s a big lie told in a consequential place; the newsroom of a major American newspaper where people are paid to uncover the truth. That day Trump led by example and when Papadopoulos was called to a meeting with the FBI in early 2017, he followed that example and lied.
Are you seeing the pattern? Team Mueller probably does and that’s why Trump is right to be worried. He has long lived at the edge of the rules when it comes to managing his business and he has boasted about it. You need a ledger to keep track of the lies he tells on a daily basis. He is so untruthful, much of the world has learned that his words are meaningless and should mostly be ignored.
The Manafort-Gates indictment and the Papadopoulos plea may only mention Trump-land as the scene of the crime, but both documents spell out where Mueller might go and where he might look if he wanted to cite Trump for high crimes or misdemeanors. Trump has not been indicted, but his pattern of behavior has been.