On Monday morning, former Trump presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted on charges of money laundering and filing false foreign lobbying reports, among other counts.
The indictment, which was long expected, is the first example of charges filed by special counsel Bob Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s attempted meddling in the 2016 election and whether any collusion occurred between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
That, plus Manafort’s lofty title and central role in Trump’s campaign, makes it HUGE news. But, it’s important to take a minute and detail what these charges against Manafort prove vis a vis Trump’s campaign and what they don’t.
Let’s start with what the Manafort charges prove in regards Trump.
Trump hired Manafort in the spring of 2016 as he was working to beat back what was, at the time, seen as a likely delegate fight with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at the Republican National Convention.
Manafort had two things that Trump needed: A knowledge of establishment Washington and a willingness to work for Trump. (Lots and lots of establishment Washington types – even back then – wouldn’t go within a country mile of Trump’s campaign.)
Manafort also had long been someone with a demonstrated willingness to work for controversial/authoritarian foreign leaders and businessmen with questionable pasts – most notably with his involvement in Ukraine, where he represented pro-Russian interests.
No one – and I mean no one – in political Washington didn’t know that about Manafort. Which leads to one of two conclusions about Trump (neither of which are a terribly good look):
1) He knew about Manafort’s sketchy past and didn’t care – or thought it was not a big deal
2) He didn’t know about Manafort’s sketchy past.
I’m not sure which one reflects more poorly on Trump. In the first scenario, he’s willing to overlook what had to be doubts raised by his advisers about the issues of bringing Manafort on in such a senior role. In the second, Trump simply didn’t do the research necessary when hiring someone at such a senior level.
Either way, the Manafort indictment – along with that of Rick Gates, a Manafort protege who served as liaison between even the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee even after Manafort was fired in August 2016 – raises real questions about Trump’s judgment in regard to staffing at the highest levels of not just his campaign but the federal government.
Trump repeatedly made his judgment an issue during the campaign. “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people,” Trump told the Washington Post during the 2016 race. “We want top of the line professionals.”
That quote seems a million miles away from Manafort’s indictment.
Now to what Manafort’s indictment doesn’t mean for Trump.
Nothing in the unsealed indictment makes any mention of Russian collusion. While it’s possible future indictments – if they come – will go into that territory, this one does not.
The White House is already playing up that angle. “Today has zero to do with the White House,” one administration source told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Remember that Trump has been adamant – as recently as Sunday on Twitter – that there is no proof (and there will be no proof) of collusion between his campaign and the Russians. Manafort’s indictment deals specifically with financial dealings – money laundering etc. – and therefore allows Trump to insist that what Manafort did is all about Manafort and nothing about Trump or the 2016 campaign.
It’s important to take a breath here and remind yourself that it’s likely – though not certain – that we are at the beginning of the legal proceedings stemming from Mueller’s special counsel investigation, not the end. Meaning that drawing hard and fast conclusions about what the Manafort indictment tells us about the broader Mueller investigation is a mistake.
What’s clear is this: When your campaign chairman is indicted on charges of money laundering and filing false forms, it is never a good day for your presidency. But, what’s also clear is that, as of right now, this Manafort indictment is far from Trump’s worst case scenario.