Could this be Donald Trump’s White House Watergate Tapes moment? The question hangs in the air, thick with the smell of cordite.
News that Paul Manafort, a former close confidante of Trump’s, who served three months as his campaign manager, has been charged with conspiracy and money-laundering by the FBI in connection with the official enquiry into Russian involvement in last year’s presidential election, was not unexpected, but still a shock. It also emerged that another former adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign admitted to lying about his links to Russia. George Papadopolous pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. A mysterious British academic is alleged to have informed him that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
But Manafort is the ultimate Republican insider. His links to the core workings of the GOP go back to the Ford Administration that was left to pick up the pieces following the resignation of Richard Nixon. At that time, and for decades after, the Watergate scandal was seen as the worst, other than assassination, that could conceivably happen to a sitting President. But now, with Manafort as the connection between that era and the Trump administration, the talk in the Beltway is of a new order of scandal linking the Administration, and possibly the President himself, to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
Nothing could be more un-American in Washington than secret dealings with a hostile foreign power, especially Russia. If the case against Manafort, and his business partner Rick Gates, should end up implicating Trump’s son, Donald Junior, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a top white House advisor, the President’s position could be weakened beyond repair.
Manafort and Gates were indicted yesterday on charges that they conspired to launder large sums of cash on behalf of the pro-Russian former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, currently in exile in Moscow after being indicted on charges of high treason. They deny all wrongdoing.
What Manafort tells the Feds as he answer the charges against him could decide the fate of the Trump presidency.
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The ongoing investigation is complex and multi-layered. What is beyond dispute is that Manafort, along with Trump Jr and Kushner, met last year with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a prominent Moscow lawyer known to be close to Putin, to hear what she assured them were damaging revelations about Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival for the presidency. What actually transpired remains unclear, but the fact that three of Trump’s closest advisors were at the meeting at all – which took place in Trump Tower – remains to many damning evidence of collusion.
Trump has always denied the suggestion that he was in any way a dupe of the Russian government. The idea, he says, is “fake news”. He has given his son and Kushner his full backing, though, as New Yorkers might put it, Manafort not so much. He will no doubt point to the fact that when allegations emerged during the campaign to the effect that his campaign manager had ties to Russian separatists in Ukraine, the result was that Manafort was immediately obliged to resign.
But though Trump dumped Manafort, he will not be able to make him go away. Former FBI director Robert Mueller, who ran the bureau from 2001 to 2013, is special counsel and Trump sacked FBI director James Comey for opening the original investigation into Russian meddling. Mueller is a man on a mission, and despite rumours to the contrary virtually unsackable. Indeed, if he were to be dismissed, the inescapable conclusion would be that Trump was ready to close the inquiry down, whatever the cost, in a bid to protect himself and his family from harm.
As it is, the President tweeted forlornly:
“All of this “Russia” talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT!”
He later added:
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”
And moments later:
“….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
Well, if it’s in capital letters, it must be true.
As luck, ill or otherwise, would have it, Trump is about to leave the U.S. for a high-profile tour of five Asian countries, including China and Japan. But as he heads out in Air Force One on Friday, the journalist section of the plane will be packed with reporters keen to ask about Manafort and the Russian Connection. Should the case bust open even wider while he is on the other side of the Pacific trying to discuss trade and security, his news conferences can be expected to take on the quality of a travelling circus.
The background is already laid out for all to see. U.S. intelligence agencies, backed by a Congressional committee, have concluded that the Kremlin interfered in last year’s election on behalf of Trump. Unsurprisingly, the President rejects this finding, labelling the investigation a “witch hunt”. But, at the very least, he is already in the position of having hired as his election agent a man who had lobbied for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine, was present at the meeting with Veselnitskaya, and who has now been forced to surrender to the FBI to face charges linked to the Moscow probe.
Beyond this, the President’s original choice as National Security advisor, General Michael Flynn, was forced to resign almost before he got his feet under the desk, when it was disclosed that he had lied about secret meetings with the former Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Trump himself subsequently met with Kislyak and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in the Oval Office, with a photographer from Tass, as the only witness.
Should Manafort be revealed to have been in the employ of Russian interests while he was campaign manager, the crisis could quickly escalate to the point where Watergate would look to have been less a crime than a misdemeanour.
The case goes to the very heart of government. How it all began and how exactly the Kremlin expected to benefit is a story for another day. Surely, if Putin wanted Trump elected as a potential friend and ally, he would have demanded a script out of House of Cards, not Veep, the Armando Iannucci sitcom with its roots in The Thick of It? Is it possible that the Russian leader simply wanted to show that America, like Britain, was no longer a serious country, just a farce?