Brenda Blagg: From Russia, with no love

More details reflect serious threat of interference

Posted: November 1, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Breaking national news has certainly refocused attention on just how much influence Russia had on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

That Russia influenced the election, or tried to, isn't much in question anymore.

What is still unknown is to what extent the foreign meddling worked and whether or not the Russians had help from within the U.S., specifically from within candidate Donald Trump's campaign for the presidency.

Monday's revelation of federal charges against Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign chairman, and Rick Gates, Manafort's protégé and also a Trump aide, spiked speculation.

Importantly, the charges against the two men allege money laundering, conspiracy and other offenses not directly related to their roles in the campaign. They are serious charges and carry the potential of decades of prison time, if proved.

Remember, too, they are innocent until or unless proven otherwise.

Nothing about these pending charges -- to which both Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty -- touch President Trump, his campaign or the Russian intervention in the U.S. election.

However, a third person, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to a different charge that is rightly stirring new questions about Russian's interference in the election.

Papadopoulos is a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. He has admitted lying to FBI investigators about his unsuccessful attempts to broker a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A meeting between the candidate and Putin, though ill-advised, wouldn't have been illegal. But Papadopoulos' lying to the FBI about his encounters is illegal.

More importantly perhaps, Papadopoulos is now cooperating with Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Russian matter, and has been since Papadopoulos' arrest months ago.

All of this was revealed in court filings unsealed on Monday.

Details of Papadopoulos' arrest and cooperation were made public the same day as the charges and arrests of Manafort and Gates in what has been interpreted as a strong message to others in Trump's campaign and in the White House from the special counsel: Lie to investigators and you, too, could face federal criminal charges.

That's a powerful tool in this investigation and its usefulness is only beginning to be revealed.

The "statement of the offense" filed in Papadopoulos' case spells out a timeline previously unreported. As early as March 2016, Papadopoulos met with an unnamed "professor" with connections to Russian government officials. The professor told him the Russians possessed "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, then a presidential candidate, in the form of "thousands of emails."

The controversial Clinton emails wouldn't surface publicly until WikiLeaks began releasing them later.

And, yes, those are the same emails that President Trump insists should be the focus of Mueller's investigation.

Who knows? They may be part of it.

This investigation is clearly trying to get to the bottom of the Russian involvement in the U.S. election, wherever it may lead. Papadopoulos' plea is just the first shoe to fall.

Others may already be cooperating with the inquiry or may be persuaded to do so now that they see how determined (and willing to prosecute) Mueller really is.

For the rest of us, it is a time for patience. Let the investigation play out.

Don't read into what has happened so far anything other than what is there.

Get your information about the unfolding inquiry from reliable sources, preferably hard-news reports from multiple, established media outlets.

Other sources aren't good enough.

Almost lost in this week's rush of news was that Facebook, where many now get their news, is disclosing to Congress this week that a Russian group posted more than 80,000 times before and after the election, potentially reaching as many as 126 million users of the site.

Similarly, Twitter told the same Senate Judiciary Committee that Twitter has uncovered and shut down 2,752 accounts linked to the same group, Russia's Internet Research Agency.

Google, too, was slated to testify about Russian activity online in the two-day hearing.

While the more dramatic inquiry is obviously the one led by Mueller, the tech companies are telling another side of Russia's role in American politics.

And they're illustrating just how wary Americans must be about where they get their information these days.

Commentary on 11/01/2017