EDITORIAL: First dominoes fall in Russian hacking scandal
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Bob Mueller is just getting started and he wants everybody to know it, especially if they’ve got something to hide.
Mueller is not going away, as best as we can tell, though President Donald Trump wishes he would. He’s not about to “wrap things up,” though Trump’s Capitol Hill and Fox News apologists are calling on him to do so.
He’s on the hunt.
And he will need — and deserve — the public’s steady support.
As much as Trump insists there is nothing to suspicions that his campaign team colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, Special Counsel Mueller made clear on Monday that he’s far from ready to agree.
First thing on Monday morning, Mueller’s office announced that a federal grand jury had indicted Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, on charges that he funneled millions of dollars through overseas shell companies to hide his earnings. The grand jury also indicted a longtime Manafort sidekick, Rick Gates.
Then, hours later, Mueller’s office announced that a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contact with a Russian professor with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Manafort’s indictment was expected and, for now, tells us nothing more about the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. He was charged with money-laundering crimes involving Ukraine and Russia that allegedly began years before Trump began running for president.
But by announcing Papadopoulos’ guilty plea on the same day, Mueller appeared to be sending a blunt message to Manafort and others: Suspects are beginning to cooperate. They are “flipping” on other targets. Further indictments are coming. Cooperate now and cut your losses.
Trump’s predictable response was to knock out a couple of tweets that denied and diverted. There was “NO COLLUSION!” he wrote, and the real focus should be on “Crooked Hillary.” But court documents reveal that Papadopoulos worked with the Russians behind the scenes all through summer 2016.
Though Papadopoulos later lied about it to the FBI — hence the guilty plea — he spent that summer communicating with a Russian professor who claimed to have dirt on Clinton — “thousands of emails.” He tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin.
What matters most here is that Papadopoulos hardly appears to have been an outlier within the Trump campaign. Though Trump has repeatedly insisted that nobody on his team secretly met with Russians about anything, investigative reporters — and now Mueller’s office — have discovered one undisclosed meeting after another.
Gen. Michael Flynn, who briefly was Trump’s national security adviser, was caught lying about contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. Carter Page, a campaign adviser on national security, was named in a secret and unverified dossier as having met with senior Russian officials.
Most troubling of all, Donald Trump Jr. and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with Russians at Trump Tower in New York in June 2016, almost certainly to discuss supposedly damaging information about Clinton.
About this there is no doubt: Russian hackers, supported by the Kremlin, tried to nudge the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in favor of Trump. That is the firm conclusion of every U.S. intelligence agency, including the CIA and the FBI.
The only question is whether the Trump campaign, including the candidate himself, was complicit in the effort.
The noose will tighten, maybe. Manafort, facing years in prison, could sing. So might Gates.
Or, ultimately, Mueller will find there was no collusion at all, just stupidity and bad judgment. How, for one, could Trump even hire to run his campaign a murky character like Manafort, whose ethically challenged work for Russian oligarchs was well known?
The lesson of Monday’s indictments and guilty plea is that more is likely to come, and Mueller needs the public’s support and patience.
He kicked over the first domino. Now let’s see how they fall.
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