To those who were anticipating the indictment against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort that became public Monday, the unexpected unsealing of a guilty plea from another Trump campaign aide a little more than an hour later was a major shock.
But Special Counsel Robert Mueller wasn’t just giving close observers of the case a bonus surprise on a day being touted on Twitter as #MuellerMonday. Mueller was sending a message — multiple messages in fact — former federal prosecutors tell TPM and the unsealed court filings themselves suggest.
“It was a really strong, powerful one-two punch, that shows that they’re serious about going after people who are critical to this whole investigation and that the Russian collusion is a real issue — you’ve got somebody who has already admitted to it,” Nick Akerman, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the Watergate investigation, told TPM.
It had long been reported that Mueller was interested in Manafort’s financial history not explicitly related to the 2016 campaign and that Manafort himself was expecting an indictment. So in that sense, the indictment released Monday lived up to expectations that it would zero in on shady financial activities not directly related to the campaign.
But it was not known until later in the day Monday that back in July another Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, was arrested for lying to the FBI in January about his Russia contacts during the campaign. Papadopoulos admitted as part of his guilty plea earlier this month that he had communications that other Trump officials were aware of with Russia-tied figures. Papadopoulos has been cooperating with Mueller’s investigation since his arrest and has reached a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Together, the two cases – the indictment of Manafort along with his protege Rick Gates and the Papadopoulos plea agreement – operated as a carrot and a stick, according to Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who investigated organized crime for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York.
The stick was “a very significant, very detailed, and, therefore, in many ways, more credible than the usual bare bones federal indictment on Manafort and Gates,” Cotter said — an indictment that could bring major jail time and huge fines.
The Papadopoulos plea deal was the “very yummy, yummy carrot,” Cotter said, “where you confess to obstruction of justice and perjury, and you will not do any jail time.”
Mueller’s message to the people he is approaching now, according to Cotter: “You can have the big nasty stick or this yummy carrot. But you don’t have a third choice.”
Key lines in the Manafort indictment suggested Mueller had additional evidence that was going to undercut Manafort’s defense. The Papadopoulos revelations signaled that Mueller had long been aware that Manafort was allegedly looped in on Papadopoulos’ communications with figures said to have been connected to the Kremlin.
The documents referenced an email Papadopoulos allegedly sent a “high ranking Campaign official” — identified by the Washington Post as Manafort — that flagged that Russia through Papadopoulos has been seeking to speak to Trump.
According to Randall Samborn, a spokesman for Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s Valerie Plame leak investigation, this shows Manafort and Gates that as significant as the government’s charges are against them in the first indictment, they may get even worse without their cooperation.
“If they’re in jeopardy on these charges alone, they have continued ongoing jeopardy for their involvement in the attempted collusion,” Samborn told TPM.
The Papadopoulos case also signals to those who have yet to be contacted by the Mueller probe that it’s in their interest to be honest, given that Mueller has access to some of the emails from the campaign. And if you have already spoken to Mueller’s team, they might already know if you had been dishonest.
“Now they know what they said may or may not have heightened the temperature around them,” Samborn said.
A key phrase in the case filings that jumped out to former federal prosecutors was a line describing Papadopoulos as a “proactive cooperator.”
Such language could refer to anything from Papadopoulos’ willingness to meet with investigators multiple times to go over documents to the possibility that he may have continued to talk to potential witnesses or even worn a wire, Cotter said.
The case file reveals there were two months between Papadopoulos’ arrest and when he pleaded guilty, and that it was another month before Mueller felt that he could unseal the documents without harming his investigation.
“People know who they are if they have talked to Papadopoulos since the end of July,” Akerman said. “They’re wondering, what did I say and how much did I say and did he tape record it.”
Finally, there was a more general message that Mueller, a longtime creature of Washington, was issuing, one that seemed aimed at the White House spin that was expected to come out of the Manafort indictment: that those charges predate the campaign, that they have nothing to do with Russian interference, and that they were beyond the scope of what Mueller was supposed to investigate.
“Mueller and his team were effectively able to blunt that potential criticism that they don’t have any Russian collusion charges to bring and that this is all they got,” Samborn said. By unsealing the Papadopoulos documents, “he clearly intended to send a message that the investigation of Russia collusion, they are not only laser focused on, but they are making laser progress.”