President Donald Trump is right: Most of the accusations against Paul Manafort in the indictment that Special Counsel Robert Mueller brought Monday morning relate to activities from long before he became the Trump campaign manager in the spring of 2016. The word “Trump” doesn’t appear anywhere in the 31-page document, and the only Russian influence it mentions relates to politics in Ukraine, not the United States.
Still, the public won’t be so quick to dismiss this development as “fake news” and evidence of a Democratic witch hunt, as President Trump claimed repeatedly over the weekend and immediately after Manafort and his associate, Rick Gates, were taken into federal custody. Nor should they. This isn’t the sort of fishing-expedition indictment that has sometimes given independent investigations like Mueller’s a bad name.
It isn’t related to perjury or obstruction of justice but rather accusations of money laundering, tax evasion, fraud and foreign lobbying. The indictment is detailed — down to how much Mr. Manafort allegedly funneled from his offshore accounts to pay for men’s clothes in New York ($849,215) or antique rugs in Alexandria ($934,350, plus another $100,000 to a related company). And it suggests that its accusations are backed up by documents — financial records, emails and memos.
There’s rampant speculation that Mueller focused so intently on Manafort in hopes that a strong indictment against him would get him to turn on others in the Trump orbit and provide evidence of crimes related to the central mission of his office, which is to determine whether the Trump campaign engaged in illegal collusion with Russia to influence the presidential election.
Trump’s lawyer asserted last week that the president wasn’t worried about that possibility because there’s nothing for Manafort or anyone else to tell. Perhaps not, but Mueller’s mandate calls for him to investigate any potentially illegal activity he uncovers as a result of his probe, and that’s what he’s done. The investigation is only a few months old and is clearly not yet complete — Mueller reportedly has more interviews scheduled and is waiting for more documents from the White House.
But even if we suppose that this marks the most serious turn this investigation will ever take, that Manafort and Gates have no beans to spill, it still reflects poorly on President Trump. Manafort was brought on to the Trump campaign in the spring of 2016 when it appeared possible that the candidate could be headed for a contested convention. Manafort had extensive experience in that area...
The five months or so that he ran the Trump campaign are the crucial ones in the question of possible Russia collusion.
None of that makes Trump guilty of any crimes, of course. But it does, at the very least, show that the president gave little consideration to the background, baggage and possible motivations of those who surround him — a fact that has become clear again and again in the months since Manafort left the campaign. And Trump’s continued inability to see Mueller’s probe as anything but excuse-making by Democrats over Clinton’s loss shows just how wantonly blind he is to possible corruption in his midst.
This indictment offers no hint that Trump did anything wrong. But it is one piece in a mountain of evidence that he’s a terrible judge of character.