Why Manafort’s indictment should shake Trump


Special Counsel Robert Mueller unfurled his first federal indictment on Monday in his probe of possible collusion among US President Donald Trump, his presidential campaign and Russia, filing federal fraud charges against Paul Manafort — Trump’s former campaign manager and a globe-trotting political consultant whose business came to include work for allies of the Kremlin.

Manafort and one of his business associates, Rick Gates, are accused in a 31-page indictment of a number of financial crimes that occurred between 2006 and 2016, including money laundering, tax fraud, failure to disclose payments from foreign companies and bank accounts, and failure to register as an agent of the Ukraine government.

As the indictment outlines in withering detail, Manafort “conspired to defraud the US”. (Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty, according to CNN).

What the indictment doesn’t do (at least not yet, since other charges against Manafort could be added later) is put the president of the US in immediate legal peril. So, to all of the Democrats, Trump critics and #ImpeachTrump fans joyously embracing the Manafort indictment as something of a reckoning, relax. You’re just not there yet.

It’s worth pointing out that Manafort’s work for the Trump campaign isn’t mentioned in the indictment, although statements he made during his three-month tenure as campaign chairman in 2016 are cited. In that context, Manafort’s financial wheeling and dealing in Eastern Europe and the fun stuff he did with payments he apparently went out of his way to mask (US$655,000 or RM2.77 million on landscaping! US$849,000 on clothes!) don’t yet intersect with the Oval Office.

Manafort is also someone Trump himself is probably not too concerned about. Yes, the indictment gives Mueller and his Justice Department team the leverage they need to squeeze Manafort for more juice on Trump that they don’t already have, of course.

But to the extent that any of that revolves around collusion with Russia to tip the 2016 campaign in Trump’s favour, well, Trump is much less exposed. Collusion isn’t a federal crime (though some campaign actions relating to collusion could be crimes). He also could withstand a collusion fight in the court of public opinion, particularly with his intensely committed base.

But Trump has other reasons to be concerned, because the Manafort indictment may offer a blueprint of the kind of charges Mueller may ultimately bring against Trump himself — charges involving financial crimes such as money laundering and tax evasion, listed in painful detail for all the nation to see.

While Team Trump is pushing the idea that Manafort’s shady dealings are his own problem, they also make him a model Trump associate. The president, never one to follow rules, has repeatedly gone into business with career criminals over the years, including guys like Felix Sater of the Bayrock Group. An immigrant to the US from the former Soviet Union, Sater has organised crime ties and links to Russia, all of which is surely on Mueller’s radar.

Mueller’s pursuit of the money trail is likely what Trump fears the most in the Russia probe, not collusion. An investigation into his own financial and business history as well as the dealings of family members like Jared Kushner (picture) — and his three eldest children, Donald Jr, Ivanka and Eric — are more threatening than anything else Mueller might be weighing.

Since before Trump was even inaugurated, son-in-law Kushner has scrambled to arrange financing for his family’s troubled skyscraper, 666 Fifth Avenue. His solicitations involved Chinese financiers, and he met with a prominent Russian banker during the same period (though he denies talking business with the Russian). Mueller is reportedly focused on Kushner as part of his investigation.

A barometer of how much all of this concerns Trump is, as always, Twitter. Trump has been pressing his case against the media and law enforcement on Twitter for more than a week, repeatedly trying to say they should shift the focus from him and Russia to “Crooked Hillary” and her web of nefarious deals.

In part, this is due to recent reporting that the infamous Steele dossier exploring Trump’s possible Russian conflicts was funded by Democrats, a fact that was already known for about a year. Trump pounced on that news to suggest that the entire Russia probe sprang into existence because of the dossier and, ergo, was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by Democrats.

The Mueller indictment, as does most of the fact pattern surrounding the Russian probe, shreds the idea that the Steele dossier was the foundational document for law enforcement and intelligence agencies interested in Trump’s intersections with Russia. Investigators are clearly exploring multiple tracks.

Trump (as well as loyalists like Roger Stone and Sebastian Gorka) also went into defensive overdrive on Twitter over the weekend, after CNN broke the news last Friday evening that Mueller was likely to file charges against someone in the Trump orbit.

That carried over into this morning, after news broke of the Manafort indictment.

It’s useful to the president to try to bring the focus back on “collusion” and away from other subjects like “obstruction” or “fraud”, but his Twitter feed wouldn’t be on fire if he wasn’t seriously worried. And the president may be fuming because when he stares at the Mueller indictment, he might be concerned that he’s staring into a mirror. — Bloomberg

  • Timothy L O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.