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What Robert Mueller’s indictments of former Trump campaign officials mean for the president

By indicting two former Trump campaign officials and getting a guilty plea from a third associate, the independent probe into Russian election meddling has entered a new phase. Here's how it will affect the presidency. How dangerous are the indictments for US President Donald Trump? It is important to note that the indictments against the former manager of Trump's presidential campaign, Paul Manafort, and another former campaign associate, Rick Gates, are not directly linked to the Trump presidential campaign and the president. It is also important to state that Manafort and Gates are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. Having said that, the 12-count-indictment against Manafort and Gates which include charges of money laundering, failure to report foreign bank accounts and failure to report working as a foreign agent for a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party "reveals strong ties to Russia and financial motives to assist Russia," said Lisa Kern Griffin, a law professor at Duke University. And because three of the charges against Manafort include the period he served as Trump's campaign manager — contrary to what Trump tweeted — there is at least a chronological connection between the Manafort case and the Trump campaign. Read more: Donald Trump aide Paul Manafort pleads not guilty to 12 charges Still, Trump's first reaction was likely relief that the indictments were not directly campaign-related, said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina. And should the case go on trial and the defendants be acquitted, the danger the issue poses for the Trump presidency would be greatly reduced, said Peter M. Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University. But assuming, as the scholars tend to, that this is likely just the first major step in Mueller's widening probe into Russian election meddling and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow, then President Trump has reason to be worried. "This is very threatening", said Professor Shane. That's because even while not directly linked to the Trump campaign, the indictments and the guilty plea convey a clear message to others who may be in Mueller's legal crosshairs. "It sends a strong signal to all potential witnesses and potential defendants that Mueller is going to proceed without fear of the external political noise and he is going to charge everyone for whom the facts support a charge", said Professor Kern Griffin. "Everyone in the orbit of the Russian connections to the campaign has reason to be concerned." What's more, unlike the indictments against Manafort and Gates, the indictment against Papadopoulos, albeit a lower level campaign aide, does assert a direct Russia link. According to the document, Papadopoulos tried to facilitate a contact with a "professor" with ties to the Russian government and met with a "female Russian national." The focus of at least one of their conversations was "thousands of emails" allegedly in the possession of the Russian government containing "dirt" on electon rival Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos' guilty plea is also a reminder to others potentially in Mueller's crosshairs to consider whether they may not want to cut a deal to provide valuable information to authorities in exchange for going free or for a more lenient sentence. The information provided in these initial cases can then be used to build additional indictments. "There is no doubt that these prosecutions do give increased leverage over the people who have been indicted in terms of their providing information", said Shane. "It is clear that this not the end of the investigation." "There will be more defendants charged," predicts Duke's Kern Griffin. Can President Trump fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller? Read more: Robert Mueller in possession of Donald Trump letter explaining Comey firing Yes, he can. Given that Trump has repeatedly called the probe into Russian meddling in the US presidential election and the Trump campaign a "witch hunt" and that he fired former FBI chief James Comey, who had alleged in a memo that the president had asked him to close the Russia investigation, which Comey would not do, it is not a stretch to wonder whether Trump would be considering firing Mueller to end his Russia investigation. The best legal option for him to do so would be via the Justice Department. Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the matter because he is implicated in it himself, Trump could ask Sessions' deputy Rod Rosenstein to dismiss Mueller. But firing Mueller is not easy since it would require him to establish a "good cause" as to how he violated the Justice Department's prosecution policy, said Shane. Should Rosenstein refuse to dismiss Mueller, Trump could fire him and essentially continue with this process until he finds someone willing to do so, he added. But firing Mueller would surely cause a major political firestorm and probably lead to legal challenges. "If he tries to fire Mueller on his own it will be on the constitutional basis that could be disputable," said Michael Gerhardt, constitutional law professor at University of North Carolina. The "disputable" constitutional foundation that Gerhardt refers to is called "unitary executive theory" and stipulates in a nutshell that the constitution gives the president complete authority to fire anyone in the executive branch. It is highly contentious among legal scholars; should Trump fire Mueller directly based on this principle, the move would surely be challenged in the courts. Can President Trump pardon his former campaign manager Manafort and other aides? Yes, he can. Not only can he pardon Manafort and any other defendants for any federal offenses committed, it is pretty well established, noted the scholars, that he can even issue a presidential pardon before a trial has begun. But the reported collaboration of Mueller's team with New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman's office on the Manafort case could blunt the benefit of any potential presidential pardon. That's because while the president can pardon for federal offenses, he can't pardon state offenses. And several of the charges filed against Manafort and Gates — such as money laundering — could be prosecuted under state law as well. So should Trump issue a pardon, then Manafort and Gates could be charged under New York state law. While pardoning Manafort and Gates would thus appear to have a limited impact, they would trigger a major backlash. But that still does not mean that Trump wouldn't do it. "If he can pardon Sheriff Arpaio, he can likely pardon Manafort," said UNC's Gerhardt. Asked about the likely steps President Trump and his team would take now next after his former campaign manager has been indicted, Duke's Lisa Kern Griffin summed up the legal scholars sentiment like this. "What happens in TrumpWorld defies the logic of past political actions and similar investigation."

By indicting two former Trump campaign officials and getting a guilty plea from a third associate, the independent probe into Russian election meddling has entered a new phase. Here’s how it will affect the presidency. How dangerous are the indictments for US President Donald Trump? It is important to note that the indictments against the former manager of Trump’s presidential ... Read More »

Constant information drip deepens Donald Trump’s Russian woes

The steady trickle of new revelations about the Trump team's real and potential Russian connections is increasing pressure on the White House. And what's more, the issue is unlikely to go away any time soon. On Monday the director of the FBI - in what he himself deemed a highly unusual move - publicly stated that his agency was investigating possible ties between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government. While the head of the FBI only confirmed what had already been reported, the official confirmation was still widely described as a bombshell. Two days later, another revelation connected to the Trump campaign and Russia came courtesy of an Associated Press story. According to the report, Donald Trump's former presidential campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, "to greatly benefit Putin." Citing documents, AP reported that in 2006, Manafort signed a $10 million annual contract for his work which included influencing politics in the US. Asked about the story on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to downplay the report, calling it the business dealings of a former campaign staffer from a decade ago. He added that President Trump had not been aware of Manafort's previous work on behalf of Deripaska. Registered as a foreign agent? While it is accurate that the contract was signed ten years ago, Manafort was not just any campaign staffer, but the former head of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. Making the revelation even more potentially relevant is that the FBI is already looking into Trump associates' possible contacts with Russia and also, according to the report, that Manafort apparently did not register as a foreign lobbyist as required by the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). Manafort, in a statement, said he had always acknowledged that he worked for Deripaska, but that he did not work for the Russian government. The statement did not address the reported nature of his work and whether he registered as a foreign lobbyist. "Legally, the issue is whether he violated a law by failing to register under the US Foreign Agent Registration Act," said Joseph Sandler, an attorney specializing in campaign and election law and a former general counsel for the Democratic National Committee. Failing to register as a foreign lobbyist with the US government is very rarely prosecuted. But it could be different in a high-profile case like this, when there is potentially a significant US foreign policy interest, said Sandler. "It is rare, but that's when they go after it," he said referring to potential US interests at stake. "The question here is whether Manafort was taking directions indirectly from the Russian government, even though he was paid by this oligarch in performing these services." No signed contracts Yoshiko Herrera, a scholar of US-Russian relations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it is clear that Deripaska was one of only a handful of oligarchs that were close to Putin during that time. "So if somebody is working for Deripaska, it is absurd to say that he has nothing to do with Putin," she said. "Nobody is going to work directly for the president of Russia. This is how it would work if somebody was working for the government. There are no signed contracts." It does, however, not mean that this was ordered by Putin, Herrera clarified. "Working for Deripaska means that he is working for somebody who is in communication with Putin; so there is a connection to the government, but it doesn't mean that Putin directed his work." Possible legal consequences aside, the new revelations about the conduct of Trumps' former campaign manager will also have a political impact, said Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College. "I think Americans are not buying the Trump administration's line that Manafort played a "limited role" in the campaign last summer," she said. Special prosecutor She also predicted that the constant trickle of new information about Russian involvement in the US election process would force Republicans to yield to Democrats' demands to task an independent, outside prosecutor to investigate the issue. "I think it is just a matter of time before Republicans in Congress acquiesce to a special prosecutor," Deckman said. All of this means that the issue is not going to go away any time soon, and that it could further damage a president who is already reeling from historically low approval ratings. Said Herrera: "The key question that is important for the United States right now is, Were Donald Trump or people around him secretly offered large sums of money in order to change US policy towards Ukraine, towards Russia, towards NATO?"

The steady trickle of new revelations about the Trump team’s real and potential Russian connections is increasing pressure on the White House. And what’s more, the issue is unlikely to go away any time soon. On Monday the director of the FBI – in what he himself deemed a highly unusual move – publicly stated that his agency was investigating ... Read More »

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