Former Austin U.S. Attorney, UT Lecturer weigh in on Mueller Probe

The indictment against Manafort and Gates contains 12 counts -- including conspiring against the United States -- False Statements and Conspiracy to Launder money.

AUSTIN - The ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election resulted in the first charges Monday. The two men indicted: President Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort and Manafort's business partner Rick Gates.

The indictment against Manafort and Gates contains 12 counts, including conspiring against the United States,  false statements and conspiracy to launder money. The men have pleaded 'not guilty'. 

But there is a third important figure who pleaded guilty Monday in connection with the investigation, and this case is directly related to Russia.

Former Trump Campaign Advisor, George Papadopolous, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about a conversation with a Russian professor who has close ties to the Russian government.

According to the filing, the two discussed in April 2016 that Moscow had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in thousands of emails.

KVUE'S Jenni Lee sat down with two experts, one with a legal background and one with a political background, to break down what this all means. 

First, we spoke with Johnny Sutton, the former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas.

"It's pretty big news, obviously," he said of Monday's developments.

Johnny Sutton isn't surprised by the 12 indictments for Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. He said it will be an uphill fight.

"I imagine that'll be a pretty big battle," Sutton said, as the burden of proof will be on the government.

Sutton said they face up to 20 years in prison for charges of wire fraud and money laundering. That trial should start in about a year.

"If the indictments prove out, there's a lot of money here: millions of millions of dollars is being accused of being improperly obtained through fraud and different violations of banking regulations," said Sutton. 

For George Papadopoulos, however, Sutton said the charges are minor. 

"...meaning it's a zero to five year, assuming he has no criminal record, he's probably looking at zero to six months in jail... probation is certainly a possibility," explained Sutton.

Papadopoulos struck a plea deal. A practice Sutton knows intimately about.

"They'll approach the ones they think are in trouble and usually say we're going to charge you with a crime but we want you to cooperate with us. If you cooperate with us, it'll go much easier on you," Sutton said.

He added that trusting these people can be tricky.

"You don't know what they're going to say. Often there's a lot of pressure put on them because the FBI is saying 'hey, you're getting ready to go to prison, but it can go easier on you if you roll over and tell us about some other crimes you have,'" Sutton said. "Prosecutors are always careful someone's not trying to say something about someone else to save their hide, so the FBI and the prosecutor have to be very careful that they're getting correct information: they're verifying that." 

Sutton went on to say that's why the FBI and other authorities go out of their way to always verify the information they receive.

"That's always the challenge, evaluating the credibility of witnesses. What you try to do is spend a lot of time talking to them; ask them every question; see their reaction; how do they respond, and then, try to verify through other sources. Have they told you lies in the interview? Obviously, Papadopoulos did lie in his interview according to them so his credibility is already in question, so that will be a problem. The question is how well he lied initially, but now he's telling the truth," Sutton said.

Someone who doesn't have it easy: special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who Sutton said has to be extra careful at all times.

"That's the biggest nightmare for a prosecutor, you don't ever want to be used as a political sledgehammer for anyone. You want to follow the facts where they lead and not do anything that's political. Only do what you think is right based on the facts and the evidence," Sutton said. 

Because at the end of the day, the stakes are high.

"...because you're dealing with a presidential campaign, allegations from both sides of the political aisle at the highest levels, a lot of emotion, a lot of anger from both sides. The key is the prosecutors, and the FBI and any other agency that's investigating needs to stay out of the fray and they need to follow the facts where they lead and do the right thing," said Sutton.

Jim Henson with the Texas Politics Project continues the imagery as he talks about what the Trump Administration is doing to Manafort.

"And I think we can expect to see the bus now being backed up and run over and back and forth the next few days," said Henson.

Henson also said the latest developments in the Russia investigation won't change the minds of Republican voters. He pointed to a recent UT/Texas Tribune Poll conducted in Texas that Henson said showed Republican voters approved how the President handed the Russia investigation.

He said the question has always been, how far does the investigation need to go?

"It will take getting closer directly to the President and his current inner circle before you begin to see significant partisan erosion and we just don't know if and when that's going to happen," said Henson.

Henson explained the effects of the charges.

"It's going to increase nervousness among Republican elected officials and Republican elites if you will, but the voters have already been very primed to be suspicious of the information, and we can expect to see the President continue and his allies to press that message," said Henson.

But Henson did say things are heating up.

"It's hard not to feel like the pace of this is not picking up and we're going to see more." 

As for the impeachment question, Henson says no one in Congress has the stomach for that word right now.

Perhaps after the 2018 congressional elections, particularly in the House, can we even approach that topic.

© 2017 KVUE-TV


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