President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Manafort's former business associate Rick Gates and Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos have all been charged in the special counsel's investigation into Russian election interference. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated. 

The independent investigation into Trump-Russia collusion just made its most serious move since it began in May. Three former campaign officials have been charged with crimes; one has pleaded guilty. President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former business partner Rick Gates have been charged with 12 counts of financial crimes related to their work in Ukraine over the past decade.

And the special counsel announced that Trump's foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty earlier this month to giving false statements to the FBI about his ties to a Russian-connected professor who promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.

Nothing to see here, Trump said of the news:

But those definitive statements are very hard to make, since legal experts say this is very likely to be the beginning, not the end, of the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. And no, collusion is not ruled out.

"While the White House could say that these indictments don't advance the collusion narrative, they don't negate it either," said Ira Matetsky, a partner at New York City-based Ganfer and Shore law firm.

Here are some of Trump's common claims about the investigation — and why the facts don't necessarily back them up yet.

Trump claim No. 1: There's no evidence of collusion

Trump's main argument here is that the FBI, in some form or another, has been looking into this for more than a year and that because it hasn't come to a conclusion about collusion, there must be none.

It's true that the Manafort and Gates indictment doesn't mention the Trump campaign and refers to alleged crimes over the past decade.

But that doesn't mean the probe is over. He could indict Manafort or anyone else of collusion-connected crimes any time he has evidence to do so, said Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law University.

"You can't rule out that [Mueller] didn't rule out Manafort colluding with Russia," Ohlin said.

We do know he's also looking into Donald Trump Jr.'s meetings with Kremlin-connected Russians,  whether the president obstructed justice when James Comey was the FBI director and Jared Kushner's business dealings.

“Mueller wouldn't have hired 16, 17 people to investigate these events just to indict some tangential person unrelated to the campaign,”said white-collar lawyer Jeffrey Jacobovitz.

The timing of the indictments is noteworthy, too. In just five months, Mueller's team has impaneled a federal grand jury and now is charging Trump's former campaign chairman. Those are both significant escalations.

Nor has Congress dropped its investigation into collusion. Earlier this month, top Senate Republican and Democratic investigators said that after eight months of investigating, hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 100 people and nearly 100,000 pages of documents, they aren't ready to rule out collusion.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-S.C.) said Oct. 4 "we have not come to any final conclusions" about the Russia investigation but that they are still looking into multiple areas of interest. (Reuters)

Translation: At the very least, accusations that the Trump campaign worked with Russia are not a hoax. It's worth significant time and resources for three committees in Congress and one independent investigation to continue to look into on a variety of fronts.

Claim No. 2: These charges have nothing to do with the Trump administration


A building containing a condominium owned by Paul Manafort in Alexandria, Va., that the FBI raided this summer. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

Manafort and Gates are charged with something that does not seem directly related to Russia collusion, and Trump has used that fact to argue that this has nothing to do with his campaign.

Except, Trump may be getting out ahead of himself. Many legal experts think Mueller is putting pressure on these outside figures to get them to cooperate by sharing what they know about Trump's inner circle. If true, that would explain the FBI knocking on Manafort's door in an aggressive predawn raid or the special counsel looking into former national security adviser Michael Flynn's son.

"Charging Person A can be  way to put pressure on Person B or Person C to testify," said Jack Sharman, a white-collar lawyer in Alabama and former special counsel for Congress during the Bill Clinton Whitewater investigation.

And then we get to Papadopoulos. His guilty plea is directly related to Russia, in that he gave false statements to the FBI about his interaction with a Russian-connected professor during the campaign. Mueller chose to telegraph on Monday that he has someone on the inside of Trump world advising him, which legal experts said underscores that this is far from over.

Claim No. 3: Mueller and his team are politically motivated

Some of Trump's allies have tried to draw lines between the prosecutors Mueller has hired and their ties to Democrats. Since Mueller's team is operating behind closed doors, it's been hard to directly rebut that.

But that logic falls into a gaping hole with this indictment. Mueller has persuaded a federal judge to set up a grand jury, he has presented the evidence his team has found, and that independent grand jury decided to return an indictment.

“This is out of Mueller's hands,” Jacobovitz said. “It's an independent jury. They could have declined the indictment, but apparently they did not.”

“It's a first step, and it could be one of many,” he said.