East Bay politicians, legal experts and Oakland voters are reacting to the recent indictment of two former advisors to President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, debating whether these charges indicate an alleged collusion between the Russian government and the campaign.
“Their indictment [is] really clear evidence of what’s to come in terms of possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. So the American people deserve to know the truth. They deserve to know how far and how deep this went,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a Democrat who represents California’s 13th Congressional District, consisting of Oakland and the northern portion of Alameda County.
On October 27, a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C. indicted Paul Manafort, former manager of the campaign, and Richard Gates, a deputy manager of the campaign and Manafort’s business associate. The two were indicted on 12 counts, including money laundering, violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, conspiracy against the U.S., tax fraud and failure to report foreign bank accounts to the U.S. government. The indictments are the result of an investigation headed by special counsel Robert Mueller, the independent prosecutor and former FBI chief, who is leading the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election.
The 31-page indictment alleges that between “at least” 2006 and 2015, Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents of the government of Ukraine. It alleges that they failed to report to the Department of Justice that they ran an entity, called Davis Manafort Partners International, created in 2011 that began consulting and lobbying the U.S. on behalf of the Ukrainian government. According to the indictment, they concealed the income made through their work with the Ukraine by laundering money through “scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts.”
According to the document, more than $75 million flowed through these offshore accounts, with Manafort laundering more than $18 million and Gates laundering more than $3 million. Moreover, the indictment includes details about their lavish lifestyles that were allegedly funded by this money. Manafort and Gates allegedly used the money to buy property, pay for their children’s tuition, and decorate their homes.
While Manafort and Gates worked on Trump’s campaign from June to August 2016, neither Trump nor his campaign was mentioned in the indictment.
The legal process is still ongoing, since this is an indictment and not a conviction. Both Manafort and Gates have surrendered to the FBI, and pleaded not guilty to the charges. They will both have the opportunity to defend themselves in court.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday televised by CNN, Kevin Downing, Manafort’s attorney, said his client had not facilitated any collusion with Russia.
“There is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. Mr. Manafort represented pro-European Union campaigns for the Ukrainians and in that he was seeking to further democracy and to help the Ukraine come closer to the United States and to the E.U.,” said Downing. Downing also described the indictment as “ridiculous” and accused Mueller of using a very “novel” prosecution theory.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a briefing on Monday that the indictment had “nothing to do with the President, has nothing to do with the President’s campaign or campaign activity.”
Following the release of the indictment, some East Bay lawmakers and political organizers said they were unsurprised by the allegations, but pleased that Mueller was leading a thorough and detailed investigation.
“In itself, the allegations are extremely serious. I don’t know the exact terms of the indictment, but it was essentially treason,” said Robin Torello, chair of the Democratic Party in Alameda County.
“These are very serious in terms of the acts themselves and in terms of who was doing them—someone that President Trump has selected to bring in his inner circle and lead his campaign team,” said California State Assemblymember Rob Bonta, a Democrat representing the 18th Assembly District encompassing the central East Bay. “So, it shows Trump’s lack of character and lack of judgment in regards to who he surrounds himself with.”
As of press time, neither representatives from the Alameda County Republican Party nor the California Republican Party responded to emails and phone calls requesting comments.
But Bonta said that the indictments have not demonstrated that there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
“I think what it does show is that there were connections between the inner circle of Mr. Trump, including his campaign manger, with the Ukraine. But it doesn’t squarely fit with what a lot of people have on their minds,” said Bonta.
UC Berkeley School of Law Professor Jesse Choper, who is an expert in constitutional law, reiterated Bonta’s point, saying that there is a “very big distance” between the indictments and any proof of wrongdoing by Trump himself.
“There’s very little that we know in the present that can connect anything bad happening to Manafort [with] the president’s immediate situation of not being in any trouble,” Choper said.
“Money laundering and other charges that were brought against Manafort are not directly connected to Russia or to the campaign in a formal way,” agreed UC Berkeley School of Law Professor Charles Weisselberg, who is an expert in U.S and criminal law.
Weisselberg, however, says that the more significant event is the guilty plea of a third Trump campaign advisor: George Papadopoulos.
The Department of Justice also announced on Monday that in early October, the former foreign policy advisor for Trump’s campaign had pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his connections with Russia during the campaign.
Papadopoulos allegedly spoke with a London-based professor who offered to set him up with high-ranking officials in the Russian government who had information about emails sent by then-presidential candidate Hilary Clinton. Papadopoulos then allegedly sent this information to Trump campaign officials in order to help them set up a meeting with the Russians, and subsequently lied about these interactions when questioned by FBI agents.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying about “the timing, extent, and nature of his relationships and interactions with certain foreign nationals whom he understood to have close connections with senior Russian government officials,” according to the plea agreement that was unsealed on Monday.
He has admitted to meeting the professor after joining the Trump campaign, and that he had met with a “female Russian national.”
Papadopoulos could face up to five years in prison. But as part of the plea deal, the prosecution has agreed to reduce its sentencing recommendation. A court, however, will make the final decision.
While the indictment of Manafort made bigger headlines, Weisselberg said that Mueller could potentially use information gained from Papadopoulos to continue his investigation.
“While you might brush off the charge against Papadopoulos by saying he was a very minor player and had a very small role with the campaign, it is typical of the way complex investigations begin,” said Weisselberg, starting with “charges that may be brought against low level players with the aim of flipping them and gaining information, so that the investigations can continue against people who might be higher up in an organization or more culpable.”
Bonta agreed: “It raises more questions than it provides answers, but in some ways that guilty plea is more significant than the indictment of Manafort and Gates.”
Political and legal observers are now debating how the investigation will be handled in the future. Choper suggested that Mueller could potentially strike a deal with Manafort, to reveal if there was any potential connection between Manafort’s dealings with the Ukraine and Trump’s campaign.
“[Mueller] says, ‘You cooperate and show us how the president was really affected by all of this, and we’ll let you off with a smaller penalty or no penalty at all.’ That’s not uncommon in our law enforcement system,” said Choper.
And some wondered about Trump’s potential reaction to these revelations, including whether he might fire Mueller.
Weisselberg said he assumes that the president’s legal advisors are strongly telling him not to take such an extreme measure, as it would produce a political firestorm, as well as an investigation into whether the firing was motivated by a desire to obstruct justice.
“The question, as always, for Mr. Trump is whether he will listen to any of his advisors,” said Weisselberg.
“I think that his lawyers, they’re probably telling him to hold off from that,” agreed Torello. “But, I think if he takes action, I don’t think that anybody in Congress can sit on their hands any longer—meaning the Republicans—and ignoring facts.”
In order to ensure that the investigation by Mueller is not threatened, Lee is strongly pushing for an independent commission to be set up by Congress to investigate any possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. This would be separate from the investigation being conducted by Mueller as special counsel for the Department of Justice.
“We have to have a bipartisan commission to really come up with the recommendations on what to do because this goes deep and wide and we don’t even know the extent of it yet. But, we do know that Russia interfered in the elections. But we’ve got to know how they did that,” Lee said, calling for Republicans to join the efforts to set up the commission.
In early August, Senators Cory Booker and Lindsey Graham drafted a bipartisan bill that could potentially prevent Trump from firing Mueller. The proposal would force officials at the Justice Department who are tasked with firing Mueller to go before a panel of three federal judges to explain the reason for the move before terminating Mueller. Congress has not voted on this bill yet.
In the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, voters reacting to news of the indictment expressed feelings of disappointment, but not surprise.
“This is somebody behind the person who runs our country and it’s sad. It’s really scary because our lives is in their hands,” said Utopia Cummings, age 37.
“He [Trump] should be worried. He’s a liar. He lies about everything he says and he believes his own lies,” said Michael Carter, age 45.
“I’m not surprised. I think that it is good that there are some repercussions happening, but I don’t really think that it’s going to be the outcome that a lot of Democrats are hoping for,” said Grace Persico, 26, referring to the idea that it might lead to Trump’s impeachment. “I just don’t think we can be that optimistic about it.”
Sandy Spoering, however, said she believes that these revelations should provide a learning opportunity for future elections.
“I think the election process should be a lot tighter on the federal governments’ end. How are we monitoring the funds that come in from other governments? How are we monitoring what happened on social media, which was just a farce?” Spoering said.
Lee says that it is essential that voters’ attention not be diverted away from these allegations, particularly by other news items, like the tax reforms that are being pushed by Trump’s administration.
“They don’t want the public to see what Mueller is uncovering, so they’re finding all kinds of diversion tactics to come up with,” said Lee. “I hope that people—well, in my area, we say ‘stay woke’, and stay engaged and keep resisting.”