September 21, 2018
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With Paul Manafort’s indictment, Trump’s ‘fake news’ claim is harder to defend

J. Scott Applewhite | AP
J. Scott Applewhite | AP
President Donald Trump's Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort is surrounded by reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 17, 2016. Rick Gates, a former business associate to Manafort and former campaign aide to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, is left center.
By Amber Phillips, The Washington Post
Updated:

The independent investigation into Trump-Russia collusion just made its most serious move since it began in May. On Monday, Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his former business partner, Rick Gates, were ordered to surrender to federal authorities.

Both men are charged with 12 counts relating to financial crimes, including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money and making false statements.

[Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign manager, indicted in special counsel probe]

In other words, this Russia investigation is very real. Neither President Donald Trump nor the White House commented on the indictments early Monday. But given that Trump has consistently claimed that this investigation is fake and a hoax, it’s possible — even likely — he’ll try to rebut this escalation of the investigation in similarly absolute terms. Over the weekend, as news organizations reported charges were coming, Trump fired off nearly half a dozen tweets trying to pivot to Hillary Clinton.

Here are some of Trump’s common claims about the investigation that haven’t added up so far, especially now that there are charges.

Trump claim No. 1: There’s no evidence of collusion

“It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!” he tweeted.

Trump’s main argument here is that the FBI, in some form or another, has been looking into this for more than a year and because it hasn’t come to a conclusion about collusion, there must be none. That assumes a lot of unknowns.

Besides, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team has only been on the job since May. It has impaneled a federal grand jury and now is charging Trump’s former campaign chairman. Those are both significant escalations in a five-month-old investigation.

[Angus King says it’s ‘premature’ to rule out collusion with Russia]

Congress is also investigating alleged Russian meddling. Earlier this month, the top Senate Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said that, after eight months of investigating, hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 100 people and nearly 100,000 pages of documents, they aren’t ready to rule out collusion.

“We have more work to do as it relates to Russia collusion, but we’re developing a clearer picture of what happened,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, chairman of the committee.

Translation: At the very least, accusations that the Trump campaign worked with Russia are not a hoax. It’s worth significant time and resources for three committees in Congress and one independent investigation to continue to look into.

Claim No. 2: These charges have nothing to do with the Trump administration

Manafort and Gates are charged with something that does not seem directly related to Russia collusion. And so Trump and his allies could argue that this has nothing to do with them.

Except, this is likely the beginning of Mueller’s investigation, not the end, said Jeffrey Jacobovitz, a white collar lawyer who has represented Clinton administration officials.

Many legal experts think Mueller is putting pressure on these outside figures to get them to cooperate by sharing what they know about Trump’s inner circle. If true, that would explain the FBI knocking on Manafort’s door in an aggressive pre-dawn raid, or the special counsel looking into Flynn’s son.

[FBI raided home of former Trump campaign chief Manafort]

“Mueller wouldn’t have hired 16, 17 people to investigate these events just to indict some tangential person unrelated to the campaign,” Jacobovitz said. “I think one of the things he’s trying to do is trying to get Manafort to flip and cooperate” on the broader investigation.

Claim No. 3: Mueller and his team are politically motivated

Some of Trump’s allies have tried to draw lines between the prosecutors Mueller has hired and their ties to Democrats. Since Mueller’s team is operating behind closed doors, it’s been hard to directly rebut that.

But that logic falls into a gaping hole with this indictment. Mueller has persuaded a federal judge to set up a grand jury, he has presented the evidence his team has found, and that independent grand jury decided to return an indictment.

“This is out of Mueller’s hands,” Jacobovitz said. “It’s an independent jury. They could have declined the indictment, but apparently they did not.”

“It’s a first step and it could be one of many,” he said.

Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Washington Post.

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