Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on stage with Rick Gates, center, and Ivanka Trump in July 21, 2016, during a walk-through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. At back right is then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was indicted with Gates last week. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Evan Vucci AP
Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on stage with Rick Gates, center, and Ivanka Trump in July 21, 2016, during a walk-through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. At back right is then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was indicted with Gates last week. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Evan Vucci AP

Opinion

The real question behind the Mueller indictments is unprecedented in U.S. history

By Erwin Chemerinsky

Special to McClatchy

November 07, 2017 01:59 PM

UPDATED November 08, 2017 10:01 AM

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates and the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos are far more important than the usual campaign transgressions. These, of course, are not the first high-level officials from a presidential campaign to be indicted. But never in recent memory have the crimes been so serious or raised such profound questions about the integrity of a presidential election.

All three of these individuals held top positions in Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House. Manafort, for a time, was Trump’s campaign manager and Gates was Manafort’s “right hand man” and a deputy campaign manager. Papadopoulos was a top foreign policy adviser in the campaign.

Now the question is who else will be indicted and whether there is evidence that Donald Trump engaged in obstruction of justice.

Manafort and Gates were indicted for the crime of “conspiracy against the United States,” including operating as agents of foreign governments without registering as required by the law and laundering over $75 million in offshore accounts. These are charges that, if proven, could result in long prison sentences. Manafort was paid tens of millions of dollars for working in the Ukraine for Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin.

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Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his efforts to set up meetings with Kremlin-connected sources who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton. It was revealed that Papadopoulos is cooperating with federal authorities.

The indictments and guilty plea paint a very disturbing picture about Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The Russians had close ties to Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, and his top deputy. They cultivated individuals like Papadopoulos. They hacked the computers at the Democratic National Convention and strategically released documents.

There were meetings between Russians and top Trump aides, including his son and his son-in-law, with suggestions of the Russians being able to provide damaging information about Clinton. The Russians engaged in an extensive social media campaign, including misinformation, in an attempt to affect the outcome of the election.

This is unprecedented in American history. So far as is known, never before has a foreign power systematically tried to exercise such influence in an American election. This warrants a thorough investigation and steps to ensure it never happens again. But for now it seems that the only meaningful investigation is being conducted by Mueller. These indictments and guilty plea are likely only the beginning of actions by Mueller’s office.

Trump has tried to minimize all of this and divert attention from it. But these efforts must not be allowed to succeed.

When Manafort and Gates were indicted, Trump tweeted, “Sorry, but this is years ago. Also, there is NO COLLUSION.” But Trump misses the point: Manafort and Gates are accused of ties to Russians both before and during their time in the Trump campaign.

In fact, while serving as Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, Jr. met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with close ties to the Kremlin who claimed to have damaging information on Clinton. Papadopoulos admitted to contacts with Russians while working in the campaign and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about them.

Trump also reacted to the indictments and guilty plea by urging a further investigation into “Crooked Hillary.” This follows his pattern of attacking others when he is under scrutiny. For example, last year after the tape became public where Trump bragged of grabbing women by the genitals, he brought to the debate with Clinton five women who had made accusations against Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.

Trump’s urging of a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton is meant to divert attention. But the accusations against Clinton, recklessness with regard to the handling of email, are far less serious crimes than what Mueller has charged and is investigating. Moreover, the FBI after a thorough investigation concluded that there was insufficient evidence that Clinton did anything illegal to justify a prosecution.

None of this is business as usual for a presidential campaign. These are not technical violations of campaign laws.

Mueller has charged serious felonies and is exposing a scheme that a foreign power played a major, manipulative role in our presidential election. Now the question is who else will be indicted and whether there is evidence that Trump engaged in obstruction of justice. Never before has a presidential administration been under investigation for such serious crimes.

Erwin Chemerinsky is dean and professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He can be reached at echemerinsky@law.berkeley.edu.