Mueller Charges Trump Campaign Officials

On Monday, October 30, an indictment was unsealed against Paul Manafort and his protégé, Rick Gates. Manafort joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team in March 2016 and served as campaign manager from June to August 2016. The two men were charged with tax evasion, money laundering, false statements, and conspiracy. On the same day, in a separate case, George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, pled guilty to lying to the FBI about contact with a Russian professor with ties to the Kremlin.  All of these charges stem from the ongoing investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed in May to look into whether anyone close to President Trump colluded with, or participated in, the Russian government’s effort to influence last year’s presidential election. In this Q&A, Professor David Alan Sklansky dissects the charges filed against Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulos, and explores the scope of Muller’s investigation.

Can you explain the charges against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates?

Before Manafort joined the Trump campaign, he worked for years in Ukraine for the pro-Russia strongman, Viktor Yanukovych. The indictment charges that Manafort and his longtime business associate, Rick Gates, concealed their ties to Ukraine and to pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians, operated as foreign agents inside the United States without making the disclosures required by law, laundered more than $18 million, evaded taxes, personally enriched themselves through the scheme, and then lied about it to the Department of Justice.

How serious are these charges? And are they at all related to the presidential campaign?

David Alan Sklansky
Professor David Alan Sklansky

The charges are very serious. They could send Manafort and Gates to prison for years. And yes, they are related to the Trump campaign. Most of the events charged in the indictment occurred before and after the period during which Manafort was managing Trump’s campaign, but the false statements charged in the indictment occurred while Gates was still working for Trump-related groups. More importantly, the depth of the connections to pro-Russia candidates alleged in the indictment, and the web of deceit and personal enrichment surrounding them, make it hard to credit Trump’s repeated claims, as a candidate and then as president, that there were no connections between his campaign and Russia. And that’s even without the Papadopoulos plea.

What does the Papadopolous plea add?

Papadopolous served as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign. He pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to the FBI about his contacts with an “overseas professor” and a “female Russian national” who were trying to broker Russian contacts with the Trump campaign and offering to provide intercepted emails with “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. In pleading guilty, Papadopolous admitted he had tried to cover up and minimize these contacts, but he also admitted that he repeatedly communicated with higher-level campaign officials about the contacts and about the offers of Russian assistance. It’s very hard to square this with repeated claims by Trump and his associates that they had no contact with the Russians and had no idea who had was behind the theft of emails from the Clinton campaign.

Can you reiterate the scope of Robert Mueller’s investigation?

The terms of Mueller’s original appointment authorize him to investigate any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign. He is also authorized to pursue any matters that arise directly from that investigation—for example, possible obstruction of justice.

Has the scope of Mueller’s investigation expanded?

Maybe, but the charges unsealed today don’t provide any evidence of that. Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulos all worked for the Trump campaign. And Manafort ran it during a critical period. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying about his efforts to facilitate cooperation between the campaign and the Russian government. And Manafort and Gates have been charged with a wide-ranging scheme of illegal collusion with pro-Russia elements in Ukraine. This all seems squarely related to what Mueller was asked to investigate.

David Alan Sklansky, a former federal prosecutor, is the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is also a faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC).