Robert Mueller's Web
The law is like a spider’s web; while you can count on it catching little fruit flies, less often will it catch the bigger bugs. Just ask the blithesome beetle, whose size lays waste to the silk, or watch the entrapped gnat’s annoyance as he tries to escape. But the big bugs are only safe as long as the web stays small. Once it grows, no one is safe.
Monday’s indictment reveals just how expansive Special Counselor Robert Mueller’s web has become. It was first spun, you’ll recall, last spring, when Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller (who himself served as the Obama administration’s FBI director) to investigate the circumstances surrounding his successor, James Comey’s ouster. At the time of his dismissal, Comey was in the process of collecting information about Mr. Trump and his surrogates’ putative connections with the Kremlin.
With unclear cause, and with much obfuscation, Comey was fired in May. Initially, we were led to believe that Comey’s firing was of Sessions and Rosenstein’s joint decree. Only later did we learn that it was actually a Trumpian machination. The president rather carelessly confided as much to NBC’s Lester Holt. In the memorable interview, Trump said that he fired Comey because of the “Russia thing”. Trump was vexed, and justifiably so—should time prove his innocence—by the fact that Comey wouldn’t publicly lay to rest the suspicion that Trump was himself at the center of the FBI’s ongoing investigation. As such, Trump dismissed Comey, albeit in a bumbling and indecorous way, and the subsequent fallout was intense.
For the time, short-lived though it was, President Trump was relieved of Comey’s burdensome “witch-hunt”. However, in a matter of weeks, the public’s apoplexy and the political backlash was overwhelming. In the wake of this tumult, Rosenstein appointed Mueller to lead an investigation, the very investigation which is now bearing fruit. Rosenstein was called upon to step into his superior, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ place. Sessions had since recused himself on all matters related to Russia, because of his early failure to disclose a meeting with a Russian emissary.
Since that time, Mueller has worked discretely (media leaks from his office have been few and far between), but more importantly, and perhaps more devastatingly, he’s worked with wide and untrammeled discretion. This special counsel carte blanche is nothing new. It follows, in some ways, the footsteps left by Kenneth Starr, who investigated President Clinton’s financial improprieties in the wake of the Whitewater controversy. Starr and Mueller seem to differ in their political motivations (Mueller appears refreshingly apolitical when compared with Starr, who was surfeited by Southern conservative religiosity), but both share this in common: Starr had the opportunity and now Mueller does to, to enter through a tiny crack and exit through a crater. This is how Starr strayed from Clinton’s financial misdeeds, to eventually unveil the president’s salacious misconduct with Monica Lewinsky. A similar potentiality exists with Mueller’s investigation.
Which brings us back to Monday’s indictment. The twelve indictments issued at the start of the morning and the one plea deal entered later in the day reveal what we’ve all come to expect. Mueller is operating without bounds, save for his own discretion, in a way similar to Starr. Coincidentally, Mueller’s doing this with a team composed of many investigators and litigators who helped Starr cripple President Clinton years before.
The dramatis personae in this first act—of which many promise to follow—are Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos. The first man named, in this trinity of cheats, is well-known to us. Manafort has long been a GOP insider and influence-peddler par excellence. He gained notoriety and wealth early on as an eponymous member of “Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly”, a nefariously effective D.C. power team. Their clients, in essence, would tap one of the four to forward their interests, whatever they may be. These clients were often foreign powers trying to meander into Capitol Hill’s crowded lobbying spree. (To note, Roger Stone, that paradoxical and ostentatious political rabble-rouser and onetime Trump confidante was in the group as well).
For years Manafort tread a tenuous path, and it finally disintegrated beneath his feet. To most observers, this comes as little surprise; if anyone was to be felled, it was going be him. Manafort’s exorbitantly profitable partnership with the Ukrainian government has been the subject of close scrutiny for some time. He was very much under the persuasion of Ukraine’s despot, Viktor Yanukovych, during the president’s woeful reign. While Yanukovych’s people looked to liberty and the West, he remained tied to Putin and his country’s coterminous east. Yanukovych was in Putin’s pocket, and Manafort was in Yanukovych’s purse. By way of the associative property, if my mathematics hasn’t failed me, leaves little to be inferred about how Manafort regarded Putin (they were chummy, to say the least).
The relationship was lucrative while it lasted. Time passed, and Manafort turned his attention stateside for Trump’s presidential campaign. His loyalties, however ostensibly pro-American they seemed, continued to warrant suspicious glances. He’d proven them peripatetic, fleeting, and more comfortable the closer they were to Russia. This all became memorably public, when late this past summer, his Virginia mansion was subjected to a matutinal raid. At the time, with a federal warrant in hand, Mueller was sending a message: Manafort was on the hook and the investigation was growing.
Manafort’s dies infaustus arrived in full Monday. It was then that he and the second man on our list, Rick Gates, were indicted on twelve counts of mainly financial crimes. Gates, who is decades younger than Manafort, is generally considered the latter’s protégé. The two have worked together for the past thirty years. They possibly underwent a professional split, when after Manafort was dismissed after five months as Trump’s campaign chairman, Gates remained an associate within the campaign. He raised funds and worked closely with the RNC until January 2017. Thenceforth, after inauguration day, Gates worked for an outside Trump advocacy group called “America First Policies” until March 2017.
It’s a ruse to conclude that neither Manafort nor Gates held a prominent role during President Trump’s campaign. To liken either as a marginal figure, as Sean Spicer once did and Sarah Sanders now continues to do, is disingenuous at best and perfidious at worst.
But their crimes are prehistory as far as the administration is concerned, and doubtless occurred before year one A.D. (After Donald, that is). This, in its précis, is how the White House is defending itself. Sure, Manafort and Gates evaded federal taxes to which we all submit and laundered $75 million from the Russo-Ukranian cartel, cleaning and sending it to offshore accounts, and made false statements about foreign-earned income, and bought opulent homes and expensive suits and acted treasonously as unregistered foreign agents, but this all happened before their work with President Trump. This much is provable, and chronology, in this instance, backs them up. The White House has shrewdly taken this line as its remonstrance against those who are trying to pull the president into Manafort and Gates’ net. But to claim that Gates was a “nobody” or that Manafort played a “very limited role for a very limited period of time” is untrue and risks the White House spoiling its defense. This is especially pertinent, as it’s been revealed that Trump and Manafort remained in close contact, albeit in an unofficial way, through November’s election—three months after Manafort formally took his leave.
Both Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty to the charges confronting them. The former’s lawyer called the charges “ridiculous” and contended that, contrary to the motives many have besmeared him with, Manafort helped to “further democracy in Ukraine”. Their trial dates have been scheduled tentatively for May 2018. Until then, both are to remain under house arrest, which is a good application of the gavel to prevent Manafort’s penchant for international itinerancy. One could imagine him jet-setting east to Russia and seeking asylum there.
The third and least-known on our list is George Papadopoulos. He, unlike Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, pleaded guilty on Monday after his initial arrest this past July. He, unlike the other two, has been forthcoming thus far about his role in the Trump-Russian imbroglio. Papadopoulos served in Trump’s campaign as a self-described foreign policy expert. His résumé before joining the campaign was rather unremarkable; his international acumen appeared to be ad hoc, while his credentials seemed spuriously inflated. Nevertheless, he achieved for himself a considerable pedigree in a short period of time.
Papadopoulos is alleged to have contacted high-level Russians in an effort to schedule a meeting between the Kremlin and Trump. To see to this, Papadopoulos arranged to meet with a “professor”—an actor whose anonymity has fallen into speculation. Many believe this “professor” to be Joseph Mifsud, the director of the London Academy of Diplomacy. Upon learning that Papadopoulos was working directly for the Trump campaign, (after rebuffing his attempts on two occasions previously) it was he who proposed the meeting and the potential trove of damaging information about Hillary Clinton from Russia. With echoes of Donald Trump Jr., Papadopoulos was only too eager to make this happen.
He and the professor eventually met in England. Accompanying the two was a woman reported to be Vladimir Putin’s niece, although this point remains unsubstantiated and likely untrue. It’s unknown if anything of consequence occurred after he left their company. Papadopoulos returned home and appears to have been readying himself for the natural next step. He set out to schedule a meeting between Trump and Putin with his higher-up, Sam Clovis, the USDA’s chief scientist nominee (who, as an aside, lacks any type of legitimate or qualifying science degree). Clovis appeared sanguine about the possibility, but it’s uncertain if anything consequently took place. This, as it has from the outset, continues to be the question looming above all else. That question is, of course, whether or not the two parties were able to consummate their collusive lust.
Papadopoulos, should he proceed unfettered and forthcoming as he’s proven himself to be, may hold the answer to this looming question. I’ll stop here to say that If I’ve painted a picture of Papadopoulos riding through the perfidy like a white knight on his steed. In doing so, I may have misrepresented him in a small way. He has entered this guilty plea because he originally lied to the FBI, and more importantly—as every shamelessly successful liar knows, was caught in the act. When first recounting his tale, Papadopoulos claimed he met with the Russian informants before he assumed his role with the campaign. This much is conceivably true in Manafort’s case (which appears to be little more than an otiose attempt to get closer to Trump), but not in Papadopoulos’.
The question becomes this: why, if nothing illicit or untoward came of his meeting with the “Professor”, did he lie to the FBI about the meeting? By lying, Papadopoulos clearly sought to distance himself and his actions with the administration, and thus absolve President Trump. Mueller’s continued pursuit of Papadopoulos will likely reveal answers to these questions, assuming he continues to be amenable. After all, he who lies for you, might just as quickly confide the truth against you.
We’ll have to wait to see what comes next. Mueller’s is a slowly spun web within which much of Washington may soon find itself caught. His team will likely try to turn Manafort and Gates against Trump for information that would be otherwise inaccessible. And with Papadopoulos’ preparedness to sing, the bigger dominoes could soon fall. The Trump team’s inveterate roguery is now stuck, and the way out is a long way down.