While you were getting ready to pass out candy to all those little princesses and superheroes, Special Counsel Robert Mueller had a trick-or-treat of his own, handing down three indictments just before Halloween in the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The first to fall were Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, and Manafort’s business associate, Richard Gates, who later became Trump’s liaison with the Republican National Committee.
Manafort and Gates were indicted on 12 counts related to accusations that they received tens of millions of dollars from the Ukraine, then laundered it through offshore accounts, while failing to register with the US government as lobbyists for a foreign power. When the Justice Department inquired about their work, they lied about it.
In 2006, Manafort and Gates hired Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Deripaska later accused Manafort and Gates of making off with $19 million. In July 2016, shortly before Trump became the Republican nominee, Manafort emailed Deripaska with an offer to provide “private briefings” on the state of the US presidential election.
Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty and were placed under house arrest. Manafort has offered $12 million in property as bail, but Mueller’s team is arguing that he’s a flight risk with extensive ties outside the country. A trial date has been set for May 2018.
The third indictment fell to a man nobody knew was cooperating with Mueller: George Papadopoulos, Trump’s foreign policy adviser who was arrested last July. He pleaded guilty and agreed to turn state’s evidence.
In August 2016, a few weeks after Trump had accepted the nomination and Manafort had allegedly offered to brief Russian officials, Papadopoulos now admits that he arranged meetings between campaign staffers and Vladimir Putin, at the urging of Trump’s campaign co-chair, Sam Clovis, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and....? You guessed it! Paul Manafort.
(Clovis was appointed White House adviser to the Department of Agriculture and nominated to become its chief scientist, but he stepped down in the wake of Papadopoulos’ plea. Also, he wasn’t a scientist, not that that’s exactly a job disqualification under President Orange Blunder.)
Papadopoulos emailed Lewandowski “to discuss Russia’s interest in hosting Mr. Trump. Have been receiving a lot of calls over the last month about Putin wanting to host him and the team when the time is right.”
Lewandowsky forwarded the email to Manafort who forwarded it to Gates: “We need someone to communicate that [Trump] is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
In April 2016, Papadopoulos met in Italy with British professor Joseph Mifsud, who claimed that Russia had compromising information about Hillary Clinton, including thousands of her emails. Mifsud denies this meeting or that he has any contacts within the Russian government.
Papadopoulos also says he met in Moscow with a woman he believed was Putin’s niece and a man he believed was with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The woman, who turned out not be related to Putin, emailed Papadopoulos after the meeting: “We are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump. The Russian Federation would love to welcome him once his candidature would be officially announced.”
Papadopoulos forwarded this to Clovis who replied that he would “work it through the campaign...I would encourage you to make the trip, if it is feasible.”
Just after Halloween, the congressional committees investigating Russian election tampering summoned representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. The committees concluded that the Kremlin spent hundreds of millions of rubles disseminating propaganda on social media. Our very own Senator Al Franken asked Facebook how that kind of volume of political ads purchased in Russian currency didn’t raise any red flags. “How could you not connect those two dots?”
Among the ads Facebook released were those pushing the conspiracy theory that “Killary” Clinton allowed US servicemen to be killed in Benghazi; one claiming to be Border Patrol accusing Clinton of allowing rapists into the country from Mexico; and a peculiar “Coloring Book for Berniacs” that reimagines the Vermont senator as a buff gay man. A kitschy Jesus figures prominently in many of the ads, shown boxing with Clinton in devil horns, or arm wrestling the devil for the fate of the country.
These images went viral on Facebook, shared by Americans who had no idea it was Russian propaganda. “Part of what made the Russia social media campaign successful,” said California Representative Adam Schiff, “is that they understood algorithms you use that tend to accentuate content that is either fear-based or anger-based.”
What’s next in the Russia probe? No one knows for sure, as Mueller plays his cards close to his vest, such as keeping the investigation and arrest of George Papadopoulos away from the press for nearly a year.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn is widely expected to be next. Flynn was fired after just 24 days for lying to the vice president about his dealings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn has also been accused of laundering money and attempting to orchestrate the ouster of the Turkish president.
The noose also seems to be tightening around foreign policy adviser Carter Page, who took two trips to Moscow in 2016. Page was part of a 2013 FBI investigation of suspected Russian spies. Like Manafort, he also failed to register as a lobbyist for a foreign power.
Things don’t look very good for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross either. According to a trove of leaked tax documents referred to as the “Paradise Papers,” Ross invested in a Russian gas company owned by Putin’s son-in-law and did not fully disclose his Russian holdings during his confirmation hearings.
Speaking of sons-in-law, Ivanka’s hubby, Jared Kushner, is probably feeling the heat right about now. The Paradise Papers point to Kushner as the link between Russian officials and American social media. Kushner met at least three times with Russian officials, once at Trump Tower with Trump’s eldest son and Paul Manafort, to obtain damaging information about Clinton, and twice after the election with Kislyak to discuss setting a secret channel of communication between the administration and Moscow.