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Where is Mueller’s probe headed? Indictments and surprise plea agreement offer clues

The Russia investigation entered a new phase Monday with indictments for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, and news of a guilty plea from a former Trump advisor for lying to the FBI about his connections to Russia. Lisa Desjardins reports and Judy Woodruff gets a breakdown of today’s indictments from Carrie Johnson of NPR.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The first charges in the Russia investigation speak to the size and scope of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Moscow's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

    Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Today, indictments for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates for charges unrelated to the campaign, and a guilty plea from former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, which is related to campaign work.

    First, Manafort and Gates. Both pleaded not guilty today in court.

  • Kevin Downing:

    There is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The charges include laundering millions of dollars, tax fraud, failing to register as foreign agents and conspiracy against the United States, all of that stemming from their work consulting for foreign politicians for the last decade.

    Manafort, of course, is best known for his three months as the campaign chairman for Donald Trump.

    Paul Manafort We presented the exact messaging we were trying to do.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Those were pivotal months. Manafort helped steer Trump's primary wins, the selection of Mike Pence as vice president, and he oversaw last summer's convention. Manafort was forced out shortly after that convention, following the release of a Ukrainian ledger alleging millions of dollars in payments to Manafort.

    Manafort called the document a fake and insisted no wrongdoing. Months later, the then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to downplay Manafort's role.

  • Sean Spicer:

    Obviously, there's been this discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    PolitiFact found that statement to be false.

    President Trump defended Manafort in August.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have always found Paul Manafort to be a very decent man.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Manafort is a longtime political operative, advising Ronald Reagan in 1980 and three other GOP nominees. He also made millions consulting overseas, including Ukraine, and for Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych.

    Manafort is credited with his political makeover. As president of Ukraine in 2014, Yanukovych's pro-Russian moves led to unrest, and he is now in exile in Russia.

    In 2015, Manafort bought an apartment in Trump Tower. A year later, he was working for the Trump campaign.

    Republican leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan today acknowledged, but de-emphasized the charges.

  • Rep. Paul Ryan:

    I have nothing to add to these indictments, other than this is what Bob Mueller was tasked to do.

    I haven't read the indictments. I don't know the specific details of the indictments. But that is how our — that's how the judicial process works.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Rick Gates is Manafort's longtime number two. I need to mention here that I have personally known Gates since we were students in college together.

    Now, the indictments today allege that both Manafort and Gates hid and laundered millions coming in from overseas to avoid taxes and that they acted as agents of foreign governments and did not disclose that.

    Also today, Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta resigned from his namesake firm, following news that his ties to Manafort, and his work on Ukraine issues, are also under investigation.

    A potentially more revealing case involves George Papadopoulos, who now appears to be a cooperating witness in the investigation. He was a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser. In papers unsealed today, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with three people who were Russian or connected to Russia.

    The plea lists pages of contacts while he in the campaign, some about possible Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton and many about setting up direct meetings between Russian officials and Trump. In the plea, Papadopoulos said he brought up that idea to then candidate Trump and others at a march 2016 meeting. That's shown in a photo tweeted out by Trump himself.

    White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responded today.

  • Sarah Sanders:

    I'm not sure that the president recalls specific details of the meeting. Again, it was a brief meeting that took place quite some time ago. It was the one time that group ever met.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As for Papadopoulos's role?

  • Sarah Sanders:

    It was extremely limited It was a volunteer position. And, again, no activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Sanders insisted none of this is related to the president at all.

    The president responded himself on Twitter, writing that the events involving Manafort were years ago and that there is no collusion.

  • We know this:

    Special counsel Mueller's team has entered its next high-stakes phase of investigation, with the endgame still unclear.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now let's look further into what is clear from today's indictments with Carrie Johnson. She's justice correspondent for NPR.

    Carrie, thank you for talking with us.

    You have been watching what Robert Mueller has been doing, at least as closely as a journalist can. What have we learned today about his work from these indictments?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    That he's working slowly, methodically and, in fact, five months in, he now has charged three people with wrongdoing.

    One of them, George Papadopoulos, has agreed to cooperate and has already been meeting with government investigators to tell them what he knows.

    For the last several months, Robert Mueller has been able to keep that a secret from members of the press and the Trump campaign and the White House. Also today, the charges against Paul Manafort and his right-hand man, Rick Gates, really upped the ante against Manafort.

    We know that Mueller has been putting pressure on Manafort at least since July, when the FBI raided his residence in Virginia. This may afford Manafort one last chance to cooperate and agree to help the Mueller investigate. If not, he faces many, many years in prison on those conspiracy charges and charges that he failed to register as a foreign agent.

    Mueller's lawyer today said he didn't engage in any wrongdoing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Carrie, is…

  • Carrie Johnson:

    I mean, Manafort's lawyer today said he didn't engage in any wrongdoing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm sorry to interrupt you.

    So, Carrie, among those reporters who follow or try to follow what Robert Mueller is up to, was this expected, or was it a surprise?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    It was a bit of legal shock and awe, Judy, because, while Paul Manafort had been under the sights of the special counsel for some weeks now, and Rick Gates, as Mueller's right-hand man, was as well, this guilty plea involving George Papadopoulos, a little-known 30-year-old foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, had flown completely under the radar.

    In fact, Papadopoulos had met with the FBI on a couple of occasions this year. He was actually arrested at Dulles Airport in July, and no word of that leaked until today.

    He's been telling the FBI what he knows. And I don't think we know exactly from these charging documents absolutely everything he has told the special counsel.

    I think there are a lot of investigative avenues opening up today that we didn't know about before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, is there a sense, Carrie, from looking at this, of where Mueller depends to go from here, or are more surprises in store?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Well, I think more surprise may be in store, but there are some clues from the charging documents.

    One is that both Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were charged with failing to file as foreign agents operating inside the U.S. That charge has been little used, in fact, Manafort's lawyer said used only six times since 1966.

    And that is the charge that could be deployed against other members of the Trump campaign. Remember, former General Mike Flynn, also Trump's former national security adviser, belatedly filed foreign agent papers earlier this year.

    Secondly, the Papadopoulos charging documents reference conversations he had with supervisors in the campaign, high-ranking people involved in the Trump campaign last year. And investigators are looking at what those people knew and whether they can come under some kind of scrutiny from the FBI and the special counsel team moving forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Carrie, we heard the White House spokeswoman say today that it's their information that the Mueller investigation is going to be wrapping up pretty soon. Any idea where that's coming from and if that is accurate?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    I have heard the White House press secretary say that. I have also heard Ty Cobb, who is a special counsel with the president dealing with and managing cooperation with the special counsel.

    Judy, as somebody who's been doing this a long time, I see no evidence that this investigation is going to end before the end of this year. And, certainly, it feels as if it might go well into next year.

    At this point, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates are contesting the charges against them and, it could be presumed, preparing for trial, which wouldn't happen until mid-2018 at the earliest. This could be a cloud hanging over the Trump White House for many months to come.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Carrie Johnson, justice correspondent for NPR, we thank you.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Thank you.

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