The special investigation into Russian election meddling has closed in dramatically on Donald Trump after news broke on Monday that a former foreign policy adviser pleaded guilty to perjury over his contacts with Russians linked to the Kremlin, and the president’s former campaign manager and another aide faced charges of money laundering.
In a day of rapid and surprising developments in Washington, George Papadopolous, the former foreign policy adviser, was revealed to have pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to FBI investigators over his contacts last year with two people with apparently close ties to the Russian government.
One was an unnamed professor – identified by the Washington Post as Joseph Mifsud – who offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Another was a woman who portrayed herself as “Putin’s niece”.
Meanwhile, in a federal courthouse in central Washington, Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and a business associate, Rick Gates, pleaded not guilty to an indictment for money laundering, tax evasion, failure to register as agents for foreign interests and conspiracy to defraud the US government.
A federal judge ordered Manafort and Gates to be confined at home and set bail at $10m for Manafort and $5m for Gates.
The indictments were the first issued by Robert Mueller since he was appointed special counsel in May, with broad powers to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by members of the Trump campaign.
After the indictment of Manafort and Gates was revealed on Monday morning, Trump tweeted: “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?????”
The president added: “…Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
Later, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, played down the connection between the three men and the Trump campaign. She said of Manafort and Gates’s indictment: “Today’s announcement has nothing to do with the president, presidential campaigns or any campaign activity.”
Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 as convention manager, focusing on winning delegates at the 2016 Republican convention, and was promoted to campaign manager in June 2016 before resigning in August over his links to Ukraine.
Sanders said: “Paul Manafort was brought in to lead the delegate process, which he did, and was dismissed not too long after that.”
She also insisted Papadopoulos’s lies to the FBI about his contacts with Russia on behalf of the Trump campaign had “nothing to do with the activities of the campaign”, and repeatedly dismissed Papadopoulos as “a volunteer member on an advisory council”.
However, Trump himself had announced Papadopoulos’s appointment as a foreign policy adviser in March 2016, describing him as “an excellent guy”. The charges, which Papadopoulos accepted as accurate as part of a guilty plea on 5 October, said Trump was present at a meeting of national security advisers where Papadopoulos boasted of his Russian connections and said he could help organise a meeting with Putin.
The charges state that the unnamed woman he was in contact with was not related to the Russian president. But Papadopoulos’s links with her and the professor led to extensive contacts with Russian officials regarding a Putin-Trump meeting and other high-level exchanges.
The professor referred to in the charges against Papadopoulos is said to have told him that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” at a meeting around 26 April 2016, months before the Russian hack of Democratic party emails became publicly known.
A prosecutor representing Mueller’s office, Aaron Zelinsky, said at the October hearing that the Papadopoulos case was just a “small part” of “a large scale ongoing investigation”, according to a transcript of the court session, adding weight to anticipation that Monday’s charges are the tip of an iceberg.
Collusion itself is not a crime, unless it rises to the level of espionage or treason. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents about the extent and timing of his contacts with Russians, and about his awareness of their links to the Kremlin.
Papadopoulos was arrested in July at Dulles airport when he returned from a trip abroad. The court papers note that he subsequently “met with the government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions”. He was charged more than two months later.
‘A cause for deep concern’
Summarising the day’s developments, Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes, editors of the Lawfare blog, wrote: “President Trump, in short, had on his campaign at least one person, and allegedly two people, who actively worked with adversarial foreign governments in a fashion they sought to criminally conceal from investigators.”
Ultimately, the question over whether Trump committed “high crimes and misdemeanours” through his camp’s contacts with Moscow during the election will be decided by Congress, where Republicans control both chambers.
Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said after the charges were made public: “This is just the latest in a series of undisclosed contacts, misleading public statements, potentially compromising information and highly questionable actions from the time of the Trump campaign that together remain a cause for deep concern and continued investigation.”
Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty to 12 charges. The first was “conspiracy against the United States”, an overall charge that refers specifically to the failure to inform the government of foreign income and foreign bank accounts, and failing to register lobbying work for foreign interests.
The indictment focuses on the business activities of the two men before Manafort joined Trump’s campaign, in March 2016, and Gates became a senior fundraiser.
The charges allege the two men worked extensively for political figures and parties in Ukraine and laundered millions of dollars in payment for that work by channelling it through a web of companies, mostly in the US and Cyprus. They are accused of constructing elaborate schemes to hide their earnings from the US government, and failing to register the foreign interests for which they were lobbying.
The indictment alleges $75m in payments flowed through offshore accounts, of which Manafort laundered more than $18m to buy property, goods and services in the US, hiding the income from the government. It says Gates transferred $3m from the offshore accounts to other accounts he controlled.
“In order to hide Ukraine payments from United States authorities, from approximately 2006 to at least 2016, Manafort and Gates laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts,” the indictment claims.
It notes that Manafort used “his hidden overseas wealth to fund a lavish lifestyle, without paying taxes on that income”.
The charges were approved by a grand jury on Friday. Although the indictment says the two men’s moneymaking activities lasted until at least 2016, the charges do not mention the role of the two men in the Trump campaign.
An attorney for Manafort, Kevin Downing, said there was no evidence the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.
“Mr Manafort represented pro-European Union campaigns for the Ukrainians and in the course of that representation he was seeking to further democracy and to help the Ukrainians come closer to the United States and to the EU,” Downing said in a statement. “Those activities ended in 2014, two years before Mr Manafort served in the Trump Campaign.”
Trump’s lawyer, Ty Cobb, told the Guardian there was “no angst at the White House”. Manafort had been warned to expect an indictment and Cobb recently told the New York Times he was confident the former Trump campaign chair had no damaging information on the president to offer in exchange for leniency.
However, the Mueller investigation is widely expected to produce further indictments and many legal observers had predicted it would start with charges related to financial crimes as a way of pressuring defendants to provide more information on the Trump team’s relationship with Moscow.
“The amount of money that Manafort received is staggering,” said Scott Horton, a US expert on international law with extensive experience of financial cases and eastern Europe. “The Russian/Ukrainian side is complicit in its routing and obscuring the fact of payment.
“That’s significant because it means they had knowledge of serious criminal acts by Manafort which they could hold over his head and use to force him to do their bidding. The suspicion would naturally be that they were a driving force behind his volunteering to serve the Trump campaign for free.”