Warning so clear even The Donald can't miss it

PUBLISHED: 07:00 07 November 2017

Rick Gates and Donald Trump

Rick Gates and Donald Trump

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Is the House of cards about to fall? PAUL CONNEW examines a blockbuster week in the White House as the Russian Connection begins to really bite

What did the president know and when did he know it? It was the question that dominated the Watergate scandal until the final curtain of disgrace came down on Richard Nixon’s presidency.

It looms larger than ever as the question hanging over the presidency of Nixon’s great admirer Donald Trump after a dramatic few days that saw three former aides charged in the Russian Connection criminal investigation, being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director.

And if ‘Deep Throat’ famously held the key to Nixon’s downfall, the name George Papadopoulos could go down in history as the unlikely cause of Trump’s.

The guilty plea by the 30-year-old former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign to a charge of lying to the FBI about efforts to set up links with the Kremlin to deliver ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton certainly rocked the White House to its foundations.

Not least because they hadn’t seen it coming, or the revelation in court papers that Papadopoulos had been flipped and secretly co-operating with the special counsel’s team since his unannounced arrest in July, turning over an email trail and, it is believed, talking to other Trump campaign figures while wired up by investigators.

The ‘Papadopoulos Factor’ left Trump stunned and seething as he watched developments unfold on the giant television screens installed in his private White House quarters. The President and his advisers had been geared up to expect his former campaign chief Paul Manafort and his protégé and former White House aide, Rick Gates, to face charges on Monday, but the Papadopoulos guilty plea and his emergence as a ‘whistleblower’ was truly a thunderbolt.

“Really, this is the guy?”, Trump repeatedly asked those around him, including his top outside lawyers, John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, who was hooked up via a link from his Nashville base.

Readers of The New European will know that several weeks ago we reported that Special Prosecutor Mueller already had enough evidence to bring charges against Paul Manafort, but was biding his time as his investigation intensified. The Mueller team are now convinced they can bring charges against at least half a dozen more figures in Trump’s orbit over the coming weeks and months.

The list is understood to include former national security adviser General Michael Flynn, Donald Trump junior and the president’s son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner.

But so far, apparently, there isn’t a smoking gun that implicates the president directly.

While contrary to optimistic recent Trump tweets claiming that Mueller’s probe was almost over and had uncovered nothing damaging, this week’s developments only served to prove that the Russian Connection investigation is still considerably closer to its beginning than its end. Or, in the words of one Washington Post headline: “Mueller to Trump. Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

The fall-out from the terror atrocity in Manhattan might shift the focus a little, but the pressure on Trump will not ease up. Few on Capitol Hill or among the US intelligence community view this week’s arrests as more than an opening salvo in the investigation by Mueller, a man renowned for his patiently painstaking methodology and incremental approach to major cases.

As one former close colleague, lawyer Patrick Cotter puts it: “This is the way you kick off a big case. Oh, man, they couldn’t have sent a message any clearer if they’d rented a revolving neon sign in Times Square. And the message isn’t just about Manafort. It’s a message to the next five guys they talk to. And the message is ‘We are coming, and we are not playing, and we are not bluffing.”

While former US justice department spokesman Matthew Miller opined via Twitter: “Mueller’s choreographed one-two punch sends a signal to every Trump official; co-operate&get a good deal or resist&get hammered.”

Donald Trump’s initial reaction to the very serious charges against Manafort and Gates was a characteristic display of denial and deflection. A tweet that read: “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?????” (Note the five question marks). Even that wasn’t strictly true, as the string of conspiracy charges against the pair stretches into 2016 when both were at the heart of Trump’s presidential campaign. It was quickly followed by another: “Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”

In the immediate term, it also makes a mockery of Trump’s campaign boasts that he only had the “best people” aboard. Manafort’s lucrative links to pro-Russian groups in the Ukraine were already the subject of Capitol Hill controversy and media investigations before Trump hired him. And even after Manafort resigned from the campaign team amid further media disclosures, his partner Gates stayed on and played a significant role in organising Trump’s inauguration ceremony.

Now with the duo facing 12 conspiracy charges ranging from conspiracy against the US, conspiracy to launder millions of dollars from pro-Russian sources via Cyprus, tax evasion, failure to register as a foreign agent, making false statements and failure to report up to $75million in offshore bank accounts, Trump’s judgement at the very least looks spectacularly suspect. The fact that his former close ally and campaign chief has been put under high-intensity bail supervision and ordered to surrender his passport because he’s considered a flight risk only adds to POTUS’s growing discomfort.

And while it’s true that the indictments against Manafort and Gates — who both plead not guilty – don’t mention Trump or Russian meddling in last year’s election, most legal experts suspect that further charges will be brought and that Mueller and his team pressed ahead with the charges at this point to put pressure on the pair to ‘flip’ like Papadopoulos and help build a case against other high-ranking figures in the Trump team in return for a potential plea-bargain deal.

The US Center for American Progress Action Fund watchdog suggests: “The inclusion of money laundering charges indicates something important: leverage. If Manafort’s Kremlin-aligned partners were aware of his money-laundering crimes, that would give them leverage over the head of Donald Trump’s campaign.”

In the case of George Papadopoulos, the White House’s tactic has been to portray him as a very junior, unpaid volunteer with no direct access to The Donald himself. But it’s a stance somewhat undermined by Trump having told the Washington Post during the campaign that Papadopoulos was one of his “top five” foreign policy advisers and in March 2016 Trump even tweeted a photo of a campaign foreign policy meeting with Papadopoulos seated just a few feet from the candidate himself!

Meeting with my national security team in #WashingtonDC. #Trump2016

A post shared by President Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on

Intriguingly, Papadopoulos’s guilty plea centres on his confession to lying to the FBI back in January over his connection to a British university professor with links to the Kremlin, Joseph Mifsud, director of the London Academy of Diplomacy and a professor at Stirling University.

According to prosecution documents, the professor told Papadopoulos, an American who had studied in London and has close links to the Greek Far Right and other neo-fascist movements, that the Kremlin had dirt on Hillary Clinton, including thousands of damaging emails. That was as far back as March 2016, months before the Democrat National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign team revealed they had been hacked and US law enforcement agencies went public about evidence of Russian cyber-hacking operations.

It is highly-likely that the hacked emails, included those hacked by suspected Russian agents and later disseminated by Wikileaks. and with Candidate Trump later publicly called on the Russians to release every email of Hillary Clinton’s they possessed.

So far, Professor Mifsud, who reportedly denied any Kremlin links earlier this year, has only commented that his “conscience is clear”.

But the Mueller team’s prosecution files make it clear that, although young Papadopoulos’s efforts to broker a personal meting between Trump and Vladmir Putin during the campaign were rejected by campaign chiefs, other unnamed members of the campaign team were involved in emails encouraging his dirt-digging activities with the Russians and sanctioning a proposed trip to Moscow.

“Great work” was the email response of a Trump campaign supervisor to a Papadopoulos message about how he was working with the professor and an unnamed female Russian representing herself as ‘Putin’s niece’ to set up meetings between the campaign and Russian government figures. Two other senior Trump campaign figures are said to have entered into discussions with Papadopoulos over setting up contacts with the Russians, according to the court papers.

Inevitably, similarities are being drawn between the Papadopoulos case and the separately-brokered Trump Tower meeting between Russian operatives and Trump campaign figures, including Trump junior, Manafort and Kushner, on June 9 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign. That, too, is at the epicentre of Special Counsel Mueller’s escalating investigation.

Meanwhile this week’s dramatic developments have exposed new chinks in the White House’s response strategy. Chief of Staff General John Kelly and the president’s legal advisers have been urging him to show restraint and not continue launching Twitter tirades against the Mueller investigation, like those that have branded it a “witch hunt” and “fake news betrayal” of America. For his pains, General Kelly incurred much social media mockery after telling Fox News it was rather “distracting” the president.

But they are locked in a tricky tactical tug-of-war for POTUS’s ear with Trump’s former campaign guru and ousted White House strategy chief, Steve Bannon, who is back in favour with the president and wielding considerable influence in his role heading Breitbart News.

Bannon is urging Trump to “push back aggressively” against Mueller and his team and use his Twitter account to do so. Furthermore, Bannon is an advocate of Trump pressing the nuclear button of domestic politics by sacking Mueller and defying Congress to impeach him as a consequence and risking the outcome of the inevitable constitutional crisis that would ignite.

It’s a theme Breitbart is advocating faithfully as part of its declaration of war against the Republican party establishment it repeatedly accuses of betraying the Bannon/Trump philosophy and strategy that won them the White House. At the very least, they are demanding that Capitol Hill Republicans slash the special prosecutor’s investigation budget; a move that would seriously reduce its chances of establishing how high the ‘Russian Connection’ chain really reached.

Intriguingly, Rupert Murdoch has now been drawn into that particular dog fight with several of his Fox News conservative commentators singing loudly from the Bannon songsheet and echoing Trump’s call for fresh investigations into Hillary Clinton and the Democrats over their acknowledged part-funding of the unproven ‘dossier’ of anti-Trump ‘dirt. This was the dossier, originally commissioned by anti-Trump Republican elements that included the strongly-denied golden showers allegations involving Russian hookers during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.

Far more surprising, however, has been the reaction of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal print flagship, which has previously taken a fairly critical line on Trump. Not so long ago the WSJ ran a scorching editorial headlined “A President’s Credibility” which focused on Trump’s falling poll ratings and declared: “No doubt Mr Trump considers that fake news, but if he doesn’t show more respect for the truth most Americans may conclude he’s a fake president.”

Now the paper is under fire from many US commentators for carrying an editorial calling for Mueller’s resignation and featuring a contributor’s Op-Ed page championing the idea that Trump should pardon all those being investigated by the special prosecutor — including, if necessary, himself!

After this week’s sensational twists and turns, only one thing seems certain. This story has a long way to run yet. Unless Donald Trump dares to risk taking that ‘nuclear option’ gamble advocated by those siren voices calling out for Mueller’s sacking and the scrapping of his investigation.

But that would be at the price of triggering the biggest story of all, a constitutional fallout that would not only eclipse Watergate itself but expose The Donald to the risk of meeting the same fate as his hero Nixon. Meanwhile American democracy can only nervously hold its breath.

One of the most worrying aspects of recent developments for the whole Trump family and their associates is that it clearly flags up that Mueller is not confining investigations to the Russian election meddling issue alone but extending it to far wider territory and potential business misconduct and illegalities.

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