The internet is buzzing with the news that former Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his associate, Rick Gates, have been indicted for conspiracy to defraud the United States, money laundering, and a variety of other federal crimes. Of perhaps equal significance, former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI in denying contacts with Russian agents.
It is natural to wonder what effect these developments might have on a potential impeachment case against Mr. Trump. Nonetheless, perhaps the main point to keep firmly in mind is that it is far too early even to make informed speculations on that ultimate point. For the moment, I’d offer only these tentative observations:
First, as a former federal fraud prosecutor, I am impressed with the speed at which the Mueller investigation is moving. The Manafort / Gates indictment describes a very complex set of international and domestic transactions. Cases like this commonly take years to put together. Mueller’s team sewed up this first indictment in five months.
Second, I’m also impressed with the apparent solidity of the case against Manafort and Gates. Defense counsel will have their say, but on the face of it, this is a stout case. It is very hard to see how Manafort and Gates beat this.
Third, the charges are very serious. Manafort in particular is facing serious prison time. It is, of course, a fool’s game to predict what sentence a white collar defendant will ultimately receive, but the Federal Sentencing Guidelines provide at least a yardstick for the kind of sentence a judge would consider upon conviction.
A reasonable guesstimate of the guidelines calculation for Manafort would put him at over ten years in prison. A glance at the indictment suggests that the money laundering guideline would probably drive the calculation. That guideline, 2S1.1, is notoriously tricky, but one could reasonably, if not certainly, assume a base offense level of 8 + 20 levels from 2B1.1 for $18 million laundered. If you add 2 for 3C1.1 obstruction (false statements) and 4 for aggravating role under 3B1.1, that yields an offense level of 34. Which equates to a guideline range of 151-188 months, or 12 ½ to 15 ½ years. There are a variety of other factors that could push this number up or down considerably, and judges are not obliged to sentence within the guideline range, but as I say, Mr. Manafort and his attorneys will certainly have to take the guidelines as a serious benchmark of the kind of sentence an ill-disposed judge could impose.
Fourth, many commentators have observed that the point of indicting Manafort and Gates first is to pressure them into cooperation against others, potentially including Mr. Trump. Without presuming to read the minds of Mr. Mueller and his colleagues, this seems a reasonable hypothesis. That said, it is interesting that Manafort and Gates let themselves be indicted rather than working out a pre-indictment plea agreement as Mr. Papadopoulos apparently did. This is not to say that Manafort and Gates will never “flip,” but it does mean that they are resisting for now, and could persist in refusing cooperation no matter what happens. At a minimum, Mueller may have to go to trial and convict one or the other or both before they agree to cooperate. Which could take a long time.
Fifth, the subject matter of the Manafort / Gates indictment is not collusion of the Trump campaign with Russia. Rather, it is Mr. Manafort’s sleazy, but very lucrative, relationship with corrupt Ukranian politicians. Of course, Mr. Trump and his supporters have already been quick to note the absence of a “collusion” angle in this indictment. But what I find interesting, and very suggestive, is that the indictment makes a point of describing the Ukranian group paying Manafort as pro-Russian. Legally, that point is irrelevant. Politically, it has two obvious points: It helps rebut any claim that, in indicting Manafort, Mr. Mueller’s team is going beyond the scope of its charge, which is to investigate Russian efforts to influence the American election and any collusion by the Trump campaign with those efforts. If challenged, Mueller can point out that Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, had a long history of dodgy, and in some respects criminal, connections with a pro-Russian party in a former Soviet republic, a point plainly relevant to the larger investigation.
My second, and far more speculative, reaction to the indictment’s pointed insistence on the Russian connection is that it is a direct signal to those around Mr. Trump who have Russian connections, but have not yet faced indictment — don’t get comfortable, we’re coming for you.
Finally, the other message in this indictment that I suspect is sending chills down the spines of Mr. Trump and many of his associates and family members stems from the nature of the charges themselves. This indictment demonstrates both the incredibly broad reach of the federal criminal law in the area of financial crime and the professional competence of Mueller’s team. Mr. Trump, his family, and retainers may not have engaged in the precise forms of financial shenanigans revealed in this indictment, but given Mr. Trump’s long history of skating on or over the edge of legality, it would be surprising indeed if at least some had not infringed on federal criminal law in analogous ways.
With the Manafort indictment, Mueller and his team have sent a blunt warning. If the Trumps have financial skeletons, they will be found.