A wave of indictments in the federal investigation into the Trump campaign and its relationship with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election came pouring out this week — and the investigation shows no signs of letting up.
So far, special counsel Robert Mueller has charged 19 people and three companies in the wide-ranging investigation. A flurry of activity in the remarkably leak-proof operation began on Feb. 16, when his office charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies with conspiracy to interfere in the election. (A California man has also been charged with identity fraud, and a London based lawyer was charged with lying to the FBI in connection with that case.) And this week, Mueller also filed a series of new money laundering charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump campaign advisor Rick Gates.
The new indictments show two things: the inner workings of the Russian election interference and propaganda machine called “Project Lakhta,” launched in 2014 to deepen political divisions in the U.S. and promote distrust of Trump’s political opponents, and a wide-sprawling money laundering operation allegedly spearheaded by Manafort.
The charges do not currently include an explicit link between Russian interference in the election and the Trump campaign, though the conspiracy nature of the recent charges suggests there is more to come. And though the language in the Russian interference indictment says Trump campaign aides "unwittingly" communicated with the Russian nationals, it's clear Mueller and his team are zeroing in on the Trump administration.
So far, three people close to Trump — Gates, former National Security advisor Michael Flynn, and former campaign advisor George Papadopoulos — have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Flynn and Papadopoulos lied about their interactions with Russians, and Gates lied about a 2013 meeting Manafort had with a member of Congress about Ukraine. The California man, Richard Pinedo, who allegedly sold bank accounts created with fake identities as part of Russia’s election interference scheme, and the London lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, have also pleaded guilty.
This leaves one Trump advisor holding out: Paul Manafort. And the pressure is clearly on.
On Thursday, the special counsel filed new bank and tax fraud charges against Manafort and Gates, detailing a decade long money laundering scheme. The next day, Gates pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and Mueller filed a new indictment against Manafort alone with charges of money laundering and false statement. The new indictment also alleges that Manafort used “at least four offshore accounts to wire more than 2 million euros to pay the group of former politicians,” known as the “Hapsburg group,” to take pro-Russia positions and lobby U.S. officials while appearing to be independent.
The plea deals for Gates and van der Zwaan signal that Mueller is closing in on Manafort; all three worked together on Ukrainian political lobbying in 2011, and Gates and van der Zwaan may be able to provide evidence about the new charges against Manafort. During an interview with the FBI in November 2017, van der Zwaan also lied to officials about the timing of his last communication with Gates, which was as recently as September 2016 — around the same time that Manafort left the Trump campaign under a cloud of negative press concerning his lobbying ties to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
After Gates pleaded guilty Friday, Manafort released a statement through his lawyer reaffirming his innocence.
“I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence,” the statement said. “For reasons yet to surface he chose to do otherwise. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me.”
President Trump continues to deny any involvement in the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, and recently blamed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not investigating the Obama administration, saying they allowed the Russian meddling to happen on their watch.
(Sessions recused himself from the federal investigation nearly a year ago because of his close connection to the Trump campaign.)
The Kremlin said Tuesday that the Russian state had no involvement in the U.S. election interference, though the indictment alleges Russia’s propaganda arm was intimately involved.
Not all the investigations are proceeding as smoothly however. In the Congressional investigation into Russian meddling, Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee recently fueded themselves into a bit of an impasse. Earlier this month the White House blocked Democrats from releasing their memo rebutting the claims made against the FBI and Justice Department in an earlier-released Republican memo meant to discredit the agencies investigating the Trump campaign. On Tuesday the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee California Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff said he was negotiating with the FBI over redactions in the memo and hoped to get it out to the public soon.
The Daily Beast reported that Republicans on the committee led by California’s Devin Nunes refused a request from the Democrats to subpoena Twitter for direct messages of Trump associates, including Donald Trump Jr. and Roger Stone, a Trump ally and longtime partner of Manafort, indicating they intend to avoid investigating any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian interference.