Trump Can’t Sweep Aside the Lies Manafort Told Mueller

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The president of the United States, CLEARLY ELATED, took to Twitter on Wednesday morning to praise the Senate:

POTUS’s tweet wasn’t entirely accurate, of course. Inspired by an NBC News report from the day before, which provided an update on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of possible ties between Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign and Russia, it inevitably reflected his desire to push aside his problems.

The NBC account was direct, noting that after two years and some 200 interviews, the committee was “approaching the end of its investigation into the 2016 election, having uncovered no direct evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.”

But the article, filed by veteran reporter Ken Dilanian, also pointed out that the committee was hardly united. Senator Richard Burr, the Republican chairman, and Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat, were at odds about what the evidence told them. Burr felt “there was no factual evidence of collusion.” Warner said the probe showed that “people affiliated with the campaign” had “many ties with Russia.”

Still, Democrats on the committee told Dilanian they hadn’t unearthed crucial evidence showing that the “president formed a corrupt pact with Russia to offer sanctions relief or other favorable treatment in return for Russian help in the election.”

And there it sits and there it might stay but for a number of other factors — and law enforcement investigations — surrounding the Trump team, the most recent being the implosion on Wednesday evening of Paul Manafort’s plea deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to conspiracy. The judge hearing the case said Manafort had breached an earlier cooperation agreement with Mueller because, among other things, he lied to the veteran prosecutor’s team about his contacts with a Russian translator who allegedly had ties to the Kremlin — and who might have been involved with Russian efforts to sabotage the Democrats’ 2016 campaign.

Manafort discussed ways to address American opposition to Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine with the translator, Konstantin Kilimnik, with the possible aim of getting U.S. economic sanctions on Russia lifted. Manafort lied to prosecutors, saying that he’d only discussed those matters with Kilimnik during the campaign, when in fact the conversations continued after Trump was elected. He also lied to prosecutors about sharing campaign polling data with Kilimnik. Manafort and Kilimnik met in New York to discuss Ukraine policy and to hand off the polling data in the summer of 2016, according to the Washington Post, just two weeks after Wikileaks first began distributing emails that Russian hackers had stolen from Democratic National Committee servers.

As my Bloomberg News colleagues reported last week, a senior member of Mueller’s team had told the judge earlier that Manafort’s lies were significant because they involved motive and went “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”

In other words, Mueller’s team is exploring possible policy favors that the Kremlin may have been promised in exchange for helping Trump’s presidential prospects by targeting Hillary Clinton in 2016. The Senate committee may not have found evidence of that, but it’s increasingly possible that Mueller’s office has, and is building a core part of its investigation around that theme.

Lots of the lying admitted to by Trump advisers such as Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen, and which others such as Roger Stone have engaged in but have yet to fully acknowledge, involves efforts to cover up the proximity of Russia to the Trump presidential campaign and transition. In Flynn’s case, it specifically involved lying about a discussion with a senior Russian diplomat about U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

Why are so many Trump advisers lying about the same thing — conspiring with Russia — if Team Trump didn’t think it was doing anything wrong in its myriad intersections with Russian interests?

And however much the Senate committee doesn’t believe it has uncovered “direct evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia,” there’s substantial circumstantial — or “indirect” — evidence that should hold up quite well in a courtroom. Some former federal prosecutors pointed that out this week:

There’s a lot of wish fulfillment in how both Trump’s opponents and supporters see the Mueller probe. That certainly explains the reactions of both camps to NBC’s reporting. And it’s why the facts that have emerged elsewhere around the various facets of the Trump-Russia probes are so indispensable.

Regardless of what the Senate concluded or the president wants to believe, the nagging reality of deep, complicated, undeniable, longstanding, and troubling connections and collaborations between Trump’s inner circle and Russia still remains to be sorted by law enforcement, the House of Representatives, the media — and voters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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