The truth will out

Posted: November 3, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Dawn broke Monday in Washington with news reports anticipating special counsel Robert Mueller’s first indictments in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. The anticipators got the basic story right: Mueller charged former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an associate with an array of financial-related crimes.

Ah, but Mueller wasn’t done. In a stunning development, the special counsel revealed that low-level Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians who claimed to have “dirt” about Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

That potentially puts Papadopoulos somewhere in proximity to the heart of the Russia investigation. Yet Papadopoulos wasn’t on the radar of the anticipators, which is a useful fact to remember as this investigation proceeds: Handicap the significance of events at your peril. Any wags who claim to have this whole affair figured out—whether in defense of Trump or in damnation—are blowing smoke or showing their political stripes. No one outside the investigation has enough info to make any proclamations in advance about where Mueller may be going.

We know Manafort is in trouble because he allegedly tried to hide millions of dollars earned from prior consulting work for the pro-Russian government of Ukraine. He clearly was a bad choice to become Trump campaign chairman and lasted just three months in his position. His coziness with Russian interests is intriguing, but is not proof of nefarious activity. He and his business associate, Rick Gates, pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Papadopoulos is an even odder figure to analyze. In March 2016, he became a Trump foreign policy adviser. That title may have grossly exaggerated his influence and expertise. According to his plea agreement, Papadopoulos lied to FBI investigators about his dealings with foreign nationals he believed to be connected to the Russian government while he was working for the campaign.

So what really happened? News accounts portray a Trump Tower meeting that involved campaign officials, including Manafort, and a Russian attorney who claimed to have information that could be used against Clinton in the campaign. Did Papadopoulos play a role in arranging that meeting? We don’t know. Yes, thousands of Clinton campaign-related emails were hacked by the Russians. But there’s not yet any public evidence connecting the dots to confirm any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

No question, Monday was a bad day for President Trump: Two campaign officials indicted, while a third has pleaded guilty. Perhaps this is a turning point in the investigation, but in what direction? We don’t yet know. Neither, we suggest, does anyone but Mueller.