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President Trump's campaign chairmen, Paul Manafort, was indicted yesterday and ordered to surrender to authorities. According to the New York Times, he is charged with funelling "millions of dollars through overseas shell companies and [using] the money to buy luxury cars, real estate, antiques and expensive suits." His associate Rick Gates was also charged. The Times notes that this represents "a significant escalation in a special counsel investigation that has cast a shadow over Mr. Trump's first year in office."
What exactly does this mean — what is an indictment, what does it mean to surrender, and what are Manafort's next steps? And how does this tie into Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign for its possible ties to Russia? I spoke to Matt Kaiser, a former federal public defender and partner at KaiserDillon in Washington, D.C.
What is an indictment?
"The Constitution requires that if anyone is to be charged with a felony in federal court, they must be charged by a grand jury. That means that members of the community come together to hear evidence and see if there is probable cause that the person committed the charges presented to them. The person is still presumed not guilty. The indictment is the formal charging document in which the government sets out the charges and starts the process of the criminal case."
What happens when a person is indicted?
"Either they self-surrender [as in the case of Manfort] or an arrest warrant is issued. Most federal courts have an initial appearance the same day, unless the indictment comes down late at night. At that hearing, the judge does a few things: He or she will formally tells you what the charges are. You'll get a copy of the indictment, they will make sure you've got a lawyer (not an issue in this case), and then they will decide what the conditions of your release are."
Who's the judge?
Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee. Before she was a judge she was a defence attorney who represented William Jefferson, the Louisiana congressmen convicted in 2009 on corruption charges. "She will quickly issue a scheduling order which will say when motions are due and when trial is set to be."
What's the first thing to look for?
"First thing to watch for is the speed with which this case moves — whether the US government pushes for a speedy trial or whether it will take some time to try. Mueller personally signed the indictment. I don't think that's a big tactical signal, but it's an interesting thing to note."
What should we watch out for, in terms of strategy?
"White collar cases like this have started adopting mob or big drug case strategies — indicting lower level people to pressure them to flip. I have to think that this is the strategy here. It's a big indictment with a lot of charges, and the maximum penalty is massive. Manafort is going to have a difficult choice: Go to trial? Or can he cooperate against the president or the other people that Mueller is trying to get?"
Do you think he'll take the fall, a la Scooter Libby?
I asked Kaiser about Scooter Libby's conviction, in which he was sentenced to 30 months for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame case. GOPers raised $US5 ($7) million for his defence, and his sentence was later commuted. Agreeing to take the fall for higher-ups — if that's indeed what happened — would have required a certain level of trust on Libby's part. Does Kaiser think that this case is similar?
"That's a really interesting question: Is Donald Trump trustworthy? I have to think that a lot of people would have reason to be sceptical. It's a huge risk. Mueller's not going away."