WASHINGTON • An investigation into Russian interference in last year's election moved into a new and more perilous stage for the White House yesterday after three aides to Mr Donald Trump's presidential campaign were charged.
Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and another former Trump aide appeared in court, pleading not guilty to conspiracy against the United States, money laundering and several other charges after the indictments in the Russia probe were unsealed.
The two were released on bail and placed under house arrest.
Separately, another former Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about his Kremlin-related contacts, according to a plea deal.
The unsealed indictments were an explosive opening salvo from independent counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Russia probe, after months of speculation, spin and obfuscation about possible Trump campaign collusion with Moscow.
While falling short of providing a smoking gun for top-level conspiracy, the charges point to a potential pattern of senior Trump associates looking to Russia and its proxies for political and economic gain.
Manafort, 68, and Richard Gates, 45, were charged with allegedly hiding millions of dollars gleaned from work with Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow political party.
Papadopoulos, a former Trump foreign policy adviser, admitted he tried to hide contacts with a Moscow-linked professor who was offering "dirt" on President Trump's election rival Hillary Clinton.
The revelations prompted a furious and defiant reaction from Mr Trump, who dismissed allegations of collusion and called on Mrs Clinton to be investigated. But the charges signal a dramatic new phase in Mr Mueller's investigation, one that holds grave peril for the Trump presidency.
Papadopoulos revealed that he informed Mr Trump and others personally that he could organise a meeting between the then candidate and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The former adviser told the FBI that he had been instructed by an unnamed "campaign supervisor" to meet Russian officials "off the record" if "feasible". His contacts with Russian sources came to include Mr Putin's niece and the Russian ambassador in London.
The Kremlin yesterday dismissed as "baseless" and "ludicrous" the notion that charges levelled by Mr Mueller against the three Trump campaign officials constituted proof of a possible meddling by Russia.
Moscow has always denied playing any role in the 2016 presidential election, and has portrayed the investigation into Russian interference as an attempt by Mr Trump's opponents to cover up for the election defeat of Mrs Clinton.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the indictments provided no evidence of Russian meddling. "From the outset we have been completely baffled over these baseless, unproven accusations against our country, about alleged attempts to interfere with US elections," Mr Peskov told reporters during a conference call.
White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested Mr Trump did not recall "specific details of the meeting" and that Papadopoulos had only a limited role. "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 in that regard."
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Mr Putin ordered a vast influence campaign to help Mr Trump win election, including the hack and release of Democratic Party and Clinton campaign e-mails.
As Mr Mueller's probe has rumbled forward, Mr Trump and sympathetic media organisations like Fox News have increasingly called the former FBI director's independence into question.
Democrats called for the special counsel to be protected.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESS, WASHINGTON POST