WASHINGTON ― There may have been a brief moment Monday morning when the White House thought the week wouldn’t be so bad. The federal grand jury indictment unsealed against Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and his longtime associate Rick Gates, dealt with much of their lobbying work before the 2016 election.
At first glance, the indictments didn’t seem to have much to do with whether Trump and his team coordinated with Russia. They could certainly be used to gain leverage over the former Trump associates, but there was no smoking gun tying the Trump campaign to Russia.
But any moment of optimism would have been short-lived. Not long after Manafort and Gates were in federal custody, special counsel Robert Mueller’s team dropped another bombshell: They’d flipped a former Trump campaign adviser months ago.
The charges against Trump’s former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos ― a little-known, little-qualified 30-year-old who listed his involvement in Model United Nations as one of his credentials ― may end up being a much bigger part of the Russia investigation. The Papadopoulos charges, dated Oct. 5 but only unsealed on Monday, deal directly with his work during the election and his attempt to link up the Russian government with the Trump campaign. His statements also make clear that he was acting with the involvement of higher-ranking officials in Trump’s orbit.
The charges against Papadopoulos became public less than six months after Mueller, a former FBI director, was chosen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to head up the Russia probe. But Papadopoulos was first arrested on July 27, when he landed at Washington Dulles International Airport on a flight from Germany. And he’s been cooperating ever since.
The public may only now be seeing the first fruits of Mueller’s investigation, but Papadopoulos has been on the hook for a while.
Papadopoulos was charged with lying during an interview with the FBI back in January about his communications with Russians when he served as one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers.
On March 24, 2016, just days after Papadopoulos was publicly identified as one of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy advisers, he met with a professor in London who had “substantial connections” to Russian government officials, according to the charges against him.
In an interview with FBI agents this year, Papadopoulos claimed that the professor had told him the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton before he’d joined the campaign. But that wasn’t true: Papadopoulos wasn’t told about the “dirt” and “thousands of emails” that the Russians had on Clinton until more than a month after he joined the campaign.
Papadopoulos continued trying to arrange a meeting between the campaign and the Russian government, and he emailed a “Senior Policy Advisor” on the Trump campaign to tell them he had “some interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip when the time is right.”
In one email, a “high-ranking campaign official” forwarded Papadopoulos’ email to another campaign official and noted the need to “communicate that [Trump] is not doing these trips” and that they should send “someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
The timing of when Papadopoulos found out that Russia had “thousands of emails” on Clinton is particularly noteworthy. Papadopoulos found out the hacked emails existed in April 2016. The leaked emails hacked from Democratic National Committee staffers’ accounts weren’t made public until July 2016. And the emails hacked from John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, weren’t released until October.
That means a Trump campaign official knew something was coming from the Russian government that would damage the Clinton campaign, months before the public did.
In his interview with the FBI, Papadopoulos allegedly tried to downplay his meetings with the professor with ties to Russia, calling him “a nothing.” In reality, Papadopoulos knew of the professor’s “substantial connections to Russian government officials” and used the professor’s connection to try to connect the campaign with the Russian government.
The pending charges against Manafort are still significant because of the leverage they offer Mueller. Manafort, 68, could face a stiff federal prison sentence if convicted, which gives Mueller’s team serious leverage to convince him to fully cooperate in the probe about the campaign’s connections to Russia.
The White House circulated talking points Monday, asking its GOP allies to stress that Manafort is “not a part of the administration.” Conservative media also downplayed the indictment, saying Manafort’s problematic work was “many years before he joined Trump” and “well before” he joined the campaign.
Papadopoulos is also not part of the current administration, but the three indictments together make it tougher for Trump to completely distance himself from the controversy. In the past, the Trump team has tried to write off troubling individuals as peripheral to their operation.
While Papadopoulos was a low-level official, he was certainly a part of the campaign. He attended a meeting with Trump and Jeff Sessions, who later became attorney general, in March 2017. There’s even a photo of them at a table together, with Papadopoulos sitting four places to Trump’s right and two places to Sessions’ left.
“He’s an energy consultant,” Trump told The Washington Post of Papadopoulos in 2016. “Excellent guy.”
On Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed Papadopoulos’ importance, saying his involvement with the campaign was “extremely limited” and that he was simply a “volunteer.” She said that anything Papadopoulos did was not in an “official capacity” on behalf of the campaign.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jeff Sessions became attorney general in March 2016.