The first concrete details of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the regime of Vladimir Putin have finally come to light.
Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and former Trump campaign deputy Richard Gates were indicted, and former Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos was revealed to have entered a guilty plea early this month and be cooperating with Special Counsel Mueller’s team. Far from being the end of these investigations, these revelations are just the first chapters of a long and complicated story.
Manafort and Gates’ indictments are unsurprising to anyone who looked into the former’s career when he took the reins of the Trump campaign in March of 2016. Having lobbied for dictators and other nefarious figures from Angola to Zaire, it comes as little surprise that Manafort and his right hand man were mixed up in extensive money laundering and tax evasion during 11 years of shady work in Ukraine.
The White House’s first take on the issue - that Manafort and Gates were of brief and scant consequence to the Trump apparatus - is hardly believable. Manafort steered the campaign through critical months, wrangling the Republican National Convention delegates that handed then-candidate Trump the nomination, and playing a pivotal role in the addition of Governor Mike Pence to the ticket. Gates, while in a more junior role, stayed on even longer - up through serving on the inaugural committee.
The second dodge, however, was a fairer point: none of Manafort or Gates’ charges dealt with activities connected to the campaign. Aside from reflecting incredibly poorly on the judgment of President Trump (hitherto known for hiring “the best people”), this first indictment bore no relation to the campaign save for the fact that the two men charged with “conspiracy against the United States” and 11 other counts just so happened to be intimately involved with a campaign for the highest office in the same.
The Papadopoulos guilty plea, however, is entirely relevant to the campaign and the question of collusion with a foreign power.
George Papadopoulos, a 29-year-old political unknown, is also being portrayed as disconnected from the campaign - a “volunteer” who sat on a council that met “one time.” Papadopoulos was, however, mentioned by name as a foreign policy advisor by Trump, and was even featured in a picture on his beloved Twitter account; it also appears that he may have been close during the campaign with then-national security committee chair and now Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Less interesting than Papadopoulos’ relationships within the campaign, however, are his relationships with people on the outside - and specifically, in the Russian government. Papadopoulos sent numerous emails trying to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin at the behest of a Russian contact, and his detailed account shows that those requests were not rejected out of hand, but considered carefully by senior campaign staff. And what was the subject of such a meeting? “Dirt” on Secretary Clinton, supposedly in the form of “thousands of emails.”
All of this information lends significant context to the meeting that Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, along with Manafort, took with a Russian government attorney - again, trying to get “dirt” on their political opponent from a foreign adversary. It also proves that the campaign’s repeated claim that no one knew of contacts with the Russian government was an outright lie. And most importantly, it suggests that President Trump himself may have known about some of these conversations and efforts - something he has denied repeatedly since taking office.
Special Counsel Mueller is the opposite of President Trump; he is methodical rather than erratic, and a professional rather than a showman. His investigation will be long and thorough, with pieces moving only when they are meant to move; the complete surprise of the Papadopoulos plea is a testament to his team being as tightly controlled as the White House is leaky.
So while the Russia investigation may be marked by political theater on its periphery, it is a profoundly serious matter at its core. And based on this week, this is only the beginning of a long and substantial process. That is something that Americans of all political stripes should be thankful for, because getting to the bottom of Russia’s influence on our election and ensuring that only Americans choose our leaders is essential to the survival of our democracy.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.