Senators react to Mueller's first charges: 'It was just a matter of time'

Paul Manafort gets into a car as he leaves Federal District Court in Washington, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, and Manafort's business associate Rick Gates have pleaded not guilty to felony charges of conspiracy against the United States and other counts. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Monday indictments against former campaign associates of President Donald Trump came as a shock to much of the public, but for Senate investigators looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the unsealing of the charges was less dramatic.

"There is nothing in the charges yesterday that were a surprise to any member of the committee," Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said on Tuesday.

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee already had access to many of the documents used to indict former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort, his former business associate Richard Gates, and former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. Back in August, the committee heard testimony from Manafort, something they will not be able to do again after Monday's charges.

"I went into the investigation with the realization that there were some people that would be so attractive to the special counsel that it was just a matter of time," Burr said, somewhat regretting the fact that as indictments come, his committee loses access to witnesses.

Manafort and Gates face charges on 12 counts, including conspiracy against the U.S., conspiracy to launder money, failure to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts. Both men gave themselves up to the FBI and pled not guilty to the charges.

Papadopoulos has pled guilty to lying to the FBI. These charges were brought against the former campaign aide earlier this month due to false statements he made about the timing of his correspondence with Russian nationals and attempts to set up meetings between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

"Don't read more into it than is there," Burr said of the charges, noting that any speculation that the indictments against Manafort, Gates or Papadopoulos were related to the Trump campaign "would be wrong."

Now that the first charges have been made in the Mueller investigation, Republicans are working hard to protect themselves and their agenda from potential spillover effects.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stressed on Tuesday that "the special counsel has his job to do and we're going to concentrate on what we're doing here in the Senate." That includes a massive tax overhaul package that Republicans have until mid-December to complete, as well as a backlog of votes to confirm Trump nominees.

However, it is not clear how effectively Republicans will be able to insulate their agenda from the long shadow cast by the Mueller probe.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) told reporters that he is certain his Republican colleagues are nervous after the first round of indictments. As a result, they are "saying as little as possible" that could distract from their other priorities.

"They're being very wary of what this might mean in terms of their prospects to pass a tax reform bill and to win the next election," he said. "They need to show something by the end of the year, so they're focused on the Trump tax plan more than anything."

Since the charges were filed on Monday, the White House has also been working to limit the damage and distance itself from the accused.

On Tuesday, press secretary Sarah Sanders explained that the charges against the former campaign aide concerned his false statements and were "on him, not on the campaign." Earlier she dismissed Papadopolous' role in the Trump campaign as "extremely limited" and only a volunteer.

Former press secretary Sean Spicer described Manafort in similar terms in March, saying he "played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time."

Now that these individuals have been caught in Mueller's net and are reportedly cooperating with federal investigators, Trump has personally intervened through social media to ensure distance.

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that Papadopoulos is "a liar," and that the charges Manafort is facing predate his role in the campaign.

Other Republicans have taken a cue from the White House and focused on the relatively narrow charges that do not clearly point to Russian collusion, or conspiracy to work with a foreign government during the 2016 election.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) even went one step further saying Monday's charges were evidence of stupidity, rather than conspiracy.

"If the allegations are true, you have to wonder how these people made it through the birth canal," Kennedy commented, referring to all three of the accused as "bone-deep stupid."

He continued, "I mean, you have got to pay your taxes and if you're going to talk to the FBI, you can't lie to them. Duh!"

Trump and his allies have also taken the occasion of the Mueller probe to push allegations against Hillary Clinton and Democratic operatives back into the spotlight.

So far, the Mueller probe has largely focused on possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials, but there are indications that the scope of the probe could widen to include activity carried out on behalf of the 2016 Democratic nominee.

On Monday, Anthony Podesta, co-founder of the Democratic lobbying firm the Podesta Group and brother of former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, stepped down from his company.

According to reports, the Mueller probe is narrowing in on the activities of the Podesta Group and has subpoenaed documents relating to work on behalf of a foreign non-profit client associated with Manafort. There have been some suggestions that Podesta could be charged with similar crimes as Manafort and Gates, relating to unregistered activities on behalf of a foreign government.

Kennedy said that if there is any wrongdoing by Democrats, Mueller should get to the bottom of it.

"Apparently Mr. Mueller has wide jurisdiction and he can certainly look at [these issues]," the senator said.

Kennedy further pushed for a thorough investigation into by Mueller or another special counsel into the alleged role the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton campaign played in funding an opposition research dossier produced by former British spy Christopher Steele alleging Trump connections to Russia.

"We've got to take a look at this issue of whether or not a political party was involved in putting together a dossier that may have involved dirty tricks against a presidential candidate and what, if any, involvement the FBI had," Kennedy said. The Senate Judiciary Committee is currently looking into the matter.

Even as Democrats are focused on the charges that have been brought against former Trump associates, a number of lawmakers insisted they will not discount any new information that may emerge against Hillary Clinton or Democratic actors.

"I stand behind Mueller," said ranking Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) "I think he's a legitimate, professional prosecutor and if [he] brings in wrongdoing, whoever it may be, I trust his judgment."

Similarly, Sen. Richard Blumenthal noted that even if the investigation crosses over party lines, he will "strongly support...following the facts and evidence wherever they lead."

For Blumenthal, the investigation is likely to lead to more charges, more indictments and is not likely to wrap up anytime soon.

"I think it is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end," the senator stated. "It's nowhere near the end. We can expect more indictments, probably fairly soon."

Back in July and August, when there were rumors swirling around Washington that Trump may fire his attorney general or take aim at Special Counsel Mueller, Blumenthal was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who introduced two separate bills to protect Mueller from being fired.

At that time, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced the Special Counsel Independence Protection Act, warning that any attempt by the president to go after Mueller "could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency, unless Mueller did something wrong."

Since then, Republican party operatives and even The Wall Street Journal's editorial board have pushed for Mueller's ouster, citing conflicts of interest. According to reports, Trump's former chief strategists Bannon has encouraged Trump to defund Mueller's investigation.

The White House and the Department of Justice have repeatedly denied any intention to fire Mueller, a matter that would be difficult legally and disastrous politically.

Still, Democratic Sen. Tom Carper (Del.) believes it's a legitimate concern.

"I think in the back of a lot of people's minds is the concern that the president may launch an effort at some point in time, especially if the heat is turned up and it gets closer to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," Carper said.

Sen. Durbin hopes the White House's statements ensuring Trump will not dismiss Mueller can be trusted. But he said he is still worried about the president's "impulsiveness," recalling how he "unceremoniously" fired former FBI Director James Comey.

With so few legislative days remaining before the end of the calendar year, the GOP leadership has shown little interest in diverting time and energy to administration scandals, especially if it could jeopardize their tax reform agenda.

Asked on Wednesday whether he would make time for a vote on legislation to protect the special counsel investigation, McConnell made it clear that it is not a priority. "We've got plenty of things we have to do between now and the end of the year that will take up floor time in the Senate."

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