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Theres a lot more there: Mueller ups the stakes in the Trump-Russia inquiry

Theres a lot more there: Mueller ups the stakes in the Trump-Russia inquiry

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Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were indicted on financial charges, but George Papadopoulos was the surprise as the Russia inquiry enveloped the capital

For a moment in court, the mask slipped. Paul Manafort glanced at his lawyer and smirked, like a TV mafia boss with reasons to be confident. It was the look of a man who, after decades of work as a lobbyist for murderous dictators in Africa and Asia, was not about to be rattled by the prospect of house arrest.

But less than a mile away, another man displayed rather less equanimity. Donald Trump woke before dawn on Monday and, instead of heading to the Oval Office, lingered in the White House residence. Trump clicked on the television and spent the morning playing fuming media critic, legal analyst and crisis communications strategist, according to several people close to him, the Washington Post reported.

Quick Guide

What you need to know about the Trump-Russia inquiry

How serious are the allegations?

The story of Donald Trump andRussiacomes down to this: a sitting president or his campaign is suspected of having coordinated with a foreign country to manipulate a US election. The story could not be bigger, and the stakes for Trump and the country could not be higher.

What are the key questions?

Investigators are asking two basic questions: did Trumps presidential campaign collude at any level with Russian operatives to sway the 2016 US presidential election? And did Trump or others break the law to throw investigators off the trail?

What does the country think?

While a majority of the American public now believes that Russia tried to disrupt the US election, opinions about Trump campaign involvement tend to split along partisan lines: 73% of Republicans, but only 13% of Democrats,believeTrump did nothing wrong in his dealings with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

What are the implications for Trump?

The affair has the potential to eject Trump from office.Experienced legal observers believethat prosecutors are investigating whether Trump committed an obstruction of justice. Both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton the only presidents to face impeachment proceedings in the last century were accused of obstruction of justice. But Trumps fate is probably up to the voters. Even if strong evidence of wrongdoing by him or his cohort emerged, a Republican congressional majority would probably block any action to remove him from office. (Such an action would be a historical rarity.)

What has happened so far?

Former foreign policy adviser George Papadopolous pleaded guilty to perjury over his contacts with Russians linked to the Kremlin, and the presidents former campaign managerPaul Manafortand another aide face charges of money laundering.

When will the inquiry come to an end?

The investigations have an open timeline.

Until that moment, the justice department investigation into his election campaigns alleged collusion with Russia had seemed somewhat theoretical, dismissable by Trump as a hoax and witch-hunt. But here was the concrete of the courthouse, the accused escorted in by marshals, standing before a robed judge, swearing on oath and pleading for liberty. Suddenly Trump understood the five-month investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller probing whether the American president has been compromised by a foreign power had entered a new and dangerous phase.

Overall this week what we learned is that Bob Mueller knows a lot more about what happened during the presidential campaign than anyone on the outside thought he did, said Matthew Miller, a partner at strategic advisory firm Vianovo and former director of public affairs at the justice department. We have an incomplete picture and we dont know what the final picture might look like.

Manafort, who served as Trumps campaign chairman for five months, and his business associate Rick Gates, who also played a role in the campaign, were indicted on 12 counts including conspiracy against the US, conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, making false statements and failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts.

There was a silver lining for the president: the indictment did not reference the Trump campaign or coordination with Russia. But it did allege a criminal conspiracy was continuing into February this year, after Trump had taken office, and that the pair funneled payments through foreign companies and bank accounts as part of their work for Ukraines pro-Russia former president Viktor Yanukovych.

Frank Figliuzzi, former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, told MSNBC: If you look at this through a counterintelligence lens, you see the fingerprints of the Russian government here He [Manafort] got a primer on how the Russians can influence a campaign when he represented the Ukrainian candidate [Yanukovych] and he saw what Russia could do to influence a campaign. And he liked it.

Appearing in a tense courtroom on Monday before a packed public gallery, Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty and were released on multimillion-dollar bonds but confined to their homes. Lawyers for Manafort also among the participants of a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-linked lawyer after Donald Trump Jr was promised dirt on rival Hillary Clinton defended him in a court filing on Thursday as a successful, international political consultant who was necessarily involved in foreign financial transactions. US district judge Amy Berman Jackson has set a possible date of 7 May for the trial.

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Mueller, evidently, is carrying his investigation out in stages, as if taking on an organised crime family. He may delve into Trumps personal finances too. John Sipher, a national security analyst and former member of the CIAs national clandestine service, said: The fact the Mueller investigation would be willing to bring charges on everything from money laundering to tax evasion against Manafort, who was Trumps campaign chairman, is a big deal and suggests to me theres a lot more there.

Trump said on Twitter the alleged crimes were years ago and insisted there was NO COLLUSION between his associates and Russia. He characteristically sought to shift attention to his Democratic opponent, tweeting: Why arent Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????

The Manafort story broke just before 8am on Monday. In normal circumstances, charges against the former campaign chairman of a sitting president would be devastating enough. But then, around 10.30am, came a bolt from the blue. An unsealed indictment revealed that former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about contacts with people who claimed to have ties to top Russian officials and who were offering dirt on Clinton.

The special counsels one-two punch was deliberate, Miller believes. He did the two together to send a very clear message to everyone in the Trump orbit. If you cooperate, youll get a very favourable deal I think he probably wont go to jail If you lie and obstruct Im going to throw the book at you and youre looking at years in jail.

Alarmingly for the White House, Papadopoulos is now cooperating with Muellers investigators and, some speculated, may have worn a wire. The White House predictably sought to distance itself from him. Trump tweeted: Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar.

But a photo posted on Trumps Instagram account shows Papadopoulos sitting at a table with the businessman as well as Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, and other foreign policy advisers in March last year. According to the court documents, Papadopoulos told the meeting that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.

George Papadopoulos, second from left, in a photograph released on Donald Trumps Instagram account on 1 April 2016. Photograph: -/AFP/Getty Images

A New York Times report on Tuesday quoted a participant as saying that Sessions shut George down, ruled there should be no meeting with Putin and ordered those present not to speak about this again. CNN also said Carter Page, another former Trump campaign adviser, informed the House intelligence committee on Thursday that he had told Sessions of an upcoming July 2016 trip to Russia.

Yet in his testimony to the Senate judiciary committee in June, the attorney general denied knowing anything about contacts between the campaign and Russians. Now Senate Democrats are calling for him to testify again. Senator Al Franken wrote in a letter to Sessions: This is another example in an alarming pattern in which you, the nations top law enforcement officer, apparently failed to tell the truth, under oath, about the Trump teams contacts with agents of Russia, a hostile foreign power that interfered in the 2016 election.

Trump himself who last week claimed to have one of the great memories of all time was vague on the details of the Papadopoulos meeting. As he set off for a 13-day tour of Asia on Friday, he told reporters: I dont remember much about that meeting. It was a very unimportant meeting. It took place a long time ago All I can tell you is this: There was no collusion. There was no nothing. Its a disgrace, frankly, that they continue.

As is his wont, Trump argued that the justice department should look into Clinton and her campaigns conduct with the Democratic National Committee during the presidential primary race.

Catastrophically bad judgment

As the first anniversary of Trumps shock win over Clinton approaches, it is clear the Russia affair will hover over most if not all his presidency. This week, appearing before three congressional committees, executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google admitted that their platforms were abused by Russia to inflame existing divisions over issues such as immigration and gun control.

House investigators released a batch of Facebook and Twitter ads a sample of more than 3,000 turned over to the committee that demonstrated Americas all-conquering social media had been weaponised against it. One promoted an event to Support Hillary. Save American Muslims! with a picture of a woman in a hijab beside Clinton. Another for a group called Stop AI urged viewers to like and share if you want burqa banned in America, implying that the all-enveloping garment could be hiding a terrorist.

Divisive Russian-backed Facebook ads are displayed during a hearing by the House intelligence committee task force, during which Facebooks general counsel was questioned. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Democrats in particular sought to clip the wings of the tech companies. Senator Franken demanded sardonically: How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in rubles were coming from Russia? Senator Dianne Feinstein told the tech companies: I dont think you get it.

However, there was no conclusive proof that Moscow had conspired on behalf of Trump alone. Facebooks general counsel, Colin Stretch, testified that Russian activity had continued after the election fomenting discord about the validity of Trumps victory.

Some commentators also suggested that the weeks developments in the Mueller investigation were not as brutal for Trump as they first appeared. Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute thinktank and former chief speechwriter for George W Bush, argued that the Papadopoulos case was an example of incompetence rather than malevolence.

Theres still no more public evidence of criminal collusion with Russia than there was before charges were brought, Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post. But there is plenty of evidence that the Trump campaign had catastrophically bad judgment in choosing its most senior and junior advisers and that Russias spy network sought to exploit that weakness.

What seems certain, however, is that these are merely the first pieces in a sprawling jigsaw puzzle. Until Monday, no one outside the special counsels office even knew that Papadopoulos was a piece in that puzzle. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn is expected to come under Muellers scrutiny over his associations with Moscow.

Miller said: The biggest question in American politics is whether Flynn is cooperating with Bob Mueller or not. My guess is that hes either cooperating or trying to get a pardon from Trump which is a very dangerous thing.

Is the Russia investigation, probably the most important ever conducted by the justice department, closer to bringing down the Trump presidency than it was a week ago? Sipher noted that his demise has been widely predicted before yet somehow he manages to survive until the day he doesnt.

Its like hitting a boulder with a hammer 1,000 times and it doesnt break, he said. Then you hit it the 1,001st time and it smashes to pieces. Its hard to predict.

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