We’ve already seen the legal theory that could make Manafort’s sharing of the polling data a criminal offense. Last February, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies for their alleged extensive efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, primarily through the use of fake social media accounts. The lead charge in Mueller’s indictment was “conspiracy to defraud the United States.” Conspiracy — a partnership in crime — is the legal equivalent of collusion. It covers agreements to impair, obstruct or defeat lawful government functions, including those related to administering federal elections and to regulating the activities of foreign agents within the United States. Mueller charged that the Russian defendants engaged in just such a conspiracy by posing as American political activists and otherwise concealing their efforts to help Trump win the election.
One of the Russian companies, Concord Management & Consulting LLC, appeared in court to contest the indictment. The company mounted a vigorous challenge to the conspiracy charge, claiming the government’s legal theory was invalid for a number of reasons. But in November, a federal judge rejected Concord’s arguments.
As of now, only Russians are charged in that indictment. But if there is evidence that Manafort or others in the Trump campaign agreed to help the Russians in their efforts, they could potentially be implicated in the same conspiracy. This would be true even if the Americans did not directly participate in any of the fake social media campaigns or other Russian activities. You can be guilty of conspiring to help others commit crimes even if you do not directly take part in those crimes yourself.
This is why Manafort’s sharing of polling information could be some of the most significant evidence to date of a criminal conspiracy involving Russians and the Trump campaign. We don’t yet know how that data was used by Russian agents, if at all. But polling information could have been extremely useful in targeting illicit social media campaigns and other political activities in the most effective way. And it’s hard to think of another practical use Russian officials could have had for such data.
As far as a criminal case is concerned, the key unknowns are Manafort’s knowledge and intent. It’s possible he was providing the data simply to impress his Russian contacts or was trying to somehow leverage the information to offset his personal financial obligations to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. That might be improper for all kinds of reasons, but if Manafort didn’t intend to help the Russians influence the election he would not be implicated in that criminal conspiracy.
How will Mueller get to the bottom of this? One likely key is Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime associate and Trump’s former deputy campaign manager. Gates also has pleaded guilty and has been cooperating for months — which is probably how prosecutors knew Manafort was lying to them. According to a report in the New York Times, Gates was involved with Manafort in passing the campaign polling data to the Russians. If there is evidence tying these actions to the Russian efforts to affect the election, Gates has undoubtedly laid it all out for the prosecutors.
When Manafort pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, Mueller likely anticipated he would provide additional detail concerning these interactions between Russians and members of the Trump campaign. Instead, Manafort apparently tried to continue to cover them up and blew up his own plea deal in the process.
We don’t know yet whether Manafort was acting on behalf of the campaign or for his own purposes. And we don’t know to what extent others, including the president himself, may have known about or even participated in his activities. But this is potentially the most concrete evidence to date of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russians who were secretly engaged in a massive effort to help Trump win the election. That wouldn’t just be collusion — that, potentially, would be a federal crime.