Even as President Trump was on Twitter insisting that the indictment of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was meaningless because it involved activities unrelated to Trump or the campaign came news that former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with, wait for it, Russia.
The Manafort news drew the bigger headlines Monday morning – understandable given his high-profile role at the top of the Trump campaign. But, the Papadopoulos guilty plea – and the fact that he has been cooperating with the special counsel investigation since his July arrest – strikes me as significantly more problematic for Trump and his White House in the medium-to-long term.
This paragraph from the FBI’s guilty plea agreement with Papadopoulos is incredible:
“In truth and in fact, however, and as set forth above, defendant PAPADOPOULOS met the Professor for the first time on or about March 14, 2016, after defendant PAPADOPOULOS had already learned he would be a foreign policy advisor for the Campaign; the Professor showed interest in defendant PAPADOPOULOS only after learning of his role on the Campaign; and the Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS about the Russians possessing” dirt” on then-candidate Clinton in late April 2016, more than a month after defendant PAPADOPOULOS had joined the Campaign.”
So, Papadopoulos copped to lying to the FBI about the timing of his contacts with Russians. In his initial interview in January 2017, Papadopoulos was insistent that he had reached out to his foreign contact “The Professor” (amazing!) before he had formally joined the Trump presidential campaign. He was arrested in July, pleaded guilty in October and appears to have been cooperating in between.
And, most importantly the “Professor” only showed interest in Papadopoulos after it became known that he was employed by the Trump campaign.
That. Is. A. Very. Big. Deal.
The obvious question is why Papadopolous initially lied to the FBI – despite being warned that doing so would have major consequences. Why, if there was nothing to hide about his relationship – or attempted relationship with Russian officials – would Papadopoulos feel the need to put himself in serious legal jeopardy by lying about the timing of his conversations with “the Professor”?
We don’t know the answer to that question. But, we do know one reason why Papadopoulos was pursuing the relationship with the Russians; he believed they had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. This, again from Papadopoulos’ plea agreement, makes that plain:
“On or about April 26, 2016, defendant PAPADOPOULOS met the Professor for breakfast at a London hotel. During this meeting, the Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that on that trip he (the Professor) learned that the Russians had obtained “dirt” on then-candidate Clinton. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS, as defendant PAPADOPOULOS later described to the FBI, that “They [the Russians] have dirt on her”; “the Russians had emails of Clinton”; “they have thousands of emails.”
The broad goal of the Russian contact with Papadopoulos was to get Trump to visit Russia during the campaign – a visit where he would huddle with Russian officials and maybe even meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obviously, that trip never happened.
So, to recap:
1. “The Professor” only expressed interest in Papadopoulos after it became clear that he would play a role in the Trump campaign as a foreign policy advisor.
2. Papadopoulos lied about the timing of his interactions with “The Professor.” Those lies were aimed at suggesting the interactions came before Papadopoulos was an adviser to the Trump campaign. But, in fact, those interactions were because Papadopoulos worked for Trump, not in spite of them
3. Papadopoulos’ interactions with “The Professor” were driven by the promise of “dirt” on Clinton in the from of “thousands of emails” regarding Clinton.
4. Papadopoulos seems to have been cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation since July.
Given all of that, it’s much harder for Trump and his allies to dismiss Papadopoulos than Manafort. What’s more, court documents make clear he was in contact with high-ranking campaign officials about his contacts with the Russians. A senior former campaign adviser told CNN’s Gloria Borger that Papadopoulos was not a major player.
“He was a zero. A non-event,” the adviser said.
But, what Papadopolous has already admitted to doing – lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russian operatives regarding “dirt” on Trump’s general election opponent – is a very big deal. A bigger deal – in terms of the investigation into Russia’s attempted meddling in the election and allegations of collusion – than the dozen counts laid out in the Manafort indictment.
And the day is still young!