What’s next after Mueller’s first arrests?

This article is the English-translation of Kseniya Kirillova’s article which first appeared on Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL) on 1 November 2017.

On Monday, former adviser to the US President Donald Trump Paul Manafort and his partner Rick Gates were indicted on 12 counts. Among them, according to the indictment, is the conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, acting as a foreign agent without the necessary registration, as well as failing to report foreign bank accounts.

According to the document, Manafort and Gates received “tens of millions of dollars” for their work in Ukraine. From 2006 to “at least” 2016 they acted as the “agents of the Government of Ukraine, the Party of Regions, Yanukovych and the Opposition Bloc” without the necessary registration. Money was laundered through “dozens of American and foreign legal entities” registered in Cyprus, the Seychelles, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to conceal payments from the US authorities. Trump’s ex-adviser did not pay taxes on that income. According to the Newsweek, Lucicle Consultants, a Cyprus-based company, transferred up to $ 2.5 million to Manafort’s personal accounts. In total, over $75 million passed through the offshore accounts owned by Manafort and Gates.

Charges against Manafort and Gates were brought by the former FBI director Robert Mueller, who was appointed in May to lead the investigation into Donald Trump’s and his team’s ties to Russia, as well as the Moscow’s interference in the 2016 elections.

In the meantime, Trump’s foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, confessed to giving false testimony about his contacts with the Russians. The Voice of America reported that Papadopoulos, according to his testimony in the course of the criminal investigation, said during the interrogation with the FBI on January 27 that he was in contact with a foreign professor who had “somewhat close ties” to a Russian official. Papadopoulos said that it happened before he joined Trump’s campaign, and that he had only casual contacts with “a certain Russian citizen”. The prosecutor’s office called both of these statements false.

At the same time, Donald Trump posted numerous tweets denouncing the ongoing investigation. In particular, he continues to accuse “democrats and Clinton” in having ties to Russia and calls on his supporters to “do something”. White House special adviser, Ty Cobb, in turn, said that “the president’s comments are not related to the activities of the special prosecutor with whom he continues to cooperate.”

A former senior CIA official with nearly 30 years of experience in intelligence, John Sipher is certain that, judging by the available information, Mueller’s team has much more information than is known to the press at the moment.

“Papadopoulos’ arrest indicates that people who were involved in Donald Trump’s election campaign were aware that Russia was offering compromising information on Hillary Clinton long before the famous June 2016 meeting. I don’t think that Papadopoulos is the key figure in a possible collusion between Trump’s team and Russia, but he was clearly being pursued for recruitment by the Russian intelligence services. Almost everything that we know from the FBI’s information reads like a classic recruitment effort. Real diplomats do not act like those who were in touch with Mr. Papadopoulos,” said a veteran intelligence officer.

“Personally, I suspect that the Russians were probably looking at him for the long term. They would look to recruit him as a longer-term penetration of the Trump administration or within the Republican Party. It seems to me that the indictment against Manafort also suggests that Mueller’s team may have additional information. In any case, we would not expect to see espionage charges at this time in any event. Nonetheless, the charges outlined for Manafort would be those we would expect even if the Mueller’s team suspected him of “collusion.” If we consider that this person is very close to the President, then the fact that he was charged probably means that the situation is more serious than what we saw in the indictment itself,” suggests John Sipher.

The Canadian analyst, defense consultant and editor of the Defence Report website Stewart Webb agrees with this point of view.

“Never before have people so close to the presidency ever been indicted so quickly. Thus, the special prosecutor Mueller has sent a signal to those who also may have been involved that the investigation means business. Probably the most unpleasant fact for the Trump administration and Manafort was the guilty plea by Trump’s campaign foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos. In fact, theories in the media are already insinuating that Papadopoulos may have been an informant for the FBI,” speculates Webb.

At the same time, the analyst assumes that had the President Trump not fired the director of the FBI James Comey in May of this year, he could have prevented some damage to his administration, and the investigation might not have needed to take such a shocking initial move.

“It would be a gradual, quiet investigation. Let’s not forget that Manafort’s home was raided was in August in a pre-dawn raid, which in itself seemed quite unusual. Mueller has made a solid case in order to proceed. Whether the investigation comes to anything or if President Trump is impeached or not, the longstanding impact from this investigation is that the Silicon Valley will have a permanent presence on Capitol Hill, regardless if this means increased regulations or lobbying. By disclosing the mechanism through which Russian fake news influenced American social networks, the investigation opened Pandora’s Box, which now requires taking some measures,” concludes the Canadian expert.

Supervising Special Agent retired after a 27-year career in the FBI Andrew Bringuel is not in a hurry to make any forecasts, but notes that the allegations have shown the objectivity of the FBI (most of whose staff, according to the published statistics, is Republican).

“The Bureau proved it’s an agency not motivated by politics, but guided by the importance of law to a civilized society. If there is evidence of criminal activity you’d better watch out regardless of party affiliation,” he notes.

Glenn Carle, who served in the CIA for 23 years as a deputy officer in charge of transnational threats, is convinced that the erosion of American democracy, engendered by the Russian intelligence and Donald Trump’s campaign and the first year of his presidency, is the greatest threat to the United States since 1861.

“At last, the American system of laws, and American democracy, has taken a step toward dealing with the unprecedented hostile actions by Russian intelligence against the United States. However, Trump, his entourage, and their Russian allies and masters are already trying to alter public perceptions in accordance with the old Russian methods of disinformation, “fake news” and distortions of reality. This is not the first time I pointed this out: Donald Trump’s vulnerability and susceptibility to exploitation by Russian intelligence are shockingly apparent and irresistible to any competent intelligence service; and Russia’s actions to undermine and erode American democracy, harm American international interests and policies are glaringly obvious,” firmly believes this intelligence veteran.

Glenn Karl also notes that, in his opinion, Paul Manafort’s many years of money laundering in Ukraine would have been impossible without the help of Russian oligarchs, special services and personal permission from Vladimir Putin.

“And yet, the guilty plea of the hitherto obscure George Papadopoulus, for having acted as an intermediary in this scheme, became a solid evidence of the connection between Russian intelligence and Donald Trump’s team.  It was also an evidence of subversive actions undertaken by Russia against American democracy, which were expressed both in the affecting the electoral process, and twisting average Americans’ perceptions. In the intelligence world, in the legal world, in international politics, those actions are called:  treason, hostile intelligence actions, arguably, even, a casus belli,” he concludes.

A well-known American commentator, writer, former diplomat and intelligence analyst James Bruno, in turn, fears the Kremlin’s reaction to recent arrests in Washington.

“Commenting these arrests, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov again dismissed the notion that Moscow had interfered in the U.S. presidential election, denouncing what he called ‘baseless, unproven accusations against our country.’

I wonder what the true mood is in the Kremlin as Mr. Mueller and his team uncover more incriminating information about Russian interference and possible collusion with Republican party operatives. As more evidence surfaces of blatant Russian interference, how will Putin react, especially in the event that Congress approved more sanctions in retaliation? It’s important to watch this closely. Being a risk-taker, the Russian president may end up taking bold actions in response to further U.S. sanctions. Washington must prepare itself and plan for this eventuality,” the expert warns.

 

Feature Photo: “Manafort Scrabble”  –  Marco Verch, Flickr, , 2017

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.

Kseniya Kirillova is a Russian journalist that focuses on analyzing Russian society, political processes in modern Russia and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. She writes for Radio Liberty and other outlets and is an expert of the Ukrainian Center for Army, conversion, and disarmament studies and the Free Russia foundation.

About the Author

Kseniya Kirillova

Kseniya Kirillova is a Russian journalist that focuses on analyzing Russian society, political processes in modern Russia and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. She writes for Radio Liberty and other outlets and is an expert of the Ukrainian Center for Army, conversion, and disarmament studies and the Free Russia foundation.