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Paul Manafort charges don’t ensure justice – but it’s a start

Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media

On Friday, CNN broke the news that special prosecutor Robert Mueller had filed charges against someone in Donald Trump's circle and would reveal the target on Monday. The news sent the public into a flurry of speculation damning in its own right: The list of people in the President's camp under federal investigation is so long that there was no way to predict with confidence who the first indicted would be.

Today, the loser of this perverse game of Clue was named: it was Paul Manafort, with alleged money-laundering all over the world. His arrest was not surprising: In September, Mr. Mueller had told Mr. Manafort – a GOP operative who served dictators and oligarchs abroad before becoming Mr. Trump's campaign manager in 2016 – that his indictment was forthcoming. But Mr. Manafort's surrender on Monday to the FBI still feels shocking, given that the administration has faced so few consequences for its offences.

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The indictment of Mr. Manafort – which focuses on his work with lobbyist Richard Gates (also indicted) to boost Kremlin lackeys in Ukraine and their alleged money-laundering – does not indicate that justice will be served, but that justice remains possible, at least for now. The wheels of justice may finally be turning, but they grind slowly like the initial trek up a roller coaster, and Americans should expect a stomach-turning plunge as the Trump administration retaliates and whiplash as the investigation proceeds.

From the beginning, Mr. Trump has operated with the audacity of an autocrat. The selection of Mr. Manafort – a notoriously shady operative who has been under federal investigation for several years – as chairman of Mr. Trump's election campaign was itself an audacious move, indicating that Mr. Trump had no qualms about aligning himself with a possible criminal with a fondness for dictators. When the extent of Mr. Manafort's illicit Russia ties was exposed in March, Mr. Trump and his spokespeople played down their relationship with equal audacity, claiming the President barely knew Mr. Manafort – a fellow resident of Trump Tower who had been in his social circle for more than 30 years.

Former Trump campaign manager indicted on 12 counts (Reuters)

As the Manafort news broke on Monday, Mr. Trump continued to twist the truth, tweeting that "Crooked Hillary & the Dems" were the real Russia conspirators and that "there is NO COLLUSION!" About two weeks before Mr. Manafort's indictment, Mr. Trump's team had begun a co-ordinated propaganda blitz to flip the script on Russia – a sign that they knew they could no longer deny foreign interference, so they had no recourse left but to try to blame those, such as Hillary Clinton, who opposed and exposed it.

The Russia reversal was so predictable I gave a speech about it before it happened, and while the propaganda is partially aimed to divert from Mr. Mueller's charges, it also shows a disturbing willingness to persecute private citizens. Unable to deliver the Mexico wall or Obamacare repeal, the President's team has reverted to the campaign promise of "lock her up" – a promise that extends well beyond Ms. Clinton. One should expect Mr. Trump's camp to target any perceived opponent who has documented the administration's illicit dealings, and to potentially fire Mr. Mueller – much as Mr. Trump fired James Comey, Sally Yates and Preet Bharara before.

That the Trump administration is stocked with men whose loyalty to Mr. Trump possibly supersedes their loyalty to the Constitution makes the consequences of any indictment highly uncertain. The Manafort dragnet potentially implicates Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who ran Mr. Trump's foreign-policy campaign team and illicitly met with Russian officials under Mr. Manafort's direction, as well as Mike Pence, who was selected by Mr. Manafort to be Mr. Trump's running mate. In addition to being charged with money-laundering, Mr. Manafort has been charged with "conspiracy against the United States." Having worked directly with Mr. Manafort for months, it is unlikely that Mr. Sessions or Mr. Pence were unaware of his alleged proclivities.

This is particularly true of Mr. Sessions, who was the boss of George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign-policy aide who attempted to arrange meetings between the campaign and Russian officials in March, 2016. On Monday, Mr. Mueller revealed that Mr. Papadopoulos has been serving as a co-operating witness following his arrest in July. While Mr. Manafort's indictment did not pertain to Russian interference in the campaign, Mr. Papadopoulos's did, and that the two indictments were released in tandem sends a strong message that the full scope of illicit activity will be examined.

Mr. Mueller has made his move, and Mr. Trump will likely retaliate as he always does, with self-preservation and revenge outweighing even feigned loyalty to the law. Mr. Trump may have surrounded himself with dangerous men for whom the law was an abstraction to be abused. They will not go down quietly – and neither will Mr. Trump.

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Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media

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