President Donald Trump is right: Most of the accusations against Paul Manafort in the indictment that Special Counsel Robert Mueller brought Monday morning relate to activities from long before he became the Trump campaign manager in the spring of 2016. The word “Trump” doesn’t appear anywhere in the 31-page document, and the only Russian influence it mentions relates to politics in Ukraine, not the United States.
Still, the public won’t be so quick to dismiss this development as “fake news” and evidence of a Democratic witch hunt, as President Trump claimed repeatedly over the weekend and immediately after Manafort and his associate, Rick Gates, were taken into federal custody. Nor should they.
This isn’t the sort of fishing-expedition indictment that has sometimes given independent investigations like Mueller’s a bad name. It isn’t related to perjury or obstruction of justice but rather accusations of money laundering, tax evasion, fraud and foreign lobbying. The indictment is detailed — down to how much Mr. Manafort allegedly funneled from his offshore accounts to pay for men’s clothes in New York ($849,215) or antique rugs in Alexandria ($934,350, plus another $100,000 to a related company). And it suggests that its accusations are backed up by documents — financial records, emails and memos.
There’s rampant speculation that Mueller focused so intently on Manafort in hopes that a strong indictment against him would get him to turn on others in the Trump orbit and provide evidence of crimes related to the central mission of his office, which is to determine whether the Trump campaign engaged in illegal collusion with Russia to influence the presidential election.
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Trump’s lawyer asserted last week that the president wasn’t worried about that possibility because there’s nothing for Manafort or anyone else to tell. Perhaps not, but Mueller’s mandate calls for him to investigate any potentially illegal activity he uncovers as a result of his probe, and that’s what he’s done. The investigation is only a few months old and is clearly not yet complete — Mueller reportedly has more interviews scheduled and is waiting for more documents from the White House.
But even if we suppose that this marks the most serious turn this investigation will ever take, that Manafort and Gates have no beans to spill, it still reflects poorly on President Trump. Manafort was brought on to the Trump campaign in the spring of 2016 when it appeared possible that the candidate could be headed for a contested convention.
Manafort had extensive experience in that area, having worked for Gerald Ford in 1976, and subsequently for other Republican nominees, but his ties to the pro-Russia regime of former Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych were hardly a secret; they showed up in the very first New York Times blog post about his hiring. (He had also worked for other unsavory international characters, including Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo; the Daily Beast headlined an article at the time of his hiring by the campaign “Top Trump Aide Led the ‘Torturers’ Lobby’” detailing his work with another top Trump adviser, Roger Stone.)
The five months or so that he ran the Trump campaign are the crucial ones in the question of possible Russia collusion. Other court documents unsealed Monday detail contacts around the time of Manafort’s hiring between another Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, and a Russian professor connected to the Kremlin who offered up thousands of emails from the Russian government containing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. In the summer of 2016, Manafort was part of an infamous meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and others with a Russian attorney who had connections to the Putin regime and also promised damaging information about Clinton.
None of that makes Trump guilty of any crimes, of course. But it does, at the very least, show that the president gave little consideration to the background, baggage and possible motivations of those who surround him — a fact that has become clear again and again in the months since Manafort left the campaign.
And Trump’s continued inability to see Mueller’s probe as anything but excuse-making by Democrats over Clinton’s loss shows just how wantonly blind he is to possible corruption in his midst.
This indictment offers no hint that Trump did anything wrong. But it is one piece in a mountain of evidence that he’s a terrible judge of character.