Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has drawn first blood in the investigation. His team filed charges against three of President Trump’s former campaign officials - the onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his associate Rick Gates, and foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos.
While Papadopoulos was tagged for making a false statement to FBI investigators, Manafort and Gates were both indicted on 12 counts, to which they have since pleaded not guilty. The charges included conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, being unregistered agent of a foreign principal, making false and misleading statements and seven counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.
Of all the charges, the “conspiracy against the United States" is perhaps the most dramatic and relevant to the ongoing investigation into whether Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with members of the Russian government to influence the U.S. elections. But while it sounds almost like treason, the charge isn’t necessarily as serious.
What does the charge actually say? Here’s how the indictment related it, saying Manafort and Gates are charged with -
"knowingly and intentionally [conspiring] to defraud the United States by impeding, impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of a government agency, namely the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury, and to commit offensives against the United States."
First of all, the indictment currently relates to the work by Manafort and Gates in support of a Russia-friendly political party in Ukraine and does not necessarily have anything to do with the elections or indicate anything done wrong by the Trump campaign, a fact Trump picked up on Twitter by saying “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????. . . Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
Of course, these are just the first charges of the investigation which can continue for years. It’s too early to tell what the investigators really have and there’s a possibility they will try to pressure Manafort and his associates to give up something on Trump, if there is such evidence.
The conspiracy charges themselves could be linked mainly to money laundering (of more than $75 million) and tax evasion counts that are part of the indictment.
The U.S Law itself defined conspiracy against the U.S. this way:
"If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
"If, however, the offense, the commission of which is the object of the conspiracy, is a misdemeanor only, the punishment for such conspiracy shall not exceed the maximum punishment provided for such misdemeanor."
As you can see, the charge could even result in a misdemeanor related to improper financial transactions and certainly doesn’t have the specter of treason, which has a much higher bar. More details and time are needed to see how bad things are going to get for Manafort and people in his orbit, including President Trump.