It's been a busy day on the Robert Mueller front, with tax and money laundering charges leveled against Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, along with news of a guilty plea from former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who admitted lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian foreign nationals. Manafort had to post $10 million bond and Gates $5 million before release, reports the Los Angeles Times, and both pleaded not guilty. None of their charges directly related to the Trump campaign, which the president himself was happy to point out, but the Papadopoulos case is a different matter. So where do things stand? Here's a look at developments and assessments:
- Papadopoulos significant: At the New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes that interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian officials have largely been disputed allegations until now, but Papadopoulos' guilty plea changes that. He was openly meeting with Russian nationals in the hope of getting "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, and he was trying to set up meetings for superiors. Trump tweeted there had been "no collusion," "but if that’s the case, then what was George Papadopoulos trying to do?"
- Maybe not: White House press chief Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed the developments, reiterating that the Manafort charges weren't linked to the campaign. As for Papadopoulos, he had a "limited role," she said. “This individual was the member of a volunteer council that met one time over the course of a year,” she said, per Mediaite. At Hot Air, blogger Allahpundit notes that Papadopoulos is only 30. "His interest in being the point man in a big Trump/Russia tete-a-tete reeks of a junior advisor trying to prove his value to the people around him by freelancing some amazing coup."
- A signal? Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight finds it interesting that Mueller decided to release news of the Papadopoulos guilty plea, which happened weeks ago, on the same day the Manafort indictment was unsealed. He perhaps knew that Trump's team would trumpet the fact that the Manafort charges aren't related to the campaign. "Seems like a signal from Mueller that the focus is still on Trump-Russia collusion," he tweeted.
- The timeline: The Papadopoulos story can be difficult to track, but the Washington Post breaks into a timeline of whom he met when. His contacts included a woman he believed to be the niece of Vladimir Putin.
- What next? Politico talks to experts on what's ahead, and one notes a big question regarding Manafort. Will he stay quiet and hope for a presidential pardon or cooperate with investigators and perhaps offer up info on the campaign? The latter "would be the quickest way possible to get to the bottom of what (if anything) happened during the election cycle involving Russian interference and allegations of cooperation." And Mueller has leverage on him now.
- Quite an opening: An analysis at Lawfare calls this a "doozy" of an opening by Mueller, suggesting far more is come. Consider what is now alleged: Trump "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." Manafort, who ran the campaign, made a fortune helping the Vladimir Putin "puppet" regime in Ukraine, while Papadopoulos met with well-connected Russian nationals. And "all of this while President Trump was assuring the American people that he and his campaign had 'nothing to do with Russia.'"
- Is Mueller safe? The White House press chief said Monday "there's no intention or plan to make any changes in regards to special counsel," a statement being interpreted as declining "to unequivocally rule out the possibility" that Trump will fire him, per Business Insider. Vox assesses the chances of that happening and finds it to be "very real," while Democrats including Chuck Schumer were already warning Trump against it, reports the Daily News.
- Who is Gates? The charges against Rick Gates prompted the New York Times to re-run a profile in which he is described as Manafort's "protege and junior partner." He has long been Manafort's right-hand man all over the globe. The pair met almost three decades ago when Gates interned at the Washington consulting firm where Manafort worked.
- Democrats, too: In what appears to be a move related to the new indictments, Tony Podesta, described as a "Democratic power lobbyist" by Politico, is stepping down from the Podesta Group he founded. Podesta has drawn scrutiny for work he did for Manafort in promoting the interests of Ukraine in the US. This signals that Democratic bigwigs aren't safe either, notes the Daily Beast. Podesta's brother John led Hillary Clinton's campaign.
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