Last Monday, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted for conspiracy against the United States, money laundering and working as an unregistered agent of a foreign power ‒ specifically, with former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who is known for his pro-Russia stance.
Special counsel Robert Mueller partially used rarely-enforced 1938 law originally intended to fight Nazi propagandists before World War II to bring charges against Manafort. This law dictates that lobbyists advocating for any type of political agenda on behalf any foreign political entity must register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Manafort is facing a range of charges, including his violations of foreign lobby laws, but the one of the most striking aspects of his arrest is that he was indicted by Robert Mueller in the midst of an investigation as to whether or not President Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election.
The “toothless” law that indicted Manafort
Since 1966, there have been seven convictions under FARA, according to a report the Department of Justice released in 2016. This is despite the fact that very few people actually register with the government for their foreign lobbying. FARA’s office has a limited budget and little legal ability to enforce the sanctions it does impose on lobbying groups for violating rules ‒ fines, for example ‒ and before now, there were few people in Washington succeeding in doing anything about it.
Flashback: How we got here, 2016 election edition
Paul Manafort joined President Trump’s campaign in March of 2016, and he became chief strategist/campaign chairman in May 2016. Mueller (who began leading the Russia investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from subject in March) has established that he plans to take wide aim with this investigation, hence the charges against Manafort that go back years into his “sleazy” career.
Manfort, among other things, has a record of promoting regimes with human rights violations, being involved with influence-peddling scandals and working with presidents who were ousted from power by their own people. In 2016, right after President Trump promoted Manafort to campaign manager, a Bloomberg opinion piece somewhat omnisciently wrote that, “Trump Just Hired His Next Scandal.”
Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign in August of 2016. His relationship with Trump soured, and reports about his activities in Ukraine were surfacing, and it likely did not bode well for a candidate who was already being criticized for his relationship with Putin to have a campaign chairman with connections to a pro-Russian disgraced former president of Ukraine.
How we got here: Trump’s presidency edition
The FBI raided Manafort's home in July, and the special counsel told him to expect an indictment months ago.
Nevertheless, the indictment on Monday shocked many in Washington. Then, hours after the arrest, Mueller released documents showing that a former Trump campaign advisor, George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI about meetings with Russians and cooperated with the Mueller’s investigation for months by providing testimony about the campaign.
Specifically, Papadopoulos lied to investigators about a meeting with a Russian agent who assured the campaign officials “dirt” on then-candidate Hillary Clinton.
The New York Times wrote, “It is now clear, from Mr. Papadopoulos’s admission and emails related to a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016, that the Russian government offered help to Mr. Trump’s candidacy and campaign officials were willing to take it.”
Another former campaign official downgraded the credibility of Papadopoulos’s confession, saying that the foreign policy advisor was no more than “the coffee boy.”
President Trump has denied collusion with Russia since the investigation's inception.
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
What's happening now
The indictments and accusations have intensified Washington’s interest into the investigation's conclusions on the extent of Russian collusion in the election. It is likely to develop into all all-out power struggle between those who would prefer to see this investigation stopped and those who would not.
The opposition to Mueller’s investigation would take shape most visibly in Kevin Downing, Manafort’s lead attorney, who has already indicated that the team will file pretrial motions to challenge various aspects of the Mueller’s evidence-gathering.
Congress is conducting its own inquiry into Russian interference. Unlike typical congressional investigations, the interviews have been mostly behind closed doors.
As Politico writes, drama often embroils inquiries into the actions of the federal government, no matter who is doing the investigating. (e.g. Watergate, Iran-Contra) It can include incalcitrant lawyers who attempt to slow legal processes, judicial challenges and under-the-table digs at investigator's credibility.
Mueller is likely to face all of those challenges, and then some, according to Politico.
President Trump’s responded with repeated calls for investigations into the Democrats, specifically 2016 democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Since his calls for investigations have ranged from the demonstrably false “voter fraud” issue to vague calls to look into democrats to Hillary’s emails, it is difficult to know what exactly President Trump is trying to accomplish. He seems to be attempting to divert attention from the Russia indictments.
Never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton made Fake Dossier (now $12,000,000?),....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
...the Uranium to Russia deal, the 33,000 plus deleted Emails, the Comey fix and so much more. Instead they look at phony Trump/Russia,....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
..."collusion," which doesn't exist. The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the R's...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
...are now fighting back like never before. There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
In another tweet, Trump claimed the “Russia talk” was strategically seeking to harm the Republican tax reform bill. Later in the week, political strategist and former interim National Chair of the DNC Donna Brazile claimed in her new book that Clinton nefariously obtained the democratic nomination over Bernie Sanders.
So, who did what and to whom? It is unlikely that Mueller was trying to harm legislative efforts by conducting his investigation, and Brazile’s claims have not been confirmed independently.
It is also unlikely Trump’s calls for an investigation into Clinton will result in action because of checks and balances. The president is not supposed to interfere with the Justice Department, something he mourned on live television last week.Conclusion
Russia undertook massive technological efforts to interfere in the 2016 election through social media. Last week, Mr. Papadopoulos's guilty plea indicated that these efforts were far from the sole work of fake Facebook pages and advertising bots.
Manafort was charged in the process of investigating the extent of this collusion, but he was not charged with colluding himself, as far as we know.