Washington • Some of Utah’s members of Congress said they were surprised Monday by the charges filed against President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and a campaign aide but stood by their support of special counsel Robert Mueller, who continues to investigate the Trump team and its potential ties to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
Mueller on Monday revealed 12-count indictments against onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort and his longtime business associate Rick Gates, as well as a guilty plea by a Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, for making a false statement to the FBI.
Manafort and Gates face charges of conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money and making false statements; they pleaded not guilty in court Monday afternoon and are being held on house arrest under a bail agreement.
The indictments represent the most aggressive move yet by Mueller, a former FBI director, in his investigation of the Trump team’s ties to the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election and help Trump win.
While avoiding comment on the charges themselves, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a former assistant U.S. attorney for Utah, said he backs the probe and Mueller.
“I fully support Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing investigation and I’ll do everything I can to make sure that the system of checks and balances, the system of separation of powers in the federal government, is upheld,” Lee said through a spokesperson.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who holds a law degree, told reporters that he was surprised by the charges against Manafort but didn’t get into details.
“Frankly, I’m having a rough time seeing why in the world they are indicting him,” Hatch said. “I think it’s overreach.”
In a statement, his office steered clear of commenting on the indictments but backed Mueller.
“Sen. Hatch believes that it’s in the best interest for all parties involved to allow Bob Mueller to conduct a full and vigorous investigation,” said Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock. “There will be procedural milestones, like today’s announcement, along the way, but that doesn’t change the basic equation that the special counsel needs the time and support necessary to get to the bottom of things.”
Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said the indictments don’t change his confidence in Mueller’s investigation and that it won’t have any impact on his committee’s simultaneous probe of Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election.
“We’ll continue to do our work and let Mr. Mueller do his,” Stewart said in an interview.
Stewart warned not to read too much into the charges filed Monday and that, so far, the special counsel hasn’t shown a direct link to people working inside the Trump administration.
“It could be that those are the only indictments we’ll see,” Stewart said. “I don’t think you can draw any conclusions on this.”
As for the other two current members of Utah’s all-GOP congressional delegation, Rep. Rob Bishop declined comment Monday, and Rep. Mia Love did not respond to requests for comment.
The White House said Monday there are no intentions or plans to fire Mueller, though Trump has been highly critical of the special counsel.
The Wall Street Journal’s conservative-leaning editorial board last week called for Mueller’s ouster and said any investigation about Russia should include then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s dealings with U.S. approval of a Russian-backed company buying a larger share in American uranium mining operations. That approval had the consent of eight federal agencies, and it’s unclear whether Clinton was involved.
“It is no slur against Mr. Mueller’s integrity to say that he lacks the critical distance to conduct a credible probe of the bureau he ran for a dozen years,” The Journal’s editorial board said. “He could best serve the country by resigning to prevent further political turmoil over that conflict of interest.”
As news of the indictments emerged Monday, Trump took to Twitter to blast the uranium deal, called the Trump-Russia probe “phony” and said that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin.
“The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the R’s … are now fighting back like never before,” Trump tweeted in a series of posts. “There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!”
Pressed to comment on the charges, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the indictments had “nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president’s campaign or campaign activity.”
The real collusion scandal, as we’ve said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS and Russia,” she said, referring to a political group that had worked on opposition research into Trump that led to a controversial dossier.
“There are no activities or official capacity in which the Trump campaign was engaged in any of these activities,” she added. “Most of them took place well before the campaign ever even existed.”
Democrats have moved to ensure the president cannot fire Muller as the investigation continues.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday that Mueller needs to be able to do his job without interference from the White House.
“The investigation must be allowed to proceed unimpeded,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “The president must not, under any circumstances and in any way, interfere with the special counsel’s work. If he does, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues and the truth — the whole truth — comes out.”
Meanwhile, Evan McMullin, a Utahn who made a failed bid for president last year as an independent, noted on Twitter that it was Trump’s campaign mantra to jail Clinton, the Democratic nominee, but now it’s his campaign aides facing federal charges.
“It’s poetic irony that the chairman of the campaign that violated our democratic norms to chant, ‘lock her up!’ is now in federal shackles,” McMullin tweeted.
Manafort voluntarily turned himself in at the FBI’s Washington Field Office and appeared in court later Monday. It was unclear if he was ever handcuffed.