After five months of investigation, former FBI Director Robert Mueller issued his first three products as special counsel: indictments of Trump campaign hands Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, and a guilty plea of a young foreign-policy adviser, George Papadopoulos.
At the same time Tony Podesta, the Democratic superlobbyist and bundler was implicated in the investigation and has stepped down from the lobbying firm he cofounded with his brother, Clinton confidant John Podesta.
Amid the noise and the speculation, what have we learned? What do we know today that we didn’t know months ago?
The indictment, if the charges are true, tells us mostly what we already suspected. Manafort was a shady lobbyist representing maleficent clients and covering it up. From the beginning of the investigation, we have editorialized that hiring Manafort as campaign chairman was a grave mistake that showed a gross lack of judgment.
One tip-off should have been the fact that Manafort worked for Trump for free. If you’re not paying for something, the saying goes, then you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Putin-allied interests were the real customers, it seems, and access to Trump was what Manafort was delivering.
The Podesta Group’s appearance (as “Company B”) in the Manafort indictment also reminds us about the nature of Washington. Tony Podesta was the leading Democratic bundler (the term for volunteer fundraisers) for years. He and his brother John Podesta cofounded the firm after leaving Capitol Hill decades ago. John served in President Bill Clinton’s White House, on President Barack Obama's transition team, in his White House, and on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. John and Tony have stayed as close as any two brothers over the years
The Podesta Group is as Democrat-connected as any Washington lobbying firm gets. The Manafort indictment shows us just how closely this Democrat firm worked together with Manafort’s Republican-led firm to get rich off the same clients advancing the same issues. This exposes the fact that in the Washington swamp, party is often merely a costume, and the elite swamp creatures are all on the same team, laughing together on their way to the bank.
Papadopoulos’s guilty plea, entered weeks ago, was a real surprise. It's also telling. Papadopoulos is less than a decade out of college, and when the Trump administration picked him up in March 2016, he still touted his Model U.N. experience to demonstrate his foreign policy chops.
Papadopolous’s attempts to work with Russians and the coverup to which he confessed were both of Junior Varsity caliber. One footnote in the plea document notes that the Russian woman he took to be a niece of Vladimir Putin was no such thing.
So the Trump campaign took on shady lobbyists and gullible newbies. Both men have since been accused of breaking the law.
The official parlor game of this week is to speculate how high up this investigation will get. Can Manafort be squeezed now that he’s under indictment? What about Gates? Was Papadopoulos wearing a wire since his plea weeks ago? Will this lead eventually to Jared Kushner or Donald Trump Jr.? Will it go higher than that?
But this parlor game is almost as bad as the game the swamp creatures play. Speculation about who will be trapped and ruined, and whether they deserve to be — opinion on that generally tends to reflect one's politics rather than a clear-eyed assessment of evidence, if there is any — is a vicious pleasure that is part of the Washington media culture that the nation has come to detest.
Since Mueller is moving right along, we’ll wait for the rest of the investigation. Today, we hope the administration and the press take to heart the truths Monday’s news has illuminated. It is folly to surround yourself with the unethical or inexperienced — and there are many such denizens of the Washington swamp.