When news broke Monday morning that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had been indicted along with his deputy, Richard Gates, it was the bombshell that those following the Russia investigation have been awaiting for months.
Turns out it was the amuse-bouche for the main course to come.
Indeed, when the history books are written on the Trump-Russia investigation, it’s quite likely that the plea deal between special counsel Robert Mueller and a former Trump campaign official, George Papadopoulos — announced several hours later — may be seen as the crucial moment.
What we’ve learned about Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, is that after becoming a member of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team in the spring of 2016, he was contacted by individuals with connections to the Russian government claiming to have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of e-mails.”
Papadopoulos, like Donald Trump Jr. several months later, apparently jumped at the opportunity to work with a foreign government to undermine a US election. According to documents released by the FBI, he sent numerous e-mails to campaign higher-ups to set up meetings between the Russians and not just campaign officials, but also the candidate himself. The response he received from an unnamed “campaign supervisor” was “great work.”
Later in August, he was encouraged by a “high ranking campaign supervisor” to hold an “off the record” meeting with “Russian officials.”
According to the special counsel, Papadopoulos e-mailed his Russian contacts about setting up a meeting between a “member of President Putin’s office” and the “national chairman” of the Trump campaign and “maybe one foreign policy adviser” for the campaign. In this exchange, Papadopoulos also allegedly told the Russians such a meeting “had been approved from our side.”
This is the first piece of evidence that there was an ongoing effort within the Trump campaign to collude with the Russian government. It implicates high-ranking members of the Trump campaign in this effort. Now, one might argue that Papadopoulos was freelancing or trying to impress higher-ranking campaign officials. That may well be the position that the White House takes. But the very fact that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty and is likely cooperating with Mueller’s office would suggest that he is telling the special counsel a story that incriminates others within the Trump camp.
Indeed, one might conclude that the “national chairman” in Papadopolous’s affidavit is Manafort, making it less than a coincidence that he was charged with multiple charges of money laundering, failing to report foreign back accounts, not registering as a foreign agent, and committing a “conspiracy against the United States” on the same day as Papadopolous’s plea deal was announced. This feels an awful lot like a shot across the bow in Manafort’s direction and a signal to Trump’s former campaign manager that he needs to start talking if he wants to avoid possible jail time. As for that unnamed foreign policy adviser? Well, have you noticed we haven’t heard from Mike Flynn in a while?
The significance of the Papadopolous plea deal is enormous. The special counsel may now have a cooperating witness who can provide first-hand information about whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. And he’s had an agreement with Papadopolous since early October. Indeed, Papodopolous was arrested in July of this year. Who knows what else he has told the special counsel?
Today’s news will put significant pressure on Manafort to cooperate with Mueller, and, judging by the specifics contained in the Papadopolous affidavit, it’s fairly clear what the special counsel is seeking: information on collusion and almost certainly the extent of Trump’s personal involvement. Mueller might even already have a deal with Flynn and others within the Trump orbit.
In short, the Trump-Russia investigation just got real.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.