Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign official Rick Gates have been indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, ratcheting up pressure on President Donald Trump who has dismissed the sprawling probe as a “witch hunt.”
Manafort and Gates are the first people to be publicly charged as part of Mueller’s probe. The men were indicted on 12 counts, according to a 31-page indictment unsealed on Monday morning, including money laundering, operating as unregistered foreign agents of the government of Ukraine, failing to disclose overseas bank accounts and making false statements to federal authorities.
While both Manafort and Gates had top roles in the Trump campaign, the criminal charges do not discuss any actions clearly related to the presidential race, although the indictment notes that a Ukrainian political party the men worked for had a pro-Russia outlook.
The indictment alleges that the men set up a series of offshore companies in order to avoid taxes on their overseas lobbying work and defrauded banks in order to win loans.
Trump quickly downplayed the charges on Twitter. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”
He added, “….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
Manafort entered an FBI field office on Monday morning with his attorney, Kevin Downing, and ignored shouted questions from a throng of reporters outside the office.
The indictment of two figures central to Trump’s 2016 election mark the most significant step yet in an investigation that has dogged Trump’s presidency, even as he and other officials have tried to redirect attention on to his election rival, Hillary Clinton. The implications for Trump’s fledgling policy agenda are potentially catastrophic, as the cloud of Russia allegations only darkens, despite the White House’s insistence that nothing will ultimately come of the federal and congressional probes.
Mueller was selected to dig into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, including the hacks and release of Democrats’ emails, which intelligence agencies have concluded were designed to boost Trump’s campaign. Mueller, who was named after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, is also tasked with determining whether any Trump associates colluded with Moscow in that effort. But the special counsel also has wide latitude to pursue any other wrongdoing he finds during his investigation.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Already, though, White House officials moved to put distance between Trump and his former campaign chairman.
“Whatever happens today with the Mueller investigation, we don’t even know that it has anything to do with the campaign, what happens today,” counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway told Fox News earlier on Monday morning.
Manafort, a longtime GOP operative, had been under Justice Department investigation since early 2014 — long before Trump announced his presidential campaign – over his ties to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who abandoned office in February 2014 and fled to Russia amid protests and allegations of government corruption.
The charges focused on Manafort’s and Gates’ lobbying work on behalf of the Ukrainian government and Yanukovych between 2006 and 2015.
The work generated tens of millions of dollars, which was then laundered through “scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts,” according to the indictment. The charges allege both tax avoidance and concealment of their work as foreign agents. Manafort laundered more than $18 million, according to the indictment.
The scrutiny into Manafort’s record took on new relevance after investigators began looking at Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Gates joined the Trump campaign in the spring of 2016 along with Manafort, his longtime lobbying partner, to spearhead GOP delegate-counting efforts and avoid an internal party revolt at the Republican convention that could have cost Trump the nomination.
Gates, however, remained in Trump’s chaotic orbit during the general election, working on joint fundraising and massaging internal party dynamics from the Republican National Committee even after Manafort was ousted as head of the campaign in August, after he came under fire following reports about his lobbying work for a pro-Russia party in Ukraine.
Gates later connected with Trump confidante Thomas Barrack at an election night party, according to a New York Times report, and got hired to help run the presidential inaugural committee.
After the election, Gates joined a half-dozen Trump campaign alumni — including digital director Brad Parscale and Nick Ayers, who has since become Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff — at America First Policies, an outside group dedicated to promoting the president’s agenda. Gates left the group in March. CNN reported the departure was due to Gates’s ties to Manafort, who faced increasing scrutiny over his Russian ties as the extent of Moscow’s election-meddling became clear.
Some Republicans took the opportunity on Monday to reaffirm their support for the work of Mueller, with some lawmakers fearing that Trump may move to oust the special counsel.
“Months ago I & many other Republicans vowed to support Mueller investigation & allow it to work its way through process to get the facts,” tweeted Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). “In light of today’s indictments we must continue to support and allow the integrity of the process to work.”
Democrats used the indictments as an opportunity to call for expanded probes into the Russian meddling.
“Even with an accelerating Special Counsel investigation inside the Justice Department, and investigations inside the Republican Congress, we still need an outside, fully independent investigation to expose Russia’s meddling in our election and the involvement of Trump officials,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “Defending the integrity of our democracy demands that Congress look forward to counter Russian aggression and prevent future meddling with our elections.”
Other Democrats sought to link the indictment to the broader question of White House coziness with Russia.
“Paul Manafort and Rick Gates ran Trump’s campaign and continued to be a part of his inner circle after Election Day,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement. “This underscores the seriousness of the investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. It’s time for Republicans to commit to protecting this investigation and preserving the rule of law.”
Michael Crowley, Louis Nelson, and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
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