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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Mueller probe: Legal experts say 'bombshell' charges put Trump presidency at risk

Charges were announced on Monday against three former members of the Trump campaign team — campaign manager Paul Manafort, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and policy adviser George Papadopoulos — as part of the justice department investigation into Russian meddling in last year's presidential election

After charges were announced against three former members of the Trump campaign team — campaign manager Paul Manafort, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and policy adviser George Papadopoulos — the president took to Twitter on October 31, 2017 to call Mr Papadopoulos 'an already proven liar'. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
After charges were announced against three former members of the Trump campaign team — campaign manager Paul Manafort, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and policy adviser George Papadopoulos — the president took to Twitter on October 31, 2017 to call Mr Papadopoulos 'an already proven liar'. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

US president Donald Trump went on the offensive on Tuesday as the legal and political storm unearthed by the justice department investigation into alleged Russian meddling in last year's presidential election showed no sign of abating.

After charges were announced on Monday against three former members of the Trump campaign team — campaign manager Paul Manafort, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and policy adviser George Papadopoulos — the president took to Twitter to call Mr Papadopoulos a "low level volunteer" and “an already proven liar”.

"Check the DEMS!," he added, referring to the Democrats.

A 12-count indictment was filed against Mr Manafort and Mr Gates, who surrendered to federal authorities and were charged with “conspiracy against the United States”, financial meddling and money laundering. Mr Papadopolous, meanwhile, was indicted on October 5 on charges directly connecting him to Russia’s alleged attempts to meddle in the election. He has already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Legal experts who spoke to The National on Tuesday described the events of the last 48 hours as a “bombshell” that puts the Trump presidency at risk and predicted that the White House may try to turn what is a legal investigation into a political one.

Mr Trump watched Mr Manafort turn himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with “rising irritation” on Monday, according to a report by the Washington Post. The president appeared visibly angry “to those who interacted with him, and the mood in the corridors of the White House was one of weariness and fear of the unknown”, it added.

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Ken Gude, a legal expert at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, said this reaction was unsurprising.

“[Justice department special counsel] Robert Mueller's actions yesterday are a bombshell that takes the Russia investigation to a new phase and puts the Trump presidency in real jeopardy,” he told The National.

The indictment and plea bargain that Mr Papadopoulos struck with the FBI appears to pose the biggest threat to Mr Trump; what the former policy adviser has told investigators since being arrested on July 27 seems to have become a centrepiece of the Mueller investigation.

Paul Rosenzweig, a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the department of homeland security and founder of the homeland security consulting company Red Branch Consulting, told The National that "the spectre now looms of an increasing aggressive response by the president”. Mr Trump “may try to convert the issue from a legal one to a political one”, he said.

Such strategy could score Mr Trump some political points but may fall short of changing the course of the legal process against Mr Manafort and Mr Gates.

“The case against Mr Manafort and Mr Gates is extremely strong and it is very likely that one or both of them will agree to co-operate with Robert Mueller in exchange for a lesser sentence,” said Mr Gude.

Now under house arrest, the 68-year-old Mr Manafort could face 15 years in prison if found guilty.

“It is the reality that Mr Mueller has this leverage and that each new revelation has only added to the picture of a deep connection between the Trump campaign and the Russian influence operation that puts the Trump presidency in peril”, Mr Gude added.

Speaking to Fox News on Tuesday, Mr Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, suggested that the Mueller investigation would "wrap up soon".

"It would seem that they're toward the end of the witness pile, and I don't know how much longer it could possibly go on. But we're in great hopes that it wraps up,” he said.

The legal experts predicted that the investigation would not be finishing any time soon, however.

Mr Rosenzweig, without mentioning Mr Kelly’s name, described the sentiment as “wishful thinking”.

“The revelations yesterday mean that the Mueller investigation is not going away any time soon. Expressions to the contrary are just wishful thinking,” he added.

Looking to the foreseeable future, Mr Gude said he anticipated that ”the Trump White House and their allies [would] do everything in their power to sabotage Mr Mueller”, while the special counsel would deliver more indictments and “bombshells”.

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