WASHINGTON - With his job approval ratings at historic lows, President Donald Trump now faces a clearly widening probe into his campaign aides’ potential collusion with Russia to interfere in last year’s presidential election.
Washington was rocked on Monday (Oct 30) by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) indictment of Paul Manafort, the President’s campaign manager who resigned in August last year, and Richard Gates, deputy chair of the Trump campaign.
The charges centred not on campaign collusion but on corruption and money laundering related to money Manafort earned representing a pro-Russia Ukrainian politician.
Mr Trump hit back on Tuesday (Oct 31) morning, tweeting: “The Fake News is working overtime. As Paul Manafort’s lawyer said, there was ‘no collusion’ and events mentioned took place long before he came to the campaign. Few people knew the young, low-level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar.”
But the “low-level volunteer” may be the key, analysts say. George Papadopoulos, 30, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty on Oct 5 to a federal charge of lying about contacts with people linked to high-level Russian officials.
He told the FBI he had been in contact with an “overseas professor” before joining the Trump campaign – when in fact he had already been working with Mr Trump’s team.
The professor “only took interest in defendant Papadopoulos because of his status with the campaign”, court documents show.
Significantly, Papadopoulos had turned “proactive cooperator”. That means he has been actively aiding the FBI, possibly even wearing a recording device, experts say.
“If it were just the Gates and Manafort indictment, Trump would be pretty unscathed,” Mr Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist and commentator, told The Straits Times.
“However, the Papadopoulos guilty plea torpedoes that. Now, the real question is what is the next shoe to drop, if any?”
His admission had nothing to do with the campaign, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted.
“It has to do with his failure to tell the truth,” she told reporters. “That doesn’t have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign’s activities.”
Asked what role Papadopoulos had, she insisted: “It was extremely limited; it was a volunteer position.”
Yet analysts see Monday’s (Oct 30) moves as only a first salvo by Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the FBI’s investigation.
“Complex investigations such as this one need time to unfold and develop, and we are just at the beginning,” tweeted Mr Alex Whiting, professor of practice at Harvard Law School and a former International Criminal Court prosecutor.
Duke law professor Samuel W. Buell told The Boston Globe: “The Manafort allegations have to do with Manafort’s own legal violations in connection with his work in Ukraine. The Papadopoulos allegations directly involve Trump campaign dealings with Russia. This now shows that the special counsel has a witness who’s prepared to testify about that.”
The President insists the Russia probe is a witch-hunt and has been trying to turn the spotlight back on Mrs Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, attacking them for apparently funding research designed to damage him, and doing a deal with Russia over uranium.
“Check the DEMS!” he added in his tweets on Tuesday (Oct 31). Many Republicans want a special investigator to probe Mrs Clinton.
“It is getting increasingly difficult for the President to persuade anyone other than true believers that there is nothing to this probe,” Cornell University professor of American studies Glenn Altschuler told The Straits Times.
The Washington-based Brookings Institution said in a comment: “Any hope the White House may have had that the Mueller investigation might be fading away vanished Monday morning. Things are only going to get worse from here.”