Paul Manafort and Rick Gates have been charged with money laundering, while ex-adviser George Papadopoulos cut a plea deal for lying about Russia-linked contacts.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian election interference has dramatically escalated, with authorities indicting former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and unsealing a plea deal with a foreign policy adviser who lied about meeting with Russia-linked contacts.
The moves are the first official public actions from Mueller, and while they do not directly implicate the president, they show how the special counsel is accelerating his sprawling probe into possible collusion between Trump campaign aides and the Kremlin.
Authorities on Monday morning unsealed an indictment against Manafort and fellow campaign official Rick Gates that charged the men with money laundering, making false statements and other counts. The two former aides pleaded not guilty in federal court on Monday afternoon. Prosecutors asked that bond be set at $10 million for Manafort and $5 million for Gates but said both may be detained at home until they can post bail.
Kevin Downing, an attorney for Manafort, called the charges against his client "ridiculous" while also defending the overall Trump campaign.
"I think you all saw today that President Donald Trump was correct. There is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government," Downing told reporters after the court appearance.
While both Manafort and Gates had top roles in the Trump campaign, the criminal charges do not discuss any actions clearly related to the presidential race, although the indictment notes that a Ukrainian political party the men worked for had a pro-Russia outlook.
The charges, however, could be used to apply pressure on the two former officials to more fully cooperate in Mueller’s larger investigation.
The more revealing details came in a 14-page document showing that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, cut a secret plea deal earlier this month for lying to the FBI about the campaign’s outreach to Russia-related officials.
The document describes a series of conversations and meetings with contacts who he understood to have connections to the Kremlin about obtaining “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and setting up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Papadopoulos became a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign in March 2016 and went on to cultivate relationships with two individuals apparently connected to Russia, labeled in the document only as “the Professor” and the “Female Russian National.” He also Papadopoulos kept campaign officials appraised of his contacts and efforts including, on at least one occasion, at a meeting which Trump himself attended.
“The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS, as defendant PAPADOPOULOS later described to the FBI, that ‘They [the Russians] have dirt on her’; ‘the Russians had emails of Clinton’; ‘they have thousands of emails.’”
Papadopoulos was arrested in July.
The revelations in the plea deal appear to undercut Trump’s repeated claims that the sprawling probe is nothing more than a “witch hunt” and that his campaign had no contacts with Russian officials.
Trump on Monday morning downplayed the charges against Manafort and Gates in two tweets that came before the Papadopoulos news emerged. "Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????"
He added, "....Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also sought to downplay the news during the press briefing, dismissing Papadopoulos as a minor “campaign volunteer” and echoing the president’s line that Manafort and Gates were indicted for activity that occurred before the campaign.
“Today’s announcement has nothing to do with the president, nothing to do with the president’s campaign or campaign activity,” Sanders said.
She dismissed Papadopoulos’ role as “extremely limited” and a “volunteer position” and said the advisory council that he sat on only met once. She said Trump did not remember specifics about the March 2016 meeting he attended with Papadopoulos.
She added that Trump had “no intention” of firing Mueller and that she expected the investigation to “conclude soon.”
Manafort and Gates were indicted on 12 counts, according to a 31-page indictment unsealed on Monday morning, including money laundering, operating as unregistered foreign agents of the government of Ukraine, failing to disclose overseas bank accounts and making false statements to federal authorities.
The indictment alleges that the men set up a series of offshore companies in order to avoid taxes on their overseas lobbying work and defrauded banks in order to win loans.
The indictment of two figures central to Trump’s 2016 election and the plea deal mark the most significant step yet in an investigation that has dogged Trump’s presidency, even as he and other officials have tried to redirect attention on to Clinton. The implications for Trump’s fledgling policy agenda are potentially catastrophic, as the cloud of Russia allegations only darkens, despite the White House’s insistence that nothing will ultimately come of the federal and congressional probes.
Mueller was selected to dig into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, including the hacks and release of Democrats’ emails, which intelligence agencies have concluded were designed to boost Trump’s campaign. Mueller, who was named after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, is also tasked with determining whether any Trump associates colluded with Moscow in that effort. But the special counsel also has wide latitude to pursue any other wrongdoing he finds during his investigation.
Even before the charges were unsealed on Monday morning, White House officials moved to put distance between Trump and his former campaign chairman.
“Whatever happens today with the Mueller investigation, we don't even know that it has anything to do with the campaign, what happens today,” counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway told Fox News earlier on Monday morning.
This follows previous attempts by the White House to create distance between itself and Manafort. Trump said in August that Manafort had served on his campaign for a “very short period of time.” And at a briefing in March, then-press secretary Sean Spicer described Manafort as having “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time” during the campaign.
Manafort served on the campaign from March through August 2016, and was campaign chairman from May until he resigned on Aug. 19.
He was present for events that appear critical to the investigation into possible collusion, including a meeting at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who promised damaging information on Clinton. That meeting was brokered with the help of Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
Manafort and Gates were arraigned Monday by U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson.
After Robinson took the bench, Downing, Manafort’s lawyer, and a public defender who stood in to represent Gates, David Bos, entered not guilty pleas on behalf of both defendants.
Prosecutor Greg Andres spoke for Mueller’s office at the hearing, saying that the government considers both men a flight risk but would not object to their release to home confinement.
“Our basis for arguing risk of flight has to do with the nature of the charges and the seriousness,” Andres said. “Mr. Manafort’s significant ties abroad, we believe, constitute a risk of flight….Mr. Gates as well has significant ties abroad over time.”
Both men were ordered to turn in their passports and not to apply for any others. Downing said Manafort had surrendered his passport to the FBI on Sunday.
The hearing stretched to nearly an hour and fifteen minutes, including a long break as arrangements were made for Gates’ home detention in Richmond.
Asked by Robinson if he understood he was required to surrender his passport, Manafort said, “I do.” He grew quieter in his responses as the magistrate judge detailed other conditions, like daily check-ins by phone with pretrial services. He and Gates can only leave their homes to meet their lawyers, for court dates, for medical emergencies and for religious observances.
The public gallery was packed for the arraignment, although a row typically reserved for families and friends of the defense was empty.
Manafort and Gates are due back in court Thursday for their first hearing before the district court judge assigned to any trial in the case, Amy Berman Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
Manafort, a longtime GOP operative, had been under Justice Department investigation since early 2014 – long before Trump announced his presidential campaign – over his ties to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who abandoned office in February 2014 and fled to Russia amid protests and allegations of government corruption.
The charges focused on Manafort’s and Gates’ lobbying work on behalf of the Ukrainian government and Yanukovych between 2006 and 2015.
The work generated tens of millions of dollars, which was then laundered through “scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts,” according to the indictment. The charges allege both tax avoidance and concealment of their work as foreign agents. Manafort laundered more than $18 million, according to the indictment.
The scrutiny into Manafort’s record took on new relevance after investigators began looking at Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Gates joined the Trump campaign in the spring of 2016 along with Manafort, his longtime lobbying partner, to spearhead GOP delegate-counting efforts and avoid an internal party revolt at the Republican convention that could have cost Trump the nomination.
Gates, however, remained in Trump’s chaotic orbit during the general election, working on joint fundraising and massaging internal party dynamics from the Republican National Committee even after Manafort was ousted as head of the campaign in August, after he came under fire following reports about his lobbying work for a pro-Russia party in Ukraine.
Gates later connected with Trump confidante Thomas Barrack at an election night party, according to a New York Times report, and got hired to help run the presidential inaugural committee.
After the election, Gates joined a half-dozen Trump campaign alumni — including digital director Brad Parscale and Nick Ayers, who has since become Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff — at America First Policies, an outside group dedicated to promoting the president’s agenda.
Gates left the group in March. CNN reported the departure was due to Gates’s ties to Manafort, who faced increasing scrutiny over his Russian ties as the extent of Moscow’s election-meddling became clear.
Gates had not been contacted by the special counsel's office, according to one associate with close ties to him, and learned of the looming charges against him in the 24 hours before the news became public.
In the past week, he had begun looking for new clients and seemed "perfectly normal," according to this person, who spoke to him. He had continued to work for Barrack.
Gates sent a note early Monday morning to friends and family apologizing for delivering bad news but proclaiming his innocence. In the note, he said he was surprised by the charges, according to a person who reviewed the note.
Some Republicans took the opportunity on Monday to reaffirm their support for the work of Mueller, with some lawmakers fearing that Trump may move to oust the special counsel.
“Months ago I & many other Republicans vowed to support Mueller investigation & allow it to work its way through process to get the facts,” tweeted Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). “In light of today’s indictments we must continue to support and allow the integrity of the process to work.”
Democrats used the indictments as an opportunity to call for expanded probes into the Russian meddling.
“Even with an accelerating Special Counsel investigation inside the Justice Department, and investigations inside the Republican Congress, we still need an outside, fully independent investigation to expose Russia’s meddling in our election and the involvement of Trump officials,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “Defending the integrity of our democracy demands that Congress look forward to counter Russian aggression and prevent future meddling with our elections.”
Other Democrats sought to link the indictment to the broader question of White House coziness with Russia.
“Paul Manafort and Rick Gates ran Trump’s campaign and continued to be a part of his inner circle after Election Day,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement. “This underscores the seriousness of the investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. It’s time for Republicans to commit to protecting this investigation and preserving the rule of law.”
The Papadopoulos plea could prove far more damning for the White House in the near term than the indictments. Papadopoulos’ overtures to Russians were first reported by the Washington Post in August, but that report downplayed the extent of his efforts, and the extent to which he kept senior campaign officials informed.
“It is in the best interest of our client, George Papadopoulos, that we refrain from commenting on George’s case,” Papadopoulos’s defense attorney, Thomas Breen, said in a short statement. “We will have the opportunity to comment on George’s involvement when called upon by the Court at a later date. We look forward to presenting all the facts that led to the events that resulted in this charge.”
Papadopoulos was informed as early as April that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton and “thousands of emails.” In July, Trump would call on Russia to find the emails missing from Clinton’s server, but he said that the comment was meant in jest.