If you care about foreign election interference, Manafort indictments miss real threat

There is no proof that the Trump campaign was in cahoots with the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the Clinton camp’s unverified dossier is playing a dangerously outsized role.

Is Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia fatally tainted by the Steele dossier?

On Monday, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former business partner Rick Gates were indicted for a variety of financial crimes related to their business dealings in Ukraine and their relationship with former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The alleged crimes behind Monday’s indictments date back as many as 11 years and have almost nothing to do with the 2016 election. It is also noteworthy that the charges mirror the very reason Manafort was dismissed from the Trump campaign shortly after the 2016 Republican National Convention. This shows that whatever Manafort was up to, Donald Trump did not condone it.

The link to Ukrainian politics explains the less-noted collusion between Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the government of Ukraine. Andrii Telizhenko, a political officer in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, said that, during the 2016 campaign, other embassy officials “were coordinating an investigation with the Hillary team on Paul Manafort.” It might be worth investigating whether this constituted foreign interference in the U.S. election process abetted by Clinton’s team.

Former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos has also been arrested, for lying to the FBI about the timeline of his contacts with people claiming to be connected to the Russian government who said they had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. They also wanted to set up an official Trump/Putin visit through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If nothing else, the statement of the offense detailing Papadopoulos’ crimes shows that there had been no previous, long-standing relationship between Russia and the Trump team.

Monday’s indictments illustrate how the “Russian collusion” narrative has dwindled in the year since the election. For example, we initially heard about how Russia subverted Wisconsin’s voting system — most remarkable since it meant the Kremlin was paying more attention to America’s Dairyland than the Clinton campaign. This notion was later discounted. We also had Hillary Clinton saying there were “1,000 Russian agents” working to prevent her election. This turned out to be evidence-free speculation. Now we hear that the Russians spent $100,000 on Facebook ads, few of which mentioned the candidates specifically, and the majority of which ran after the election was over. Even Hillary’s former pollster Mark Penn said the idea this paltry sum could decisively influence the election was ridiculous, especially considering the vast amounts Clinton was spending to promote her digital brand.

So, after a year of investigation there is nothing substantive to demonstrate that the Trump campaign was in cahoots with the Kremlin. Yet, the political impetus for initiating the Mueller investigation was based on the initial wave of mostly false information. The most important compendium of weaponized falsehoods is the so-called “Trump dossier,” the 35-page Russian-sourced opposition research report assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele. The dossier claimed to prove that Donald Trump was an active agent of Russian influence. It was recently revealed that the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign had funded Steele’s effort through the political research firm Fusion GPS — this after top Democrats claimed they had nothing to do with it.

The Trump dossier might have simply gone down in history as another in the long line of failed political dirty tricks. But it played a much more significant role when it became part of the Obama administration’s effort to investigate the Trump campaign before and after the election. Elements of the dossier were included in the Obama administration’s official assessment of Russian influence on the election. The FBI reportedly used the dossier as evidence to obtain a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to investigate former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page. This or another FISA warrant was used to surveil Manafort as well. Since a previous attemptby the Bureau to obtain such a warrant had failed, it is reasonable to ask to what extent the FBI used the information in the Trump dossier to sway the court.

If the Democrat-funded Steele memos were central to the various moves first by the Obama administration and now by Mueller to investigate people connected to the Trump campaign and administration, the effort takes on a “fruit of the poison tree” flavor. The Steele memos were political hit-pieces based on unverified foreign sources and paid for by Democrats and the Clinton campaign. For it to then be accepted by the government’s legal apparatus and used as part of the investigative process taints the entire enterprise. It mixes the political and governmental in a way that compromises the methods and motives of everyone involved. It is a case study in subverting democracy. This should be the real focus of the investigation. At least it has something to do with the election.


James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant to the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins.

One thought on “If you care about foreign election interference, Manafort indictments miss real threat

  • November 1, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and th6ought this was insightful. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.



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