Mueller just threw a huge wrench in Trump's attempts to distance himself from Manafort

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan.Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesRepublican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan.
  • Indictments released Monday in relation to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe did not mention President Donald Trump or his campaign, allowing Trump to distance himself from the charges.
  • But this is likely just the tip of the iceberg, and the indictments make clear that Mueller is willing to look into relevant dealings that precede the campaign.

The special counsel’s office unsealed court filings on Monday that demonstrated extensive contact between an early adviser on President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia-linked foreign nationals during the election, raising the stakes for the White House amid Trump’s former campaign chairman’s indictment for financial crimes.

Legal experts say the decision to unseal the court filings related to the Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, hours after former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime business associate Rick Gates turned themselves in to the FBI may have been strategic.

“It was revealed at this time, I think, to blunt criticism of the Manafort/Gates indictment for being only tangentially related to Russia (i.e., the money came from the Russian puppet Ukrainians),” said Patrick Cotter, a former assistant US attorney who has worked closely with Mueller in the past and now practices at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, P.C.

The Manafort and Gates indictment, unsealed Monday morning, contained 12 counts related mostly to financial crimes like money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent. The filing did not mention Trump or the campaign, which allowed Trump to distance himself from Manafort in a tweet on Monday morning.

“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” Trump tweeted on Monday morning. “But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”

The fact that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in October to lying to federal agents about his contact with Russia-linked foreign nationals, however, “is equally, if not more, important” than the Manafort and Gates indictments, Cotter said.

“With Papadopoulos, the prosecutors are saying: ‘Yes, we are making progress on the Russia connection to the Trump campaign and this witness will lead us to other evidence and witnesses. More to come on Russia,'” Cotter said. “It also serves as a warning to people who dealt with Papadopoulos that if they lie about those contacts, the government is in a position to indict them for false statement, obstruction or perjury.”

As The New Yorker’s Ben Wallace-Wells pointed out, “at every point, crucially, Papadopoulos loops in his superiors — immediate ones, distant ones, and at one point even the candidate himself.”

The fact that Papadopoulos was apprising his superiors of all of his Russia-related correspondences will make it extremely difficult for the Trump campaign to distance itself from his efforts to set up a meeting with high-level Russian officials.

Papadopoulos told a high-ranking campaign official, likely Manafort, in May that “Russia has been eager to meet with Mr. Trump for some time and have been reaching out to me to discuss.”

The special counsel’s filing indicates that the official forwarded Papadopoulos’ email to another campaign official and wrote: “Let’s discuss. We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”

William Yeomans, a former deputy assistant attorney general who spent 26 years at the Justice Department, agreed that the Papodopolous guilty plea seemed “very significant.”

“As I understand it, he lied about his contact — while he was with the campaign — with a professor with ties to the Russian government,” Yeomans said on Monday. “That brings campaign collusion into play. It’s early. There will undoubtedly be more to come.”

The Papadopoulos filings revealed for the first time that someone on the Trump campaign was offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from Russia-linked foreign nationals as early as April 2016. The offering on Clinton to Papadopoulos, in this case, was in the form of “thousands of emails,” disclosed to the young foreign policy adviser by a person identified as an “overseas professor.”

The document suggests Papadopoulos had known that Russia was actively trying to undermine Clinton before virtually anyone else. News that the Democratic National Committee had been breached by Russia-linked hackers in late 2015 did not break until June 14, 2016.

On October 5, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to federal agents. He now appears to be a cooperating witness in Mueller’s investigation of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“The fact that his arrest was concealed for over three months also reminds us that we don’t know who else might also be cooperating with the investigation,” Yeomans said.

He noted too that while the Manafort and Gates indictments don’t implicate Trump directly they show that Mueller is “willing to examine financial dealings that occurred before the campaign and bring charges that are not directly related to collusion.”

“That means that Trump’s financial and business dealings are fair game,” Yeomans said, “including possible money laundering — a chilling message to him.”

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