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Marcy Wheeler Says Indictments in Russia Probe Further Incriminate Attorney General Jeff Sessions

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President Donald Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort and his former business associate Rick Gates surrendered to the FBI, after being indicted on charges that include money laundering, acting as unregistered agents of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government and conspiracy against the United States. The White House said the indictments have nothing to do with the president’s 2016 campaign. However, Trump stopped tweeting yesterday after his former campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. We speak with Marcy Wheeler, who in a new piece writes, “George Papadopoulos’s Indictment is Very, Very Bad News for Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Donald Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and Manafort’s former business associate, Rick Gates, surrendered to authorities Monday morning, after a federal grand jury handed down the first indictments in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election. Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty to all charges filed against them in a 12-count indictment, which included money laundering, acting as unregistered agents of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government and conspiracy against the United States. Authorities also announced a third former Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty in early October to lying to the FBI. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said Monday the indictments have nothing to do with the president’s campaign or campaign activities.

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The real collusion scandal, as we’ve said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS and Russia. There’s clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding with Russian intelligence to spread disinformation and smear the president to influence the election. We’ve been saying from day one, there’s been no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. And nothing in the indictment today changes that at all.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Trump responded to news of the indictments on Twitter by lashing out against his former campaign rival, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party. He wrote, quote, “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus? ....Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” The president’s tweets came before news broke of George Papadopoulos’s indictment, and Trump has not tweeted since then. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders warned the White House against firing special counsel Mueller. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement, quote, “Congress must respond swiftly and unequivocally in a bipartisan way to assure that the investigation will continues,” end of quote.

AMY GOODMAN: Manafort’s bail was set at $10 million, Gates’ set at $5 million. They’ve both been placed under house arrest.

Meanwhile, observers are closely watching the case against George Papadopoulos, an early foreign policy adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, who may provide greater evidence of possible collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. According to his plea deal, Papadopoulos was told that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton, and through a series of communications with foreign agents, he tried to facilitate communication between the Trump campaign and Russian agents. Papadopoulos was arrested in July 2017, has been cooperating with federal authorities since then, striking a plea deal earlier this month. The plea deal was just announced, after the indictments against Manafort and Gates.

For more, we’re joined by Marcy Wheeler in Michigan, an independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net. And her new piece for The Intercept is headlined “George Papadopoulos’s Indictment is Very, Very Bad News for Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

Marcy, welcome back to Democracy Now! Well, why don’t you start with the indictments against the chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign, Manafort, and Manafort’s business executive, Gates? Talk about their significance and whether they relate to collusion.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, they’re designed to get them to flip. So, in other words, Mueller has been targeting Manafort for quite some time. I think Gates was actually a bit surprised that he was indicted yesterday. And what he has done is charge them with crimes that are fairly controllable—I mean, they don’t involve colluding with a foreign—you know, with Russia, for example—such that they will be enticed to make a plea deal, just as Papadopoulos did, and provide more information about what Mueller is really investigating, which is whether or not the Trump campaign, for example, was trying to work with Russian agents on June 9th, 2016, when they agreed to take a meeting to find dirt on Hillary Clinton.

So, it’s mostly garden-variety money laundering, although fairly spectacular garden-variety money laundering. Manafort was charged of laundering a million dollars through the local antique rug shop. There’s also a scheme going back to 2012 where Manafort and Gates were both pretending not to be lobbying on whether or not Ukraine was democratic and pro-EU, and getting, incidentally, Tony Podesta, John Podesta—Hillary Clinton’s campaign adviser’s brother—to lobby on his behalf, while hiding that they were actually lobbying. And that’s the big thing that gets Gates. But again, the idea is to get them to make a plea deal so that then Mueller can get them to provide more evidence on the case in chief, on the way in which the Trump administration—the Trump campaign was trying to reach out to the Russians.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Marcy Wheeler, the issue of Gates also being indicted? And as you have pointed out in some of your articles, Manafort was only a chair of the campaign for a short period of time in 2016, but Gates stayed on and actually was involved in the Trump campaign even through the inauguration, his inauguration as president. The significance of Gates being included in this indictment?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, I made a joke this morning. Mueller’s deputy, Andrew Weissmann, is fairly well known for indicting the target and the target’s family member. Manafort has had some marital problems recently, so I joked this morning that rather than indicting Manafort’s wife, who legitimately could have been tied to some of these, because her name is on the business, as well, he instead indicted Manafort’s long-term business partner, Gates, to make him feel like he was dragging somebody else into the dirt.

And so—but you’re right. Gates—in the Papadopoulos plea deal, there is an interchange between Manafort and Gates pertaining to whether or not the campaign was going to try and set up a meeting with Vladimir Putin. And Gates will have been in a lot of these conversations all the way through the inauguration, so he knows some stuff that—Manafort was ousted in August, although he’s stayed close to Trump and has—you know, was speaking to Trump as recently as February. But Gates was there in the White House as part of the transition, and so will have dirt of his own to deal with, with special counsel Mueller.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about George Papadopoulos and the significance here. He was what? Arrested the day after Manafort’s house was raided. He pled guilty October 5th, but it was only announced yesterday. Trump tweeted, you know, after Manafort, Gates indictments, this shows no collusion, which he was right about, with Manafort and Gates. This was before—right?—they worked for him. But when the Papadopoulos plea deal was announced, Trump stopped tweeting altogether and then went to lunch with Jeff Sessions, his attorney general. So, talk about George Papadopoulos, Jeff Sessions and the significance of what Papadopoulos knows.

MARCY WHEELER: So, Papadopoulos was living in London. He was basically—it’s quite clear from the plea, he was being courted by Russian handlers, by three different Russian handlers, to set up a meeting. They wanted to set up a meeting between Putin and Trump. And as the summer went on, Papadopoulos and Manafort were going to be the ones who went for the meeting. As I said, there is a footnote in the plea that shows Manafort talking to Gates and saying, “We need to avoid kind of making it clear that we’re kind of cozying up to the Russians here.”

So, the other really important thing, which isn’t really in the plea agreement but we know is part of the discussions that Papadopoulos has been having since July with Mueller’s people, and that is that he was accused of lying about whether—about what he took this reference from the Russians to mean, that they had dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. And it is clear that they have accused him of lying about when he learned about that, but the rest is kind of silent, which is the beauty of this plea agreement, because it’s designed to get everyone panicking because they don’t know what Papadopoulos has said. But the suggestion there is that by April—actually, three days before the DNC realized that they were being hacked by the Russians—Papadopoulos knew that the Russians had thousands of Hillary emails that they were seeking to drop as dirt, as oppo, for this campaign. And it was very clear that he kept in touch with everyone else on the campaign.

So, in addition to Manafort and Gates, who aren’t named but we know from other reporting that they’re included, Corey Lewandowski, who was also a campaign chair and remained on the campaign, a guy by the name of Sam Clovis, who has a confirmation hearing coming up on November 9th for the Ag Department. And then, most importantly, on March 31, Papadopoulos was in a meeting—there’s a picture of this—with both—with a bunch of foreign policy advisers, but it includes Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, and Trump. And at that meeting, he said, “My job is to set up a meeting with Vladimir Putin.” And as you said, Trump got really silent yesterday after this was released. But Sanders was saying, “Well, you know, Trump doesn’t remember Russia coming up in that meeting.” Sessions hasn’t said anything about it. But the point I made yesterday is that in testimony on the 18th, Sessions said he knew nothing about any campaign surrogates talking to Russians. Now we know he was in a meeting where he heard about a meeting with Vladimir Putin. So, his sworn testimony from two weeks ago seems, as always is the case with Attorney General Sessions, seems to be no longer operative and proven yet again to be untrue.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Marcy Wheeler, I think that—isn’t the Times reporting today that at one of these meetings, that Sessions especially said that this kind of meeting would not happen between—certainly, between the candidate himself and any Russian leaders? So, clearly, he had to have some knowledge of what was the information that Papadopoulos was gathering beforehand.

MARCY WHEELER: Right. At the very beginning of their discussions about foreign policy—and this is, again, quite clear from the plea agreement, the Papadopoulos plea agreement—that a priority for the Trump campaign was to make friends with Russia. And at this meeting—and again, there’s a picture floating out there with like eight different campaign people and the president, the now president. At that meeting, Papadopoulos said, “My job is to go set up a meeting between you, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin. And Vladimir Putin is very much looking forward to that.”

And the important point about that is, from March on—right? March, there’s that meeting. April, Papadopoulos learns about the email. That really influences the mindset of everybody who was in that June 9th, 2016, meeting with a Russian lawyer and a bunch of other Russians, where they offered dirt on Hillary Clinton, because we know that at least one person on the campaign, and probably a lot more, knew two months earlier that the dirt was not political donations going back years, but, instead, emails that were stolen from Hillary Clinton. So that really changes the mindset, particularly for Paul Manafort—right?—because he would have been in the loop, and he was in that June 9th meeting. That would change the mindset of what everyone who took that June 9th meeting was doing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this indictment is called “Indictment (B),” right? So, who is “Indictment (A)”?

MARCY WHEELER: We have no idea. The docket just chronologically before the Manafort-Gates docket is also sealed. So it is possible somebody else got indicted. And given that we don’t know about it, if that is the case, then that person may be cooperating. It could actually be Tony Podesta. As I said, John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign adviser, he stepped down from his own influence-peddling firm, or lobbyist firm, as they’re called, but they’re both—I mean, he’s just as—he’s kind of the Democratic sleazy counterpart of Paul Manafort. So he stepped down because of this corruption. He has been named a subject in the investigation, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he was also charged. There’s this funny thing about these indictments yesterday, where Manafort’s lawyer actually said, “How dare the special counsel prosecute somebody for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act?” because it hasn’t been treated as a law for a very long time in D.C. And I think—on top of everything else, I think a lot of lobbyists in D.C. are going to start admitting the kind of sleazy influence peddling they’ve been doing, because now Robert Mueller is going after it. So, Tony Podesta is an outside possibility for that.

Another possibility is Mike Flynn, because the charges that he would be offered as a first indictment to get him to flip are all the same ones that Manafort would be, that he hadn’t registered as a foreign agent both for Turkey and for Russia, and that he hadn’t disclosed all of his income on his taxes. So, it’s possible. We don’t know. You know, hopefully we’ll find out. But again, what happened yesterday was, by design, intended to get the people who are named in the Papadopoulos plea and everybody else who knows that they’ve been in conversations with these people to start panicking, to start thinking more seriously.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Marcy Wheeler, I wanted to ask you about one other aspect of what happened yesterday, the civil forfeiture attempts by the federal government against Manafort. What’s the significance of that, going after his assets, as well?

MARCY WHEELER: Plus the $10 million bail, right. So, there were millions—I think $18 million—of money-laundered funds brought into the United States. There’s the rugs. There’s the suits. And all of that—because it is the fruits of the crimes alleged in the indictment, all of that is now forfeitable, including a number of homes, not all of them. But what that serves to do is basically bankrupt Manafort, who is already known to be in a significant amount of debt. So, it makes—I mean, he’s already paid millions to his lawyers. It makes it a lot harder for him to mount a defense, because he no longer has any liquid assets to pay lawyers out of. And that’s the kind of—I mean, this is an object lesson for everyone else, that says, “Plea early, or you’re going to be in much worse straits, because you’re not going to have the money, and the charges are going to start getting worse, and it’s going to be—you know, it’s going to get increasingly difficult to get yourself out of the pinch.”

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, 10 seconds, did anything shock you yesterday?

MARCY WHEELER: No. But I think everyone in D.C. was surprised that Mueller was able to get this guy to take a plea agreement on October 5th and keep it silent 'til now. So what shocked me is just how well he's keeping secrets.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, thanks so much for being with us, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties issues, runs the website EmptyWheel.net. Her new piece is for The Intercept; it’s headlined, and we’ll link to it, “George Papadopoulos’s Indictment is Very, Very Bad News for Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, well, we’re just back from Puerto Rico, and now, reportedly, the FBI is investigating the $300 million Whitefish Energy deal. Will it be killed altogether? We’ll be back with the mayor of San Juan. Stay with us.

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