Trump's approval sinks as Russia-probe arrests hit home

Washington: Donald Trump's approval rating has hit an all-time low of 33 per cent, and his disapproval rate rose to 62 per cent as special counsel Robert Mueller revealed on Monday that he was laying criminal charges against three advisers to the US President's election campaign.

The charges, the result of a grand jury indictment, laid out the most explicit evidence to date that Mr Trump's campaign was eager to coordinate with the Russian government to damage his rival, Hillary Clinton.

The Gallup tracking poll was taken over the weekend amid reports that Mr Mueller would announce at least one indictment on Monday.

Mr Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, surrendered yesterday to the FBI and pleaded not guilty to charges that he laundered millions of dollars through overseas shell companies, using the money to buy luxury cars, real estate, antique rugs and expensive clothes.

Rick Gates, Mr Manafort's longtime associate as well as a campaign adviser, was also charged and turned himself in.

When the revelations about Mr Manafort and Mr Gates was first broadcast, Mr Trump, who, according to the Washington Post was watching on TV, tweeted: "Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????"

In a second tweet minutes later, Trump added: "....Also, there is NO COLLUSION!"

But an hour later, information emerged that could prove most politically damaging to Mr Trump: Mr Mueller announced that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was cooperating with investigators.

Federal investigators said in court documents they suspected that Russian intelligence services had used intermediaries to contact Mr Papadopoulos to gain influence with the campaign, offering "dirt" on Ms Clinton in April 2016 in the form of "thousands of emails".

Mr Papadopoulos has been cooperating with Mr Mueller's prosecutors for months.

It is now clear, from Mr Papadopoulos' admission and emails related to a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016, that the Russian government offered help to Trump's candidacy and campaign officials were willing to take it.

Mr Trump did not respond to news of that arrest on Twitter.

At a press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly insisted that Mr Papadopoulos was just "a volunteer" in the President's campaign, and she downplayed his role by saying that he was "a volunteer member of an advisory council that literally met one time".

Ms Sanders insisted that Trump campaign officials rebuffed all of his efforts to put them in touch with Russians: "You mean the outreach that was repeatedly denied, and pushed away?" "He reached out and nothing happened beyond that."

Mr Papadopoulos' secret guilty plea, she said, was unrelated to his campaign efforts. "It has nothing to do with the activities of the campaign. It has to do with his failure to tell the truth that doesn't have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign's activities."

Jay Sekulow, a private attorney for Mr Trump, said the President and his legal team were not worried about the indictments.

Mr Manafort has been charged with laundering more than $US18 million ($23 million) to buy properties and services. Mr Gates has been accused of transferring more than $US3 million from offshore accounts. Both men are charged with making false statements, conspiracy against the United States, failing to disclose foreign bank accounts and breaches of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

For years, Mr Manafort and Mr Gates represented Victor Yanukovych's pro-Russian regime in Ukraine. They led a lobbying campaign in the US from 2012 to 2014 to advance their clients' interests, pressing members of Congress about US-imposed sanctions.

They also had foreign bank accounts linked to 15 shell companies in Cyprus, the Grenadines, the Seychelles and the UK that should have been disclosed, prosecutors said. The two are also accused of using the foreign accounts to pay for luxury goods, homes and personal expenses in the US without declaring the income.

The court documents also show that campaign officials knew that Mr Papadopoulos was developing contacts in Russia.

He repeatedly tried to arrange a formal meeting for Mr Trump in Russia. Ultimately, senior campaign officials said Trump should not make the trip and leave it to "someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal," according to an email cited in court papers. No campaign official made a formal trip to Russia.

When FBI agents approached Mr Papadopoulos on January 27, he lied about his Russian contacts, according to court documents.

As the FBI scrutiny continued, Mr Papadopoulos changed his phone number and deleted his Facebook account, which he had used to communicate with the Russians. The FBI has obtained emails, text messages, and the transcript of chats on Facebook and Skype records as part of its investigation.

FBI agents quietly arrested Mr Papadopoulos at Dulles International Airport outside Washington on July 27, a day after agents raided Mr Manafort's Virginia home. The Justice Department disclosed on Monday that Mr Manafort had withheld evidence from Mr Mueller that was discovered during that raid.

Agencies

This story Trump's approval sinks as Russia-probe arrests hit home first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.