Trump in firing line as FBI takes first scalps

Rob America to pay Paul: Manafort stands accused of conspiring to defraud the USA. © Getty

Is Donald Trump’s number up? Yesterday, three important people were indicted in the FBI investigation into links between Russia and the Trump campaign. This is highly awkward for the White House…

America spent the weekend holding its breath. On Friday CNN had reported that the FBI’s Russia inquiry, led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, was ready to bring its first indictments. Cue a nationwide guessing game: who was about to go down?

The answer came yesterday: first, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Both were closely involved with President Trump’s campaign — Manafort chaired it until he was dropped in August 2016. Early yesterday morning, the pair turned themselves in to a federal court after being served with 12 criminal charges. They pleaded not guilty to all.

Second, former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. He admitted to making a false statement to FBI investigators when asked about his contacts with a foreigner claiming to have high-level Russian connections.

The charges against Manafort, the highest-profile of the three, do not relate to Trump’s campaign. They stem from old business dealings. The president picked up on this: “This is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” he tweeted.

A cloud of suspicion has hung over Manafort for years. Before joining Trump’s campaign, he worked as a lobbyist for Ukrainian politicians with ties to the Kremlin. Back in the USA he failed to declare this work, as the law required. Moreover, the money he made disappeared into a tangle of offshore accounts and dodgy property deals.

Now he stands accused of tax evasion, money laundering, fraud and more. Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, will likely pressure Manafort to reveal what he knows. The same goes for Gates and Papadopoulos.

Meanwhile, Trump and his allies have launched a counter-attack. The president drew attention to a report that Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid for a dossier which made salacious allegations against him. The dossier was based on Kremlin-linked sources. The conservative media backed Trump up: The Wall Street Journal argued that Clinton was the one guilty of “collusion”.

From Russia with love

“This is the beginning of the end for Trump,” say some. That is why he is lashing out. When some of Richard Nixon’s top aides were indicted in March 1974, the nation was shocked; months later, Nixon was gone. Similarly, the downfall of these individuals will hasten the end of Trump’s presidency. Welcome to Watergate II.

“Don’t get carried away,” reply others. Unlike Watergate, these indictments are mostly unrelated to the president. Though dramatic, they may not have much of an impact. This looks more like the Iran-Contra Affair, when the Reagan administration distracted the public from a geopolitical scandal by attacking the Democrats’ weaknesses.

You Decide

  1. Should Trump stay on as president?
  2. Do yesterday’s events make you think more or less of the US political system?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are Trump’s adviser. How should the president respond to these events? Compose a public statement for him to read.
  2. Answer the following question in 800 words, using CNN’s article in Become An Expert as a starting point: “Is this scandal more like Watergate or the Iran-Contra Affair?”

Some People Say...

“Man is by nature a political animal.”

Aristotle

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The FBI has been investigating Russia’s interference in last year’s election since July 2016, according to its former director James Comey. Trump fired Comey in May; since then, the inquiry has been led by Mueller, a former FBI boss himself. It is seeking to establish whether the Kremlin worked with the Trump campaign, and whether Trump’s dismissal of Comey (and other actions) amount to obstruction of justice.
What do we not know?
Where the inquiry will go from here. Mueller has set no end date, and these things can drag on for ages. The crimes that Trump’s team may have committed are hard to prove, and there is a good chance that this investigation will end inconclusively. Then again, testimony from Manafort and Gates could be a game-changer. Time will tell.

Word Watch

Chaired it
Notoriously, Manafort attended a meeting in June 2016 between Trump’s top aides and a Russian lawyer who promised damaging intelligence on Hillary Clinton, and who, Manafort and the others were told, was working for the Kremlin (though it is unclear whether that was true).
False statement
It emerged yesterday that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty weeks ago to lying to Mueller’s inquiry. As he was working for Trump’s campaign while in touch with Russia-linked people, many believe his guilt is even more important than Manafort’s and Gates’s.
Ukrainian politicians
Manafort was paid millions to do consultancy work for Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine. A Putin supporter, Yanukovych was deposed in a revolution in 2014.
Dossier
The document alleged that the Kremlin holds compromising information about Trump. Its claims have not been verified.
Iran-Contra Affair
In 1987, the White House was found to have secretly sold weapons to Iran and diverted some of the funds to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, thus violating a congressional law that banned aid to the rebels.

Subjects

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