Charges against three former associates of Donald Trump were announced on Monday in a critical turn to the special counsel investigation into Russia’s role in the US presidential election.
The indictments against Mr Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates, as well as a policy adviser for the campaign, George Papadopoulos, come 166 days into the investigation led by former FBI chief Robert Mueller.
In a sign pointing to a broad investigation, Politico reported on Monday that Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta resigned from his position in the Podesta Group that he founded because his name had surfaced in the Mueller probe as well. Mr Podesta's brother, John, was the former chairman of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign.
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 Manafort, who was the Trump campaign manager until August last year, laundered more than $18 million (Dh66m), according to the 31-page indictment.
Mr Gates, a long time business partner of Mr Manafort, was also accused of money laundering. He worked with the Trump campaign until after the president's inauguration in January, helping Mr Trump’s longtime friend Tom Barrack organise the event.
The two indictments, coming less than six months after the investigation began, open a new phase in the process. Mr Mueller and his team are expected to pressure Mr Manafort and Mr Gates to co-operate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in exchange for a deal in court later. CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin describe the indictment as “serious and complicated” and anticipated a long-drawn legal process, with a possible trial being months away.
The third indictment revealed on Monday involving a former Trump associate took a different course with the authorities and offered a direct link to Russia. Mr Papadopolous, who was indicted on October 5, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. The charges against him are directly connected to Russia’s meddling attempts and include meeting with a Russian professor in 2016 to discuss “dirt” on Mrs Clinton and thousands of her emails.
Mr Trump, who was expected to meet his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, later on Monday, stressed on the lack of connection between Manafort-Gates indictment and his campaign. "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?????," the president tweeted hours after the indictments were made public.
He added “...Also, there is NO COLLUSION”
The tweets ignore Mr Manafort's role as campaign manager from June to August of 2016. A White House official told CNN that “these were bad guys before they were hired [by the Trump campaign] and are still bad guys after they left”.
In a White House briefing later, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the indictments of Mr Manafort and Mr Gates had nothing to do with Mr Trump or his campaign and showed no evidence of collusion between the campaign and Russia.
"We've been saying from day one there's no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and nothing in the indictment today changes that at all," she said.
Ms Sanders said that Mr Papadopoulos had had a very limited volunteer role in the campaign.
She said Mr Trump had no plans to replace Mr Mueller. "The president said last week and I said several times before, there is no intention or plan to make any changes in regards to the special counsel."
She refused to comment on possible presidential pardons for Mr Trump's former associates.
The Democratic leader in Congress, senator Chuck Schumer issued a non-subtle warning to the White House against interfering in the investigation. “These reported indictments show that the special counsel’s probe is ongoing in a very serious way. The rule of law is paramount in America and the investigation must be allowed to proceed unimpeded,” he said.
“The president must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel’s work in any way. If he does so, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues."
It was not clear what impact the indictments will have on the Mr Trump’s legislative agenda and Republican efforts to pass tax reforms before the end of the year. But on Monday at least, the Mueller investigation and the charges were dominating US headlines and ushering a lengthy process of legal battles to the doorstep of the White House.