Donald Trump briskly moved to distance himself from the indictments of two former campaign aides, Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, saying on Monday that their alleged wrongdoing occurred years ago and that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia.
But the charges are far more consequential than the president was willing to acknowledge, analysts and lawyers have said. First, they are a clear sign that the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia by special counsel Robert Mueller is moving more rapidly than many had expected and has teeth.
While the charges against Messrs Manafort and Gates may not be related to presidential campaign activities, a third Trump campaign official, George Papadopoulos, was revealed to have pleaded guilty to charges that he lied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about contacts with Russian nationals during the 2016 race. Messrs Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty to all the charges against them.
A key question was whether the charges would prompt either Mr Manafort or Mr Gates to co-operate with the Mueller investigation, which could lead to further information emerging that could prove damaging to the White House, said William Burke-White, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
The revelations will further hamper the Trump administration’s efforts to pivot away from Russia dealings, consuming time that the president could be spending on his policy initiatives such as his tax overhaul, which has reached a critical week with the planned publication of draft legislation.
“It will be another public opinion hit and a signal that Mueller is not going to fizzle as an investigation: he is going places with this,” said Matt Glassman, a senior fellow Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. “The biggest problem the Republicans have had this year is there has been no presidential leadership because he has not been able to focus on the legislative agenda . . . Things like this throw him further off course.”
The charges are a major step forward by Mr Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian connections, which was commissioned in May after Mr Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Allegations about links between his campaign and the Russians have dogged Mr Trump’s young administration, eroding his political capital and ability to marshal congressional Republicans behind a legislative agenda.
Mr Manafort, Mr Trump’s campaign manager during part of the 2016 US presidential election, and Mr Gates, another former campaign official, were indicted by a federal grand jury on 12 counts, with the two men accused of funnelling $75m through unreported offshore accounts.
While Mr Trump seized on the fact that the charges focus on Mr Manafort’s work for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich and his pro-Russia Party of Regions government, rather than the 2016 campaign, this may be of only limited comfort to the White House. “This is potentially a can of worms, and Mueller has opened that can today,” said Bill Smullen, former chief of staff to Colin Powell and now director of national security studies at Syracuse University.
The guilty plea by Mr Papadopoulos was “very directly connected to the campaign”, argued John Barrett, a professor of law at St John’s University. “The Russians pursued him and he pursued the Russians.”
Mr Burke-White said Mr Mueller was taking a broad interpretation of his mandate as he ranged widely over activities by former Trump associates. The effect, he said, could be to “shake the tree” and frighten other individuals to come forward with information of interest to the investigators.
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Of critical concern to Republican leaders is whether Mr Trump’s attention and political capital is now further sapped by scandal. Tax reform is already a highly controversial and divisive package that was already set to be difficult to push through a fractious GOP that is desperate for a legislative win before next year’s midterm elections.
John Malcolm, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Mr Trump had been bedevilled by the Russian probe from the beginning and that the latest news added “incrementally to that noise”. While the president was moving on with his agenda, the Republicans have limited time to do tax reform and “this is certainly going to be a distraction”, he said.
Adam Brandon, head of FreedomWorks, a conservative group with close ties to party activists, said he did not think the Mueller charges would make it harder to unify Republican lawmakers behind the party’s push for tax reform.
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Instead, he said, they would increase the urgency of overhauling the tax code to give Mr Trump a much-needed legislative win to bolster Republican support in next year’s congressional elections.
“If [the Democrat] Nancy Pelosi is Speaker [of the House of Representatives] the first thing she will do is draft articles of impeachment. That’s why it’s so important to get the tax bill done,” he said.
Nathan Gonzales, an independent pollster with Inside Elections, said he did not expect Monday’s disclosures to trigger an immediate shift in anyone’s political allegiances. But he added that the investigation had the potential to roil electoral politics further down the line.
“If the investigation gets closer to the president and the White House there might be too much for Republican elected officials to avoid speaking out on. Right now I don’t think it’s there yet.”