On Monday morning, after the United States learned that Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Manafort’s lobbying partner, Rick Gates, had been indicted and turned themselves in to federal authorities, the president tried to distance himself from the unfolding scandal. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” the president wrote in one tweet. A few minutes later, he added, in another, “Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
At almost the exact same time, news broke suggesting that the FBI has evidence of collusion. We learned that one of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy aides, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his attempts to solicit compromising information on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. Despite Trump’s hysterical denials and attempts at diversion, the question is no longer whether there was cooperation between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but how extensive it was.
In truth, that’s been clear for a while. If it’s sometimes hard to grasp the Trump campaign’s conspiracy against our democracy, it’s due less to lack of proof than to the impudent improbability of its B-movie plotline. Monday’s indictments offer evidence of things that Washington already knows but pretends to forget. Trump, more gangster than entrepreneur, has long surrounded himself with bottom-feeding scum, and for all his nationalist bluster, his campaign was a vehicle for Russian subversion.
We already knew that Manafort offered private briefings about the campaign to Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The indictment accuses him of having been an unregistered foreign agent for another Putin-aligned oligarch, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Trump wasn’t paying Manafort, who reportedly sold himself to the candidate by offering to work free. But he intended to profit from his connection with the campaign, emailing an associate, “How do we use to get whole?” If there were no other evidence against Trump, we could conclude that he was grotesquely irresponsible in opening his campaign up to corrupt foreign infiltration.
But of course there is other evidence against Trump. His campaign was told that Russia wanted to help it, and it welcomed such help. On June 3, remember, music publicist Rob Goldstone emailed Donald Trump Jr. to broker a Trump Tower meeting at which a Russian source would deliver “very high level and sensitive information” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. responded with delight: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
The guilty plea by Papadopoulos indicates what information Trump Jr. might have been expecting. An obscure figure in foreign policy circles, Papadopoulos was one of five people who Trump listed as foreign policy advisers during a Washington Post editorial board meeting last year. A court filing, whose truth Papadopoulos affirms, says that in April 2016, he met with a professor who he “understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials.” The professor told him that Russians had “dirt” on Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” (The Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta had been hacked in March.)
In the following months, Papadopoulos and his supervisors emailed back and forth about plans for a campaign trip to Russia. According to the court filing, one campaign official emailed another, “We need someone to communicate that D.T. is not doing these trips.” D.T. clearly stood for Donald Trump. The email continued, “It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
Thanks to an August Washington Post story, we know that this email was sent by Manafort. Some have interpreted the exchange to mean that Manafort wanted a low-level person to decline the invitation, not to go to Russia. But the court filing also cites a “campaign supervisor” encouraging Papadopoulos and “another foreign policy adviser” to make the trip. Papadopoulos never went to Russia, but foreign policy adviser Carter Page did.
So here’s where we are. Trump put Manafort, an accused money-launderer and unregistered foreign agent, in charge of his campaign. Under Manafort’s watch, the campaign made at least two attempts to get compromising information about Clinton from Russia. Russia, in turn, provided hacked Democratic emails to WikiLeaks.
Russia also ran a giant disinformation campaign against Clinton on social media and attempted to hack voting systems in at least 21 states. In response to Russia’s election meddling, Barack Obama’s administration imposed sanctions. Upon taking office, Trump reportedly made secret efforts to lift them. He fired FBI Director James Comey to stop his investigation into “this Russia thing,” as he told Lester Holt. The day after the firing, he met with Russia’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States, and told them: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
We’ve had a year of recriminations over the Clinton campaign’s failings, but Trump clawed out his minority victory only with the aid of a foreign intelligence service. On Monday we finally got indictments, but it’s been obvious for a year that this presidency is a crime.
Michelle Goldberg became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in 2017.