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Podesta Group, co-founder caught up in special counsel’s investigation

Updated October 31, 2017 - 6:23 pm

WASHINGTON — “Many people in Washington can tell you what just happened to you. Tony Podesta helps you change outcomes.”

So reads the website for the Podesta Group, the Democratic powerhouse lobbying firm Tony Podesta co-founded with his brother John, who also served as chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Tony Podesta had cause Tuesday to ask Tony Podesta what just happened to him. He stepped down from the firm Monday after it was caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.

Podesta’s resignation points to the incestuous nature of Washington, a town in which a probe designed to uncover irregularities in one campaign can jump the curb and smash into an operative from the opposing side.

The main mission of the Mueller probe is to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” Some suspect that the probe could uncover a link between Russia and the hacking of John Podesta’s emails to Clinton campaign operatives.

For his part, Trump has called moves to uncover Russian attempts to tip the scale in his favor part of a “witch hunt” designed to excuse Clinton’s unexpected November defeat.

The Podesta Group found itself unidentified and yet tucked into a 31-page indictment against GOP consultant and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and fellow Trump campaign staffer Rick Gates on 12 counts that included money laundering, income tax evasion and lying to federal authorities.

According to the document, Manafort and Gates solicited two D.C. firms, Company A and Company B, to lobby on behalf of deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, his pro-Russian Party of Regions and the government of Ukraine in 2012. Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty.

The indictment described the arrangement as “a false and misleading cover story that would distance” Manafort and Gates from Ukraine by creating the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, which contracted with the two firms. Podesta Group has registered as a lobbyist for the center. It’s also one of two companies whose records Mueller’s team has subpoenaed, according to multiple news accounts.

In Washington, indictments set off waves of questions and speculation. Who’s next? Is Mueller trying to push Gates to testify against Manafort? Or is this an effort to nudge Manafort to testify against Trump on Russian collusion?

“I don’t see it,” said Peter Hardy, a former federal prosecutor who now is a criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia. “If that was going to occur, it probably would have occurred already.”

Hardy also doesn’t see the indictments of Manafort and Gates as a fishing expedition. He sees a strong possibility that lawyers on the special counsel team targeted “other alleged impropriety that they came across while they’re pursuing their primary mandate.”

The indictment and guilty plea of national security campaign adviser George Papadopoulos are a different matter. Papadopoulos, Hardy noted, is “a little fish,” who was not charged with colluding with Russia but lying to federal agents. In a 14-page statement, Papadopoulos wrote of his dealings with individuals with ties to the Kremlin and his efforts to arrange a meeting between Russia and the Trump campaign, preferably between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump himself.

Papadopoulos told the special counsel that a professor with ties to the Kremlin told him the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton, including “thousands of emails.”

According to the affidavit, Papadopoulos sent emails to four unnamed Trump campaign officials. His “campaign supervisor” responded, “Great work,” while telling the volunteer not to make any commitments. When Papadopoulos said he was willing to go to Moscow in Trump’s place, the supervisor told him, “I would encourage you” and another adviser to “make the trip, if it is feasible.”

The Washington Post identified the supervisor as Trump national co-chairman Sam Clovis, which his attorney confirmed.

“Inside the campaign, Dr. Clovis always vigorously opposed any Russian trip for Donald Trump or staff. However, if a volunteer made suggestions on any foreign policy matter, Dr. Clovis, a polite gentleman from Iowa, would have expressed courtesy and appreciation,” wrote his attorney, Victoria Toensing, in a statement.

Will Clovis go the way of Tony Podesta? At Tuesday’s press briefing, a reporter asked press secretary Sarah Sanders if Trump is comfortable keeping Clovis as his nominee to serve as chief scientist for the Department of Agriculture. Clovis already was a target of critics who questioned his lack of a degree in agricultural science.

Sanders replied, “I’m not aware that any change would be necessary at this time.”

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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