Mueller’s probe breaks out into the open - Axios
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Mueller’s probe breaks out into the open

Illustration: Sam Jayne / Axios

Robert Mueller's Russia investigation has been conducted almost entirely in secret. Today, the Special Counsel made two very public moves, issuing indictments against former campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates and revealing that George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, has already pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and been actively cooperating with the probe.

Below, we round up how it all went down, why it matters, and where we go from here.

How it went down

  • Shortly before 8am: News drops that the looming indictments are for Manafort and Gates
  • 8:15am: Manafort turns himself in
  • 9am: The indictment showing the charges against Manafort and Gates is released
  • 10:25am: Trump takes to Twitter
  • 10:30am: The Papadopoulos news breaks
  • 1:30pm: Manafort and Gates appear in court, pleading "not guilty" to all charges

The charges

Manafort and Gates face: Conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading Foreign Agent Registration Act statements, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts. Manafort faces up to about 15 year in prison and Gates up to about 10.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to federal officials about his contacts with Russians. He faces zero to six months in prison under the plea deal.

Go deeper: Read the indictment

Inside the West Wing

Just minutes before the senior-most White House staff walked into Roosevelt Room for their morning meeting with Chief of Staff John Kelly, their phones lit up with news alerts of the first indictments in the Mueller probe.

There was relief that it was Manafort and not Michael Flynn. But there was also concern.

Go inside the meeting with Axios' Jonathan Swan

Inside the courtroom

Manafort appeared in person, with his lawyer saying he "definitely disagrees with the strength of the indictment" against him. Gates' court-appointed lawyer said he was invoking the 5th Amendment, and planned to hire private counsel. Both pleaded not guilty, and they are now under house arrest.

Go inside the room with Axios' Alexi McCammond

What's the White House saying?

Sarah Sanders dismissed the indictments of Manafort and Gates at today's press briefing, and described Papadopoulos as an irrelevant "volunteer" on the campaign.

"We're not worried about it distracting because it doesn't have anything to do with us ... The real collusion has everything to do with the Clinton campaign," she said.

Go deeper: Highlights from the briefing

What's Trump saying?

Sanders said Trump received the news "without a lot of reaction, because it doesn't have anything to do with us."

The Washington Post paints a different picture, of a "fuming" Trump: "Separated from most of his West Wing staff — who fretted over why he was late getting to the Oval Office — Trump clicked on the television and spent the morning playing fuming media critic, legal analyst and crisis communications strategist, according to several people close to him."

What are Democrats saying?

They're worried that Trump will interfere with Mueller's investigation, or even try to have him fired. Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders and Mark Warner were among those sounding the alarm.

Go deeper: Read the full piece

What's are top Republicans saying?

Generally, as little as possible. Here's Paul Ryan: "I really don't have anything to add, other than nothing's going to derail what we're doing in Congress."

How Mueller closed in on Manafort

2014:

  • The FBI begins investigating Manafort over his consulting work in Ukraine.
  • As a part of that investigation, the FBI obtains a FISA warrant to wiretap Manafort, per CNN. It was discontinued at some point in 2016, and later renewed.

2016:

  • March 28: Manafort joins the Trump campaign, tasked with wrangling delegates for the convention.
  • May 19: Manafort is promoted to campaign chairman.
  • June 9: Manafort attends the Trump Tower meeting at which Donald Trump Jr. had been told he'd receive dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government's efforts to help his father win.
  • August 19: Manafort quits the campaign, with Jared Kushner reportedly telling him if he doesn't resign immediately he'll be fired.
2017:
  • October 30: Manafort surrenders to authorities.

Go deeper: Check out the full timeline

Who is Gates?

Manafort's former business partner and protege. He followed Manafort onto the campaign and stayed after Manafort was forced out, even visiting the White House after Trump took office.

"[He could] go to jail because his long-term partner decided to go work for Donald Trump," Paul Rosenzweig, former deputy secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, told Axios. "What he did likely would not have seen the light of day...He's my Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer squared character in this drama...the man whose life is ruined by being sucked into the Trump tornado."

Go deeper: Read the full piece

Who is Papadopoulos?

As Swan writes, he was something of a "campaign nobody": Many top figures on the campaign genuinely had no idea who he was. Some White House officials had to resort to Google when the news broke this morning.

In March 2016, Papadopoulos tried to set up a meeting with Russian leadership and the Trump campaign team. He sent an email to the foreign policy team, according to Washington Post, promising a "meeting with Russian Leadership - Including Putin."

Go deeper: Read the full piece

Remaining questions

  • The events in question took place just days after Papadopoulos joined the campaign. So was Papadopoulos — known for embellishing details of his resume in the past — making legitimate overtures or just a young staffer trying to impress his bosses with foreign policy connections?
  • What did he have to offer Mueller in order to strike the deal?

Go deeper: Read the full piece

Smart takes

  • Lawfare blog: "Mueller's opening bid is a remarkable show of strength. He has a cooperating witness from inside the campaign's interactions with the Russians. And he is alleging not mere technical infractions of law but astonishing criminality on the part of Trump's campaign manager, a man who also attended the Trump Tower meeting."
  • Daily Beast's Lachlan Markay: "Before Manafort/Gates, DOJ had brought just four criminal prosecutions under FARA in the last 10 years. All resulted in convictions."
  • Matthew Miller, DOJ spokesman under Obama: "Mueller's choreographed one-two punch today sends a signal to every Trump official: cooperate & get a good deal or resist & get hammered."

Worth noting

Tony Podesta is stepping down as the head of his powerhouse lobbying firm, The Podesta Group, per Politico. The firm got pulled into Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation over public relations work it completed on behalf of Paul Manafort to promote Ukrainian interests in the United States. Podesta's brother John was Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman.

Catch up quick

What's next?

Manafort and Gates have their next hearing on Thursday, but their trial is likely at least six months away. Beyond that, only Mueller really knows. Meanwhile, a number of folks around town will be jumping every time they hear a knock on the door.

Bonus

Axios' Erica Pandey recaps a busy news day…

  • First Mueller indictments
  • Kevin Spacey allegations
  • Mark Halperin out at MSNBC
  • Record high levels of atmospheric CO2 reported
  • Court blocks transgender troop ban
  • Benghazi suspect captured
  • Huge Facebook/Google/Twitter Russia news
  • Weinstein assault count rises
  • House changes its tune on corporate tax rate
  • Tony Podesta steps down from his lobbying firm
  • FBI looking into shady Whitefish/P.R. contract

Got all that….? See you tomorrow in the Axios' stream, or in your inbox. Sign up for our newsletters here.

Featured

Trump admin bans CDC from using certain words like "fetus"

Outside the CDC headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo: Photo by James Leynse / Corbis via Getty Images

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were told by the Trump administration on Thursday that they are not allowed to use the words like "science-based," "evidence-based" and "transgender," in their budget documents, according to a CDC analyst who spoke to The Washington Post.

Why it matters: The administration wants to control what it considers controversial wording from agencies as they submit documents for the president's budget for 2019, expected to be released in February. However, the analyst told the WashPost they "could not recall a previous time when words were banned from budget documents" due to ideology.

The details, per The Washington Post:

  • The list of banned words: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based.
  • The meeting about the banned words was led by Alison Kelly, a senior leader in the agency’s Office of Financial Services, who told the CDC officials she was just the messenger.
  • The CDC has offices that directly work with public health issues that relate to those words, such as its research on fetus development for the Zika virus and preventing HIV among transgender people.

Other CDC officials confirmed the existence of a list of forbidden words, the article said, although spokespeople from CDC or OMB did not comment by their deadline.

Featured

White House, Democrats settle lawsuit over ACA payments

The action could signal an end to a long-running conflict. Photo: AP file

The Trump administration, House Republicans and Democratic attorneys general have settled a lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act's cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, Bloomberg reports. The court filing doesn't give any details of the settlement, per Bloomberg, except to say that it's "conditional."

What to watch: It's hard to know the true significance of the settlement when zero details are available. But for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, one of the Democratic attorneys general involved in the lawsuit, it represents a chance to move forward and try to preserve the subsidies on their merits.

That's because the settlement only applies to a lower court decision stopping the payments until Congress funds them, according to a spokesperson for the California Department of Justice.

From a spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan: "We are gratified that as a follow-up to the executive branch’s acknowledgement that making Obamacare payments to insurers without a congressional appropriation was unlawful, the parties have now agreed to resolve this lawsuit while leaving in place the district court’s legal rulings vindicating the House’s constitutional powers."

This story has been updated with statements from the California Department of Justice and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Featured

Federal judge blocks Trump from changing contraception rules

A month's supply of hormonal birth control pills. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The Trump administration's decision to roll back access to birth control under the Affordable Care Act has been blocked temporarily by a federal judge in Pennsylvania, Buzzfeed reports. The new rules went into effect in October and allowed employers and universities to decline providing birth control coverage for "religious or moral" reasons.

Why it matters: The ruling is one of several recent court orders blocking a Trump administration law. Trump's series of travel bans as well as his order preventing transgender troops from serving in the military have also been halted in court.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone agreed to grant Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's motion for a preliminary injunction, ruling that the Trump administration’s decision could potentially result in “enormous and irreversible” harm to the women of Pennsylvania. The injunction is applicable to all 50 states.

What's next: The block will remain in place until all arguments in the case are heard, which means the ACA requirement that all employers pay for contraception will stay in effect in the interim.

The Pennsylvania ruling joins a handful of similar lawsuits, including one in California, filed against the Trump administration's contraception rules.

Featured

Battery exec leaves Dyson two years after $90 million buyout

Michigan entrepreneur Ann Marie Sastry has left vacuum-maker Dyson, two years after it acquired her controverial lithium-ion battery company, Axios has learned. The $90 million all-cash buyout remains one of the richest lithium-ion deals ever.

Quick take: Sources with knowledge of the situation were not certain of the circumstances of Sastry's departure. But it comes eight months after Dyson relinquished Sakti3's core battery patents, and doubts remain in the field regarding her main claim, asserted repeatedly — that she was on the verge of commercializing much-sought-after solid state battery technology.

Why it matters: For the last two years, Dyson founder James Dyson has spoken of ambitious plans to spend $1 billion to $3 billion to revolutionize batteries and electric cars. He has said said his electric car will ready for the road by 2020. At the time, Dyson's October 2015 purchase of Sakti3 was the spearpoint of the mission, and Sastry's departure suggests more internal turmoil than he has let on.

  • Sastry's Linkedin page says she left Dyson last month. She identifies herself as the founder and CEO of a company called Amesite, which a source said is involved with artificial intelligence and education.

In September, Dyson told Bloomberg that he had created two competing battery teams—Sakti3, plus another that was attempting a different approach to solid state. One explanation for Sastry's departure was that the other team won. In an interview with the Guardian, Dyson said the company's batteries were already more efficient than those in commercial electric vehicles.

At the time of the October 2015 deal and since, numerous leading U.S. battery researchers told me they wondered why Dyson had bought Sakti3. Despite Sastry's robust claims of the company's progress with solid state, she had revealed very little publicly and, since no one else had made much progress, the deep suspicion was that she was exaggerating. Indeed, in reporting for a story at the time of the buyout, former Sakti3 executives told me that the doubters were correct—the company's technology was rudimentary and nowhere near commercial.

Dyson said Sastry is no longer with the company but declined to comment further. Sastry could not be reached.

Dan Primack contributed to this story.

Featured

Bob Corker flips to "yes" on tax reform

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the only holdout on the Senate's initial tax bill, announced Friday that he will vote "yes" on the GOP's tax cuts bill, less than an hour after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he will also vote yes.

Why it matters: Corker's vote essentially cements the tax bill's passage before the Christmas deadline.

His statement:

"After many conversations over the past several days with individuals from both sides of the aisle across Tennessee and around the country — including business owners, farmers, chambers of commerce and economic development leaders — I have decided to support the tax reform package we will vote on next week.

"This bill is far from perfect, and left to my own accord, we would have reached bipartisan consensus on legislation that avoided any chance of adding to the deficit and far less would have been done on the individual side with items that do not generate economic growth.

"But after great though and consideration, I believe that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss. While many project that it is very possible over the next ten years we could be at least $500 billion short on a $43 trillion policy baseline, I believe this bill accompanied with the significant regulatory changes that are underway, and hopefully, future pro-growth oriented policies relative to trade and immigration , could have significant positive impact on the well-being of Americans and help drive additional foreign direct investment in Tennessee.

"In the end, after 11 years in the Senate, I know every bill we consider is imperfect and the questions becomes is our country better off with or without this piece of legislation. I think we are better off with it. I realize this is a bet on our country's enterprising spirit, and that is a bet I am willing to make."

Featured

Release of texts between FBI officials to media was unauthorized

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP

The Department of Justice said that some members of the media received early copies of the texts between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, and that the release was not authorized by the department, Business Insider reports.

Why it matters: The texts are part of an ongoing investigation; they were shared with lawmakers on Tuesday night, prior to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, and were shared with reporters afterwards. But DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said some reporters had already received them.

Featured

Rubio officially yes on tax bill

Sen. Marco Rubio Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Sen. Marco Rubio's office has confirmed to reporters that the senator will be voting for the GOP tax cuts bill now that the child tax credit has been enhanced to meet his standards.

Why it matters: This thing looks ready to pass.

Featured

Report: FCC to fine Sinclair $13 million over undisclosed ads

AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File

The FCC plans to fine Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation milions of dollars over undisclosed cancer ads that aired during newscasts over a six-month period in 2016, Reuters reports.

The news comes one day after reports surfaced that the DOJ wants Sinclair to divest roughly 12 local broadcast stations in order for its $3.9 million merger with Tribune Media Company to be approved. It also comes as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is being attacked for what is seen as a close relationship with Sinclair.

The fine addresses roughly 1,700 commercials that aired for the Huntsman Cancer Institute. According to the report, Sinclair has previously told reporters that the violations were unintentional.

Reuters reports that the fine was approved by the five-member FCC but has not yet been made public. Sinclair's management has always been right-leaning and conservative-leaning Pai has been accused by progressives as being favorable to the broadcaster.

Featured

White House says Western Wall will stay in Israel

Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a 2014 meeting in Israel. Photo: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO via Getty Images

A senior White House official told reporters today that the Trump administration believes the Western Wall in East Jerusalem will remain part of Israel in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. The issue came up during a briefing to reporters on Vice President Mike Pence's upcoming visit to Israel.

Why it matters: The statement risks further infuriating the Palestinians at a time when the administration is trying to cool down the crisis created by President Trump's Jerusalem speech. The Western wall was occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and was never recognized as part of Israel by any country around the world.

Context: During previous negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. supported the Israeli position that the Western Wall should stay part of Israel, but it was never articulated publicly.

What to watch: The official said Pence will visit the Western Wall during his trip to Israel, and he will do it as the vice president and not as a private citizen. "We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not [be] part of Israel," the official said. "But as the president said, the specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement."

The bottom line: After the briefing ended, the White House official noted that the U.S. "cannot imagine Israel would sign a peace agreement that didn’t include the Western Wall."

What's next: In the meantime, White House special envoy Jason Greenblatt will arrive in Israel early next week. It is unclear whether Greenblatt is going to meet any Palestinian officials. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas announced he does not see the U.S. as an honest broker and said the Palestinians will not meet with Pence during his visit.

While in Israel, Greenblatt will meet Fernando Gentilini, European Union envoy for Middle East peace. The 28 leaders of EU member states announced yesterday they see Jerusalem as the shared capital of both Israel and Palestine — pushing back against Trump's announcement that the U.S. recognizes it as the capital of Israel.

The White House official added that given the timing, Greenblatt will stay on for Pence’s visit to provide any relevant support.

Featured

Facebook admits that some social media use can be harmful

The Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad. Photo: Matt Rourke / AP

In a new installment of its "Hard Questions" series, Facebook acknowledges that social media can have negative (or positive) effects on people, depending on how they use it.

Why it matters: This might be the first public acknowledgment from the company that its product — and category in general — can have detrimental effects on people.

Facebook is also addressing the topic shortly after two former executives publicly criticized the company for what they described as exploiting human psychology.

Good and bad use, according to research cited by Facebook:

  • Bad: Passive use of social media — reading information without interacting with others — makes people feel worse. Clicking on more links or "liking" more posts than the average user also leads to worse mental health, according to one study.
  • Good: Active use — interacting with people, sharing messages, posts, comments, and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improved well-being.
  • It takes two: Interacting with other users is key, according to research. Simply posting on Facebook without interacting with other people isn't enough.

But: This isn't a capitulation from Facebook, admitting that it may be doing some harm. Instead, the company is simply telling us that we just need to use its social network in more positive ways.