In case you ever doubted, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates entered pleas of “not guilty” to money laundering and the entire laundry list of a dozen charges that special counsel Robert Mueller hit them with. They have the money for very good lawyers, who seem ready to rumble. Manafort’s attorney told reporters that the money laundering charge was “ridiculous,” and Gates’ spokesman declared that they welcome the opportunity to confront these charges in court and that “the fight is just beginning.” So if Mueller’s plan was to scare them into cooperating, it doesn’t seem to have worked, at least not judging by their public responses.
The charges, which include the ominous charge of “conspiracy against the United States,” seem designed for maximum headline impact, but require a lot of explanation for a legal layman to grasp. Here is one article explaining that biggie.
On the other hand, former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy thinks Manafort and Gates’ attorneys might think they have a strong case that this is selective prosecution and overcharging, as explained in this National Review article. There’s a saying that you can indict a ham sandwich, the idea being that grand juries hear only the prosecutor’s testimony, not the defense. This might be more of a ham salad indictment, the kind where you toss in everything and throw it at the wall to see if anything sticks.
McCarthy notes that there are felony charges in this case for things that are normally misdemeanors or beyond the statute of limitations or that usually aren’t even prosecuted at all (a lobbyist failing to register as a foreign agent is generally simply told to register, not indicted for a felony). McCarthy thinks they may argue that it’s a politically-motivated prosecution that never would have been brought if Manafort hadn’t spent a brief period working for Donald Trump’s campaign. Judging from prior experience, I think it’s safe to say that if he’d worked for Hillary, he would have been exonerated months before he was even investigated.
Other developments since yesterday included reports that one-time Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to one count of lying to an investigator back in January, had been cooperating with the probe, which led to speculation that he might have worn a wire to try to get higher Trump campaign associates to say incriminating things that were secretly recorded. But that's not confirmed, it could also taint any evidence, and along with claims that the Obama Administration relied on the scurrilous “Russian dossier” to wiretap Trump associates, it could bolster the argument that the government abused its surveillance powers for partisan purposes.
The problem with special counsels is that like using vicious dogs to attack your enemies, if you can’t control them, they can turn on you. The other big story from Monday was that Tony Podesta, major Democratic player and brother of Hillary’s campaign chairman John Podesta, has stepped down from his powerful lobbying firm, the Podesta Group, which is now embroiled in the story of who really paid for that “Russian dossier” on Trump.
This could be part of what Andrew McCarthy was talking about when he mentioned that Manafort and Gates are being charged for things that many DC lobbying firms do that, while they may appear unethical, aren’t usually treated as illegal – until now. Some analysts pointed out something interesting: in their zeal to “get” Trump, Democrats and anti-Trumpers who pushed the “Russian collusion” narrative and demanded a special counsel still haven’t found any proof of Trump colluding with Russia, but they might have set off an uncontrolled panic wave among Washington lobbying firms that could scare them into cleaning up their shady practices and dumping their most notorious practitioners.
So ironically, and unintentionally, Trump’s enemies might actually be helping him “drain the Washington swamp.”