President Donald Trump would like Americans to believe the indictment of former campaign manager Paul Manafort is no big deal.
“Today’s announcement has nothing to do with the president and nothing to do with the president’s campaign,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.
That prompted guffaws, obviously, across social media — plus a quick demand by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, for Sanders to resign for the “outright lies” she has told.
Manafort was indicted, along with an associate, on tax fraud, money laundering and other federal charges tied to millions of dollars in secret payments from pro-Russian forces within Ukraine dating to 2006.
It’s true that Monday’s charges don’t prove the more serious questions at the heart of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. They don’t prove that Trump or his team colluded with Russia to win last year’s election. And they don’t prove that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because he refused to stop investigating the possibility of collusion.
But nothing to do with Trump? Sanders can’t be serious.
Besides, it’s early yet. Later that day, word came that another campaign figure, senior foreign affairs adviser George Papadopoulos, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI when it asked him in January about his contacts with Russian intermediaries. He told the FBI he had known those Russian contacts before he ever came aboard the campaign. But that was a lie.
Trump immediately insisted that the alleged crimes by his former campaign manager took place “years ago and before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.” But not according to the indictment. Right there on the first page, it alleges that Manafort’s vast money-laundering scheme stretched from “at least 2006 through 2016.”
He is also accused of lying to the FBI about his work for Ukraine last fall and again earlier this year.
That’s not “years ago.” That’s practically yesterday.
It’s common for prosecutors to use tax fraud charges, and perjury too, to squeeze a defendant against whom they can’t prove an underlying cases. Call it the Al Capone strategy.
But what’s so important about the tax charges against Manafort is why he was hiding all that income. And where all the income was coming from.
Before he ran Trump’s campaign, he and his companies spent years boosting pro-Russian forces within Ukraine. When one of his clients was elected president there, the indictment alleges, he began hiring lobbyists back in the U.S. to advance Ukraine’s interests before Congress.
That wouldn’t have been illegal. Maybe awkward to explain in a U.S. presidential campaign, but not illegal. But before you can lobby the U.S. government on behalf of a foreign power, our laws require you to come clean about the relationship, how much you’re being paid and for what.
The indictment alleges that he failed to register, instead conducting all that business through a worldwide maze of partnerships, accounts and banks.
Will this be the first of many indictments? It’s too soon to say. But it casts Trump, who claims to be such a smart people picker, in extraordinarily poor light.
-- The Dallas Morning News