WASHINGTON — Maryland Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday expressed confidence in special counsel Robert Mueller in response to the indictments of Paul Manafort, Richard Gates and George Papadopoulos revealed on Monday, presumably the first in the ongoing investigation into the 2016 election and Donald Trump’s campaign.
“Mr. Mueller should have free leeway to pursue the facts and determine whether there’s any further accountability in regards to those contacts,” Sen. Ben Cardin said in an interview with Capital News Service.
For many lawmakers, the most revealing part of Monday’s developments was the unsealed indictment of George Papadopoulous, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. According to court documents, Papadopoulous was arrested and pleaded guilty in July for lying to the FBI about his relationship and contacts with officials in Russia.
“He was obviously somebody who was on the Trump campaign, he was engaged in outreach to other nations,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen told Capital News Service. “Clearly, he was nervous about people finding out the scope of his activity.”
This guilty plea is the first in connection with Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials to gain information about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The reason for the sealing of Papadopoulos’ plea agreement was in part to ensure that he could act as a “proactive cooperator” in the ongoing investigation, a topic of much speculation since the announcement.
“This is a very serious issue that shows just what Russia is doing here in the United States,” Cardin said. “They find targets, and they use people to advance their agenda.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Baltimore) issued a statement that called out the president’s “blanket denial” that his campaign had any dealings with the Russians.
“These are no longer mere allegations — they are damning facts established in a guilty plea by one of the president’s own advisers,” Cummings said, responding to the news of Papadopoulos’ plea.
Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager, and Gates, a long-time Manafort associate, were indicted on 12 counts relating to the concealment of millions of dollars earned from their work overseas and failure to register as foreign agents. The indictment alleges that “in total, more than $75,000,000 flowed through the offshore accounts.”
“Nobody knows how far it goes except that originally there was a denial that there was any Russian involvement at all in trying to sabotage our presidential election,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Kensington) in an interview with Capital News Service. “It’s pretty clear that there was a massive Russian effort to infiltrate the presidential election and to affect its outcome.”
“When you add up what happened with Donald Trump Jr., with what happened with General (Michael) Flynn, and what Papadopoulos has pled guilty to,” Raskin continued, “with all of the other circumstantial evidence, it seems overwhelmingly likely that there were real attempts to coordinate and traffic information back and forth between the Trump campaign and various Russian networks around Vladimir Putin.”
Both Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty, and were placed under house-arrest after surrendering their passports. They each could face sentences of more than ten years in prison if convicted.
The Mueller investigation has underscored worries among some in Congress that foreign nations can meddle in this country’s elections. Two of Maryland’s lawmakers think a new commission needs to be formed to explore preventative measures ahead of future elections.
“The indictments handed down yesterday have ratcheted up concerns about Russia’s efforts to undermine the American electoral process,” Rep. John Sarbanes, (D-Towson) said in a statement. “This is an-all-hands-on-deck situation that demands immediate action from Congress.”
“As the special counsel’s work continues... we ought to establish a bipartisan, independent commission to get to the bottom of Russia’s efforts to subvert our democracy and how best to protect ourselves against them in the future,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Mechanicsville) said in a statement.
While Manafort is Trump’s former campaign manager, the White House on Monday claimed that the indictments had nothing to do with the current administration or the president’s campaign.
“We’re not worried about it distracting because it doesn’t have anything to do with us because this is something that is action that took place outside of the campaign or campaign activity,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Sanders also attempted to distance the administration from Papadopoulos, saying that Trump had only interacted with him once and that Papadopoulos’ role on the campaign was “a volunteer position” and “extremely limited.”
“No activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign,” Sanders said when asked about Papadopoulos.
Sanders added that the real scandal falls on the back of the Clinton campaign and collusion with Russia.
Cardin cautioned that the the United States must be proactive and look beyond Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections.
“We should recognize that Russia has a comprehensive plan in order to try to affect our democratic system of government,” Cardin said. “We saw that in the last elections, but it’s much broader than just that one particular campaign.”
“We’ve got to be prepared in 2018,” the senator added. “It’s a very serious issue, and clearly there’s more to come.”