Charges revealed Monday against three former political operatives for President Donald Trump brought an unexpected twist, courtesy of special counsel Robert Mueller.
What sounded at first like the most minor case, against the least known of the three, suddenly promised to have the greatest political impact.
Consider first the biggest of the three names.
Ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort, 68, a fixture in Washington’s undrained swamp, was charged alongside a close aide, Rick Gates, 45, with money-related crimes.
For now, there seems to be only the most tangential link between the Manafort-Gates team and the suspected hands-on role of top-level Russians in last year’s U.S. elections.
Manafort was ejected from the Trump campaign last year after serious ethical questions were raised about the millions of dollars he made working for former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. The funds are at issue in Monday’s indictment.
Yanukovych headed a political party aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was ousted after four years in 2014 amid a revolution in Ukraine.
Manafort’s mercenary role here is unsurprising. He has long represented foreign dictators. Back when he was in business with another Trump confidant, Roger Stone, their firm counted among its clients Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, also known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Jonas Savimbi of Angola.
But all that becomes a story about well-known figures.
Mueller’s move against the third operative — a former Trump policy adviser named George Papadopoulos — relates more directly to the question of coordination between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Earlier this month it was revealed Papadopoulos, 30, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Court papers show his effort to mislead involved his interactions with an “overseas professor” he believed had connections with top Russian officials.
Papadopoulos said this person told him of Russians having “dirt” on opponent Hillary Clinton — but claimed to have heard this before becoming an adviser to the Trump effort.
Investigators say in a document supporting the guilty plea that “the professor only took interest in defendant Papadopoulos because of his status with the campaign.” Papadopoulos tried repeatedly to set up a meeting between the campaign and Russian government officials, the document states.
Papadopoulos was living in London at the time. There was talk of “thousands of emails” hacked from Clinton that the Russians had.
No, this isn’t proof of coordination or collusion anywhere near where Trump and company would set the bar. By all appearances, the probe has a long way to go, but seems to be moving along.