The first True Bill in the big collusion extravaganza has finally been handed down. Early Monday morning, in a showbiz fail, Paul Manafort, former chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign, made a strangely unattended perp-walk with his lawyer into the FBI’s Washington D.C. field office. Manafort, who was clearly the first chair in a sloppy money-laundering symphony, was joined in the indictment by Rick Gates, a former deputy campaign chair, accomplished Moscow-mingler, and convention delegate-wrangler.
In this column’s opinion the charges we have all been waiting for are remarkably uninteresting, uninspiring, and weak for the purpose of climbing the collusion ladder. The indictment itself is heavy on evidence of laundering and tax fraud, solid on evidence of failing to register as a foreign agent, and laughable on any evidence at all of collusion with Russians to influence the election.
Anyone hoping for slam-dunk evidence of collusion with the Rooskies is certainly disappointed by the text of the indictment, and if Mueller is hanging the success of his case on flipping Manafort he’s chosen a particularly flimsy spatula for the job.
Manafort has likely known he was headed to prison for months—his whole scheme as described in the indictment is amateurish, not up to the laundering expertise of even mid-level narcotics traffickers—and so one wonders what he has to gain by cooperation—a tact which presupposes he knows anything at all about collusion. I’ll hazard a guess: not much, even with the exposure for his alleged crimes as serious as it is.
Strangely enough, Gates appears to be the far more interesting piece in this opening gambit, and one wonders what tales he might tell about his Moscow dalliances. There might be a songbird in Gates’ coat-pocket, and time will tell us how loud it sings.
The heart of former Director Mueller’s effort against Manafort is summarized nicely on page 2 of the indictment: “In furtherance of the (laundering) scheme, MANAFORT used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income. MANAFORT, without reporting the income to his tax preparer or the United States, spent millions of dollars on luxury goods and services for himself and his extended family through payments wired from offshore nominee accounts to United States vendors. MANAFORT also used these offshore accounts to purchase multi million dollar properties in the United States. MANAFORT then borrowed millions of dollars in loans using these properties as collateral, thereby obtaining cash in the United States without reporting and paying taxes on the income.”
There is solid information about Manafort and Gates acting as unregistered agents of the Ukranian government—unsurprising–but precious little in the way of concrete allegations of direct, or even indirect, collusion with Russians. True believers in the collusion angle will use every ounce of circumstantial evidence to cry foul, but what’s in the indictment doesn’t boost their case. Which isn’t to say it didn’t happen, or that Manafort and Gates won’t ultimately spill some goods, only that the crimes they are formally accused of are essentially tax fraud and money laundering charges—comparatively lightweight stuff–and if the government is pinning its hopes on leveraging these two mopes to find hard evidence of Russians in the White House pantry it doesn’t look promising.
If I were Manafort, or Gates, or their respective attorneys, I would negotiate with the government—but really only about what color of jumpsuit I get to wear in Martha Stewart Federal Penitentiary.
How much money are we talking about here? According to the indictment, a cool $75 million flowed through banks in such garden spots as Cyprus and the Grenadines, which Manafort must have thought was safe enough from the prying eyes of FinCen, which is why he violated the FBAR (foreign bank account reporting) requirements so boldly.
FinCen—The Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network–is an authority you should probably know about. FinCen is essentially the assassin squad of financial crimes enforcement, used often in major dope cases to conduct clandestine audits—which is generally the best, and sometimes the only–way to prove that someone’s lifestyle doesn’t match their declared means, particularly when that investigation must remain invisible. If you are structuring deposits, stuffing cash into hidey-holes, or buying a fleet of helicopters with sleeze money, FinCen can figure out how you are doing it.
One wonders, by the way, where Manafort might have learned to execute such handsome real estate schemes. It’s almost as if he knows people who are big in real estate.
But that is a far cry from collusion with foreign agents to sway an election. In the comfort of our modest homes we might all form circumstantial conclusions about what, if any, influence the Russians had, directly or indirectly on the Trump campaign, and what Trump knew or didn’t know about Manafort’s financial highwire act, but that isn’t the same thing as hard evidence of what—committed knowingly and with intent–amounts to treason. And hard evidence is still the best evidence in our courts of law.
Thus far, after months of backfiring and scorched earth scrambling, we aren’t seeing much beyond the suggestion of Russians in the smoke—though the true tale behind the Steele Dossier and its employment by the RNC, the DNC, and Comey’s FBI is yet to be unraveled.
This column believes that if there is an intelligence effort led by Russians to influence our election, it’s to be found in the sordid tale of that document and how it was ultimately used by extremely powerful people–across the full spectrum of the American government. If the Steele Dossier was essentially created by Russian agents, which is the allegation, then THAT is the real story, and it’s much, much bigger than any single political party, or Paul Manafort buying a condo in SoHo with slush money.
Wherever this ends up going, and whoever ends up going to prison, rest assured that Putin has his feet up on the furniture of his billion dollar Sochi compound, and is grinning from ear to ear because he’s already won—by deeply undermining our remaining faith in American institutions.
More true bills are coming. Mueller has hit a long single into the gap with Manafort and Gates, but if the effort here is to find hard, prosecutable evidence of Russian collusion to influence an American election—potentially treasonous acts by anyone who committed them–it’s time to start swinging for the fences.
Et tu, General Flynn?