Why Trump Should be Afraid of the Papadopoulos Guilty Plea

This article first appeared on Just Security.

For months, it was well known that Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman (who has longstanding ties to the Trump world ), was in serious legal trouble.

That he was the target of an indictment in the Russia investigation did not come as a surprise on Monday, but the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser on Trump’s campaign, was unexpected.

On Monday, we learned that he is cooperating with federal investigators. His plea also delivered an enormous amount of new information with significant implications for the Russia investigation.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

The Trump campaign knew about the Russians’ having emails involving Hillary Clinton as far back as April 2016.

An overseas professor with extensive ties to the Russian government told Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” at a meeting at the end of April.

This provides important new context to the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, and other Russia-connected officials.

Since Papadopoulos was keeping “high level campaign officials” informed of his communications with the Russians, it is very likely Paul Manafort himself knew about this initial dangle from the Russians with reference to Clinton’s emails.

It bears emphasis here that the document also indicates Papadopoulos knew specifically that the offer of derogatory information on Clinton was not just the professor acting alone. The plea states:

In truth and in fact… Papadopoulos understood the Professor to have substantial connections to high-level Russian government officials and that the Professor spoke with some of those officials in Moscow before telling defendant Papadopoulos about the “dirt.”

These new facts also go to a critical point Ryan made in an earlier article: The Don Jr emails and June 9 meeting showed multiple “signs of a pre-existing understanding of Russian government cooperation with the Trump campaign.”

Recall that Rob Goldstone, who attended the meeting as well, said explicitly that the provision of derogatory emails from the “Russian government attorney” was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

It also raises some new questions:

First, the Russians told Papadopoulos they had “emails of Clinton.” However, to date there is no evidence the Russians had Clinton’s emails. Instead, the Russians had by May 2016 “exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC,” according to the January 2017 intelligence report, and later obtained John Podesta’s emails. That said, perhaps the Russians referred to “emails of Clinton” as a shorthand.

GettyImages-186114718 Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. Alex Wong/Getty

Second, the plea is chock-full of references to Papadopoulos telling Trump campaign officials about his various communications with Russians. However, there is a conspicuous absence of any reference to Papadopoulos telling those individuals about the Clinton emails.

The references are instead to matters such as setting up a meeting with Putin’s circle. Perhaps Mueller is holding back that card to see what other witnesses/suspects tell him, and whether they risk lying about what Papadopoulos said to them about the emails.  

Trump is directly made aware of Papadopoulos’s work.

At a national security meeting in Washington, DC, on March 31, 2016, Papadopoulos briefs Trump and his other foreign policy advisers working on the campaign about his connections to Russians. The plea says he:

introduced himself to the group, he stated, in sum and substance, that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.

Trump tweeted out a photo of the meeting, in which you can see Papadopoulos sitting a few seats away from the president.

A heads-up: I met with Putin’s niece (and other Russians).

According to the plea, on March 24, 2016, Papadopoulos emailed the “campaign supervisor and several members of the Campaign’s foreign policy team” that he’d just met with his “good friend,” the professor, and “Putin’s niece.” (Papadopoulos later learned the woman was not a relative of Putin.)

Papadopoulos said the reason for the meeting was “to arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump.”

In April, Papadopoulos continued to keep the campaign informed of his contacts with “the Russians” and his “outreach to Russia.”

A big takeaway point: After months of congressional grilling and press inquiries about Trump contacts with Russian officials, these new details reveal that several people on the Trump campaign were aware that a Trump campaign representative was taking meetings with Russian officials. The Mueller team clearly has a copy of this email and so knows exactly some of the people who were made directly aware of this meeting.

We don’t know the identities yet of the unnamed campaign officials who received Papadopoulos’ updates. In the plea they’re called the “campaign supervisor” or the “high-ranking campaign official,” or “another high-ranking campaign official” (indicating at least two were directly in the loop).

It’s worth noting that Papadopoulos was one of five members of Trump’s foreign policy advisory team, which was chaired by Jeff Sessions. The other four members were retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg (now the chief of staff of the National Security Council), Carter Page, Walid Phares and Joseph E. Schmitz.

Always read the footnotes: Papadopolous was not acting on his own.

One of the most important pieces of information in the Papadopoulos plea is contained in a footnote. It reads:

The government notes that the official forwarded defendant Papadopoulos’s email to another Campaign official (without including defendant Papadopoulos) and stated: “Let[‘]s discuss. 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.”

The footnote shows that Papadopolous was not freelancing and that others in the campaign were aware of his activities and on board with them. It also exposes an awareness that these activities — meetings with the Russians — should be kept discreet. That said, we do acknowledge a different (though less plausible) read, which is that the email meant someone low level should communicate Trump is not doing these trips, rather than someone low level should do the trip.

And here’s one other potentially important part of the timeline: That email exchange occurred in late May 2016. In July 2016, someone low-level in the campaign did travel to Moscow: Carter Page.

The Trump campaign was extraordinarily cagey for a long time, refusing to answer press inquiries about whether Page’s trip had been approved by the campaign–until Politico ’s Josh Meyer and Ken Vogel broke the story that campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had approved Page’s trip in advance.

What did Trump campaign officials say to Papadopoulos about working with the Russians?

We know what Papadopoulos said to Trump campaign advisers, keeping them updated on his work and the conversations he was having with Russian officials. But, for the most part, we don’t know what they said back to him, but presumably Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team do.

The responses we have, thanks to this plea, are significant, and imply that Mueller has far more information about the role other campaign officials played and the views they had about working with the Russians. (The footnote above also strongly suggests Mueller has access to internal Trump campaign emails in addition to the ones Papadopoulos had in his account.)

After Papadopoulos tells the campaign he met “Putin’s niece,” the “campaign supervisor” responded

that he would “work it through the campaign,” but that no commitments should be made at that point. The Campaign Supervisor added: “Great work.”

With reference to a potential “off-the-record” meeting with Russian officials, a Trump Campaign Supervisor told Papadopoulos in mid-August 2016: “I would encourage you” and another foreign policy advisor to the Campaign to “make the trip[], if it is feasible.”

No one saw Papadopoulos news coming, which supports the idea that Mueller’s team is not leaking.

The indictment against Paul Manafort, also made public Monday, was widely anticipated, but the guilty plea from Papadopoulos, that he was cooperating with Mueller’s team, or many of the details included in the plea were never even hinted at within news reports.

This suggests that Mueller’s team is not leaking to the press and keeping a tight lid on some of the most important parts of its investigation.

Why did Papadopoulos feel he could lie so extensively to FBI agents?

During his Jan. 27, 2017 interview with the FBI, Papadopoulos made several “material false statements and material omissions to the FBI.” He lied about when he started talking to the professor with connections to the Russian government.

He lied about what he knew about the professor, saying the man was “a nothing” and “just a guy talking up connections,” when, in fact, he was fully aware of the professor’s “substantial” connections to Russian government officials. He lied about when he met “a certain female Russian national,” saying it was before he joined the campaign, when it was after he’d become an adviser.

Papadopoulos’s lies were extensive and fairly brazen, given the seriousness of the FBI’s investigation and what was at stake. Many of his actions to cover his tracks (deleting his Facebook account and getting a new cell phone number) also appear very clumsy and foolish–it suggests that Mueller may have even greater evidence than one would think.

The plea does not say his counsel was present for his first interview with FBI officials in January, but notes that Papadopoulos’ counsel was present for a second interview on Feb. 17.

He was arrested at Dulles International Airport on July 27, after which he met with government officials numerous times to answer more questions. This time, truthfully.

Kate Brannen is the deputy managing editor of Just Security and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Previously, she was a senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy.

Ryan Goodman is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. He served as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16).

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