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Washington — Democrats say the indictments of two senior aides to President Donald Trump’s campaign illustrate why the administration shouldn’t interfere in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his chief deputy Rick Gates pleaded not guilty Monday to felony charges of conspiracy against the United States and other counts having to do with foreign lobbying. It was also revealed by Mueller that a third Trump adviser had pleaded guilty to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about his communications with Russians during the campaign.

“This is just the beginning. We want and need accountability,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said in a statement, renewing her call for an independent commission to investigate Russian involvement in the election.

Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, also called for a bipartisan, independent commission to probe the matter while Mueller’s investigation is continuing.

“The security of our democracy rests upon the promise of fair and free elections – including those free of foreign influence,” Levin said in a statement.

Republican members of Michigan’s congressional delegation did not respond to requests for comment on the indictments.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, called the charges “serious and unprecedented,” and said it’s important for lawmakers of both parties to make clear that Trump should not interfere with Mueller’s investigation.

“If it were not for the fact that the president had already fired Mr. Comey, I wouldn’t speculate on the hypothetical,” Kildee said, referring to for former FBI Director James Comey.

“But because the president has already shown his willingness to fire a law-enforcement official whom he fears, I think it’s fair for me to say, if he would take that action, that would be a game changer for both Democrats and Republicans in Washington.”

Trump tweeted about the allegations against Manafort: “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?????”

He added: “….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Monday’s briefing that the indictments have “nothing to do with the president.”

“There are no activities or official capacity in which the Trump campaign was engaged in any of these activities,” Sanders said. “Most of them took place well before the campaign ever even existed.”

Manafort is accused of acting as unregistered foreign agents for Ukrainian interests, using foreign companies and accounts to funnel payments as part of their work for Ukraine.

The Foreign Agent Registration Act requires those working as agents of foreign governments notify the Attorney General -- which Manafort did only after public revelations of the work he was doing on behalf of Ukraine.

Former Detroit U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade predicted that these are likely only the first of several indictments by Mueller.

In an essay for The Daily Beast, McQuade, a University of Michigan Law professor, suggested that Mueller might try to “flip” one or more of the defendants charged in the indictment – that is, persuade them to cooperate as witnesses against other potential defendants.

She noted that this strategy could be helpful to Mueller’s team if it’s looking for someone close to the Trump campaign with info to share in exchange for leniency.

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

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