Is the Papadopoulos case the real bombshell of the day?
While the initial announcement of indictments against President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Manafort associate Rick Gates dominated the news early Monday morning, the allegations against them did not go directly to the question of whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians, who wanted to tip the 2016 election to Trump.
But a second case made public later Monday did — and court records show the target in that matter is cooperating with federal investigators.
George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, pleaded guilty in October to a federal charge of lying to investigators about his contacts with people linked to high-level Russian officials, including an unnamed academic who said Russia could offer “dirt” on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the form of “thousands of emails,” legal filings unsealed Monday show.
Lawyers for Papadopoulos said in a statement, “It is in the best interest of our client . . . that we refrain from commenting on George’s case. We will have the opportunity to comment on George’s involvement when called upon by the Court at a later date. We look forward to telling all of the details of George’s story at that time.”
His guilty plea was the bigger story on Monday, said Samuel W. Buell, a Duke Law professor and author of “Capital Offenses: Business Crime and Punishment in America’s Corporate Age.”
“I think absolutely this Papadopoulos plea announcement and his cooperation agreement with the government is a more significant development, at least in the short run,” Buell said. “The Manafort allegations have to do with Manafort’s own legal violations in connection with his work in the Ukraine. The Papadopoulos allegations directly involve Trump campaign dealings with Russia. This now shows that the special counsel has a witness who’s prepared to testify about that.”
Trump officials contend Papadopoulos had no access to Trump during the campaign and played a limited role during the election. The president tweeted Monday that “there is NO COLLUSION!”
Much of the evidence against Papadopoulos is contained in a legal filing called a “statement of the offense” that is appended to his plea agreement in federal court in Washington, D.C.
The statement shows Papadopoulos, within days of learning he would be advising Trump’s campaign, made contact in March 2016 with a London-based professor who claimed to have substantial ties to Russian officials.
The professor introduced him to a female Russian citizen who Papadopoulos mistakenly described in a March e-mail to fellow campaign aides as “Putin’s niece,” records show.
Papadopoulos worked through the professor and the woman to try to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the statement says. During a London breakfast meeting in April 2016, the academic told Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”
The day after the breakfast meeting, Papdopoulos wrote to a senior Trump campaign adviser, “Have been receiving a lot of calls over the last month about Putin wanting to host [Trump] and the team when the time is right,” the document says.
Also that April, the Russian female told Papadopoulos in an e-mail that she would be “very pleased to support your initiatives between our two countries” and later wrote that “we are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” the filing says.
In May 2016, a person identified in court papers as a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs “connection” e-mailed Papadopoulos and the professor to say ministry colleagues are “open for cooperation.”
Papadopoulos, in an e-mail with the subject heading “Request from Russia to Meet Mr. Trump,” then told another campaign official via e-mail, “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime and have been reaching out for me to discuss.”
From the beginning, Trump’s campaign appeared leery of involving the candidate directly in any talks.
The court document notes that the campaign official forwarded Papadopoulos’s e-mail to another staffer and wrote, “We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low-level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
Papadopoulos continued for months to try to arrange a meeting between the camps.
He wrote in a June 2016 e-mail message to a campaign staffer, “The Russian ministry of foreign affairs messaged and said that if Mr. Trump is unable to make it to Russia, if a campaign rep (me or someone else) can make it for meetings? I am willing to make the trip off the record if it’s in the interest of Mr. Trump and the campaign to meet specific people.”
The staffer responded by saying Papadopoulos and another campaign foreign policy adviser should make the trip “if it is feasible.” The trip never took place. The staffer’s name was not disclosed in the document.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a press briefing Monday, “I’m not aware of that conversation so I can’t speak to that.”
Authorities say Papadopoulos repeatedly lied to the FBI about his Russia-related contacts earlier this year.
His lies included his statement that the professor mentioned “dirt” on Clinton before Papadopoulos joined the campaign, even though it happened about a month later; his description of the academic as “just a guy talk[ing] up connections,” even though he understood the professor had substantial ties to Russian officials; and his initial failure to mention that the professor had introduced him to the Russian foreign ministry contact.
The statement also suggests that Papadopoulos became more forthcoming after his arrest in July at Dulles International Airport.
“Following his arrest, defendant Papadopoulos met with the government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions,” the document says.
Federal sentencing guidelines call for him to receive zero to six months in prison for the lying offense, as well as a fine of up t0 $9,500, according to his plea agreement, though the sentencing judge is not bound by the guidelines.
Buell said the filings suggest Papadopoulos and his contacts were “talking about something that at least raises the inference of an exchange of dirt on Hillary Clinton the Russians have for efforts to test a relationship between Donald Trump and the Russians. If this isn’t evidence of collusion, then nobody understands what the word ‘collusion’ means.”
US intelligence officials have determined that Russia hacked Democratic e-mail accounts and released thousands of embarrassing e-mails related to Clinton’s campaign. The Russians wanted to swing the election to Trump, a Republican, and away from Clinton, a Democrat. The e-mails began appearing online in the summer of 2016, and the Trump campaign has repeatedly denied any inside knowledge about that.
Papadopoulos was one of a small group of foreign policy advisers that Trump announced in March 2016. Another of the advisers, Carter Page, has met with the FBI about his own contacts with Russians.
Alex Whiting, a Harvard Law professor who is a former federal prosecutor and former investigations coordinator at the International Criminal Court, said that while Papadopoulos “seems to be cooperating,” the ultimate trajectory of the probe remains unclear.
“Whether people will be charged with collusion, whether more senior officials will be charged, we just don’t know at this stage,” Whiting said.
It’s also not clear whether Papadopoulos will testify for the government against any other targets of the Mueller probe, but his plea agreement shows he helped prosecutors after his arrest.
“The Government agrees to bring to the Court’s attention at sentencing the defendant’s efforts to cooperate with the Government, on the condition that your client continues to respond and provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant,” the agreement says.
The pact says Papadopoulos’s sentencing could be delayed until his “efforts to cooperate have been completed, as determined by the Government.”Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.