Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed a 37-page indictment against 13 Russian individuals and corporations for interfering in American elections. And while many saw this action as more proof that Russia meddled in the elections, supporters of President Trump claimed that the indictments exonerated the Trump Campaign of Russian collusion. This is due to the fact that the indictments described some Russian interactions with the Trump Campaign as “unwitting.” However, with top Trump Campaign adviser Rick Gates pleading guilty to financial fraud and lying to the FBI, Mueller has his sights set on Paul Manafort, the former Trump Campaign chairman, with numerous Russian ties and charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.
The special counsel dropped many of the charges that he had against Gates. Indeed, Gates’ original indictment had charges such as “Conspiracy to Launder Money,” “Unregistered Agent of a Foreign Principal,” and “Conspiracy Against the United States.” In exchange to pleading for the lesser charges of lying to investigators and financial fraud, Rick Gates will be cooperating with the special counsel in the Russia probe, which includes the prosecution of his friend and business partner, Paul Manafort.
Gates’ cooperation is especially important to Manafort’s prosecution due to the fact that almost every criminal act Gates admitted to doing was done in concert or on behalf of Paul Manafort. Rick Gates’ 25-page plea document details the millions of dollars earned by Manafort and Gates through unregistered work for pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians and their subsequent efforts to launder their earnings, thus obscuring them from the Internal Revenue Service. Manafort reacted to the news of his business partner’s pleading with a statement.
“I continue to maintain my innocence,” said Manafort.”I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence. For reasons yet to surface he chose to do otherwise. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me.”
Unfortunately for Manafort, there is no way to assert “our innocence,” because Rick Gates is already guilty. While Gates lamented the possibility of dragging his family through a public trial, our legal system only allows for defendants to take guilty pleas because they actually admit their criminal conduct, not because they wish to avoid a lengthy trial. And indeed, in his 45-minute plea hearing, Gates did just that; he admitted to various federal crimes involving illicit Russian connections.
With all the evidence stacked against Manafort, it seems unlikely that he will go to trial, where Gates will almost certainly testify against him. Instead, many experts theorize that Manafort will take a plea deal and volunteer information to aid Mueller’s investigation. Yet, he is remaining steadfast and declaring his innocence, which leads others to think that he may be angling for a pardon by the president. If he decides to cooperate with Mueller (which may happen post-conviction as well), the special counsel will be looking for information to go after a bigger fish. Who that is perhaps only Mueller knows. However, the recently released House Democrat Intelligence Memo details that the FBI does have inquiries open concerning other Trump campaign-linked individuals, the names of which were redacted upon the memo’s release.
While the president and his supporters keep claiming that there is “no collusion” in every statement and public appearance, it is clear that one of their top advisers was engaged in laundering money and will be instrumental in proving that the campaign chairman did the same. While these events started before either of them were involved in the Trump campaign, their money laundering activities extended into 2016, and their campaign to defraud the United States extended until 2017, thus including the time which they acted as Trump campaign officials.
The most obvious piece of evidence which points to collusion is in fact something that has been known for months: a meeting at Trump Tower with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, and Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. This meeting’s main purpose was to get opposition research on Hilary Clinton. One is left to wonder exactly how much of a part Manafort’s Russian connections played in this meeting and what other entanglements exists between the Trump campaign and Russia. While there has been no “smoking gun” related to the Russia collusion issue just yet, and it is unknown how much the president himself knows about the collusion, the notion that there is no evidence of the Trump campaign officials cooperating with the Russian government is simply false.