Monday, October 30, 2017

Papadopoulos Is the Big Fish Here, Not Manafort

The news that Paul Manafort has been indicted by Robert Mueller for money laundering should come as no surprise to anyone. Most legal analysts who have been following the Russia investigation knew it was only a matter of time before he was charged. Manafort's ties to pro-Russian factions in Ukraine were well established. Given that his apartment had been raided by FBI agents in July, it would've been surprising if he hadn't been charged.

But the news that George Papadopoulos had been arrested, pled guilty to several counts of perjury on October 5 and is currently cooperating with Mueller's team came totally out of left field. The timing of Mueller's announcement here was no accident. He is clearly sending two messages. The first is to Manafort: We have Papadopoulos. He's cooperating with us. Would you like to get the same deal we gave him? The second is to the White House: We have Papadopoulos. We know who he spoke to. Now would be a good time to come in and talk to us before we come for you.

Do not think for a moment that they aren't shitting their pants in the West Wing. They can try all they want to make this about Hillary's emails and her campaign's connection with the Steele Dossier - which was originally funded by a conservative website on behalf of a Republican donor - but Mueller's sights are clearly focused on what went on in the Trump campaign, and he's not going to be swayed by any spin (read pressure) from Fox News, Breitbart, et al.

Make no mistake about it: Papadopoulos is the big fish here. He wasn't just a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, he acted as a go-between for Russian officials who had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton and high-ranking members of the Trump campaign; one of whom is believed to be Manafort himself. The fact that he pled guilty to get a reduced sentence means Mueller has his smoking gun. In fact, he has the whole damn armory.

Where we go from here depends on two things: One, how long it takes for Manafort's lawyers to broker a deal with Mueller to their liking; and two, whether or not Trump decides to intervene by either getting rid of Mueller or by issuing pardons against all parties involved. I don't think Trump will opt for the former, not because he wouldn't like to, but because at this point he would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone at the Justice Department who would comply with such an order to do so. But I do believe he might very well use his executive authority to issue pardons for anyone connected with the investigation.

That's why the news this past August that the Mueller team has joined forces with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is so crucial here. Trump can only pardon people for federal crimes, not state ones. And that ace in the hole is what will allow Mueller to be as aggressive as he needs to in order to get at the truth.

Now I would caution those who think that we're nearing the close of this investigation to take a deep breath. Even if Mueller gets Manafort to flip, we still have a long road ahead. If the objective is to get Trump, whether it be on obstruction or collusion, then Mueller still has to find a few more pieces to the puzzle, and those pieces will be much harder to get the closer he gets to this president. Manafort was low hanging fruit, as is Michael Flynn, who it wouldn't surprise me to learn is next on Mueller's list.

If this were a baseball game, I'd say we were in the top of the third, and that's assuming we don't go into extra innings. The bottom line: it may well be a year or more before this comes to a, hopefully, satisfactory conclusion.

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