WASHINGTON -- If President Donald Trump has anything to worry about with the unfolding investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it may not necessarily be from the newly issued indictment against his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and an associate.
It may be in the guilty plea from another, lower-level campaign adviser.
According to court documents released on October 30, that official, George Papadopoulos, said he met and communicated with Russian officials during the campaign and in at least one instance was told Russia had “thousands of e-mails” belonging to Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. He also claimed that he had met with the niece of Russian President Vladimir Putin in London in early 2016.
The admissions from Papadopoulos, who was arrested in July, charged with lying to FBI agents, present some of the strongest evidence to date about links between Trump associates and Russian officials -- and possible collusion. Court documents say he has been cooperating with U.S. law enforcement.
Despite Trump’s repeated denials of any collusion or improper contact with Russian officials, the issue has dogged his presidency since even before he took office. Just weeks before his inauguration, the U.S. intelligence community released a report that concluded that Russia had engaged in a hacking-and-propaganda campaign seeking to influence the 2016 presidential race.
Papadopoulos’s statement “shows that a Trump campaign adviser was told early on that the Russians had dirt on Clinton in the form of thousands of e-mails. He lied about it when questioned, and was taken to task,” Norm Eisen, who served as President Barack Obama's special counsel and special assistant from 2009 to 2011, told RFE/RL. “It’s another piece of the puzzle of how the campaign may have worked with Russia to affect our elections.”
At least three different congressional committees are investigating aspects of possible Russian meddling and interactions with Trump associates.
Mueller, backed by a team of criminal prosecutors, has pushed forward with his investigation and issued his probe's first indictment, unsealed on October 30, of Manafort and his longtime business partner, Rick Gates, on charges of conspiracy against the United States and other financial crimes. Manafort has denied any wrongdoing.
On January 27, 2017, FBI agents looking into links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government interviewed Papadopoulos, who had joined the Trump campaign in early March 2016. At that time, Trump was not yet the nominee for the Republican Party.
During that interview, according to the guilty plea filed in U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C., Papadopoulos lied to the agents about the nature and timing of meetings he had in early 2016 with Russian citizens in London. Lying to a federal agent is a felony in the United States.
Papadopoulos’s whereabouts were not immediately clear on October 30. His lawyers, Thomas Breen and Robert Stanley, issued a statement saying: “It is in the best interest of our client, George Papadopoulos, that we refrain from commenting on George’s case.”
Papadopoulos’s profile on the social-networking site LinkedIn lists his former profession as “Advisor- Donald J. Trump for President” and lists the dates March 2016 to January 2017. It also includes a short endorsement from Trump.
According to the federal court documents, Papadopoulos met in London on April 26, 2016, with a man identified only as “the professor.”
Papadopoulos told agents that the professor was “nothing” and “just a guy talk[ing] up connections or something.” But he later acknowledged that he knew the man had “substantial connections to Russian government officials.”
“Over a period of months, defendant Papadopoulos repeatedly sought to use the professor’s Russian connections in an effort to arrange a meeting between the [Trump] campaign and Russian government officials,” the court papers said.
On March 24, 2016, at least two weeks after being named to Trump’s foreign policy campaign team, Papadopoulos met in London with "the professor," along with the Russian ambassador and an unnamed Russian woman.
It wasn’t immediately clear who the unnamed professor or the Russian woman were, though at least one e-mail quoted in the court documents makes mention of the Valdai Discussion Club, a high-level, Kremlin-backed policy forum that brings together academics and policy experts from the West and Russia.
Papadopoulos told Trump campaign officials in an e-mail that the woman was Putin’s niece, something he later learned was not the case, according to the documents.
In a series of e-mails exchanged in April 2016, Papadopoulos wrote to the Russian woman, asking about setting up a “potential foreign policy trip to Russia.”
On April 11, 2016, the woman responded to Papadopoulos, saying: “I have already alerted my personal links to our conversation and your request.... As mentioned we are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump. The Russian Federation would love to welcome him once his candidature would be official announced,” according to the court papers.
On April 26, 2016, Papadopoulos met "the professor" at a London hotel, where he told Papadopoulos that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials.
The man told Papadopoulos “the Russians had obtained ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Clinton.” "The professor" told Papadopoulos that "'they [the Russians] have dirt on her’; ‘the Russians had e-mails of Clinton’; ‘they have thousands of e-mails,’” according to the documents.
That assertion dovetails with the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, which concluded that Russian government-backed hackers were responsible for stealing e-mails from Clinton’s campaign staffers and Democratic Party officials. Many of those e-mails were later published by the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, which has also been accused of colluding with Russia.
In May 2016, Papadopoulos was said to be in contact with an unidentified person reportedly from the Russian Foreign Ministry, discussing how to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian government officials.
On May 21, 2016, Papadopoulos e-mailed a Trump campaign official, forwarding an e-mail from May 4 from the Russian Foreign Ministry along with a note reading: “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite some time and have been reaching out to me to discuss.”
On January 27, 2017, 10 days after Trump’s inauguration as president, Papadopoulos met with the FBI for the first time. About three weeks later, on February 16, 2017, Papadopoulos met again with them, this time with a lawyer. During the meeting, he “reiterated his purported willingness to cooperate with the FBI investigation,” according to the court papers.
Papadopoulos was arrested by U.S. agents on July 27, 2017, as he arrived at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Following his arrest, according to the documents, he “met with the government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions.”
Trump fired the head of the FBI, James Comey, on May 9, 2017, and a day later he reportedly told a delegation of visiting Russian officials, including the Russian ambassador, that he did it because he “faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off."
Mueller, a former director of the FBI, was later appointed by the U.S. Justice Department to take over the Russia investigation after Comey’s dismissal.