By Horus Alas
As far back as the summer of 2016, when U.S. intelligence agencies first warned of potential Russian interference in that year’s presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump and his campaign repeatedly denied or downplayed the electoral threat posed by Russia.
In a December 2016 interview with Time magazine, Trump remarked on the allegations of Russian meddling, “I don’t believe they interfered. That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point. Anytime I do something, they say ‘Oh, Russia interfered.’”
“Why not get along with Russia? And they can help us fight ISIS, which is both costly in lives and costly in money. And they’re effective and smart.”
The subtext is key here. Rather than seriously acknowledge that Russia may have interfered, Trump discusses how “effective and smart” the Russians are, and pines for a cozier relationship with them in the hopes of jointly defeating the Islamic State.
The Republican party changed its campaign platform in 2016 to lessen support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. And as we’ve been discovering these past few months, the Trump campaign’s then-chairman Paul Manafort spent over a decade in Ukraine consulting for Russian-aligned politicians.
The interference denials from Trump and his cabinet members continued throughout the first year of his presidency.
“This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won,” Trump said at the time.
The same line of defense, that Russian interference was a “hoax” or “fake news,” continued to be a marginally tenuous claim until Feb. 16, when it was revealed Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for conspiring to aid the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.
President Trump was quick to issue a retort via Twitter. “I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said, ‘it may be Russia or China … ’ The Russian ‘hoax’ was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia—it never did!” he wrote Feb. 18 at 4:30 am.
After the special counsel’s findings proved the “Russia did not interfere” defense wrong, Trump pivoted to arguing the Russians interfered, but the Trump campaign didn’t coordinate with them.
That might provide a slightly plausible explanation if it weren’t already common knowledge that Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-chairman Manafort participated in a meeting at Trump Tower with Russian operatives in June 2016 in which they were promised damaging intel on their rival, Hillary Clinton.
But Vox’s Andrew Prokov writes, “[it’s] not entirely clear whether, if there was more substantial collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russians, it would even be illegal … the Mueller probe will, in the end, be more concerned with other, easier-to-prove crimes, like perjury, making false statements, or obstruction of justice.”
Mueller’s indictment of Russian agents aiming to tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor isn’t the only consequential new development in the probe.
Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates, who served as deputy chairman of the Trump campaign, were indicted on money-laundering and tax evasion charges in October 2017 as part of the special counsel’s investigation. Both men pleaded not guilty at the time.
On Feb. 22, Mueller unsealed an additional 32-count indictment against Manafort and Gates, alleging fraudulent loans and further tax evasion. Within 24 hours, Gates changed his plea to guilty and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
Gates’ guilty plea adds significant momentum to the investigation.
“Gates was privy to a big chunk of Manafort’s financial transactions that are being questioned by prosecutors, and his willingness to aid their cause makes it much, much more possible that they’ll be able to convict Manafort,” The Washington Post’s Philip Bump writes.
Manafort is a keystone figure in the probe. As campaign chairman, he would have extensive knowledge of the Trump campaign’s operations and intelligence, including whether the campaign knowingly received valuable information from foreign agents, and whether Trump was aware of it.
Gates’s cooperation puts pressure on Manafort, who is just a step removed from the president’s innermost circle, including Trump Jr., Kushner and Trump himself.
Trump and his supporters have spent over a year alleging that Russian interference in the election was a hoax, that his campaign didn’t receive anything of value from foreign agents and that the president was unaware of contacts between his staff and Russian operatives.
One has to wonder about the information Manafort seems so adamant on protecting as the political firestorm intensifies around him.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gage Skidmore’s Flickr account.
Horus Alas is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.