As related in my earlier column on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Paul Manafort and an associate, today on balance is a good day for the Trump administration. Of course, you never want to see your former campaign chairman get charged with crimes. Nevertheless, after all these months of investigation, the much-anticipated Manafort charges turned out to be unrelated to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, let alone to any purported Trump-campaign collusion therein.
On that collusion question, today’s other development in Mueller’s investigation seems more relevant. As David French and Dan McLaughlin detail, the special counsel announced the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos — which apparently happened on or about October 5 — to a single count of making false statements to government investigators. As Rich Lowry observes, Papadopoulos was a low-level Trump-campaign adviser. He had contacts with Russians who claimed to have close connections to the Putin regime.
As outlined in a 14-page “Statement of the Offense,” Papadopoulos’s principal offense was to lie to the FBI about when these contacts occurred. He told the FBI they happened before he joined the campaign; in fact, they happened not only after he was aboard but only because he was aboard. Upon close examination, the story unfolded in the offense statement is actually exculpatory of Trump and his campaign. To understand why, we need to revisit the term “collusion.”
First, some background.
Papadopoulos is a climber who was clearly trying to push his way into Trump World. We recall that much of the Republican foreign-policy clerisy shunned Trump during the campaign. Thus did comparatively obscure people like Carter Page get seats at the table. George Papadopoulos was another of these: a 30-year-old who graduated from DePaul in 2009, later got an M.A. from the London School of Economics, and did sporadic work for the Hudson Institute between 2011 and 2014.
While living in London in early March 2016, he spoke with an unidentified Trump-campaign official and learned he would be designated a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign. These arrangements are very loose. Papadopoulos was a fringe figure, not plugged into Trump’s inner circle.
In London, Papadopoulos met an unidentified Russian academic (referred to as “the Professor”), who claimed to have significant ties to Putin-regime officials and who took an interest in Papadopoulos only because he boasted of having Trump-campaign connections. There appears to be no small amount of puffery on all sides: Papadopoulos suggesting to the Russians that he could make a Trump meeting with Putin happen, and suggesting to the campaign that he could make a Putin meeting with Trump happen; the Professor putting Papadopoulos in touch with a woman who Papadopoulos was led to believe was Putin’s niece (she apparently is not); and lots and lots of talk about potential high- and low-level meetings between Trump-campaign and Putin-regime officials that never actually came to pass.
In the most important meeting, in London on April 26, 2016, the Professor told Papadopoulos that he (the Prof) had just learned that top Russian-government officials had obtained “dirt” on then-putative Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The dirt is said to include “thousands of emails” — “emails of Clinton.” The suggestion, of course, was that the Russians were keen to give this information to the Trump campaign.
This may raise the hopes of the “collusion with Russia” enthusiasts. But there are two problems here.
First, Papadopoulos was given enough misinformation that we can’t be confident (at least from what Mueller has revealed here) that the Professor was telling Papadopoulos the truth. Remember, by April 2016, it had been known for over a year that Hillary Clinton had used a private email system for public business and had tried to delete and destroy tens of thousands of emails. The Russians could well have been making up a story around that public reporting in order further to cultivate the relationship with Papadopoulos (whom they appear to have seen as potentially useful). Note that the Professor suggested the Russians had Clinton’s own emails. But the emails we know were hacked were not Clinton’s — they were the DNC’s and John Podesta’s (Hillary is on almost none of them). So, Papadopoulos’s Russian interlocutors could well have been weaving a tale based on what had been reported, rather than on what was actually hacked and ultimately released by WikiLeaks.
Second, and more significant: If the proof, at best, implies that the Russians acquired thousands of Clinton emails and then had to inform a tangential Trump campaign figure of this fact so he could pass it along to the campaign, that would mean Trump and his campaign had nothing to do with the acquisition of the emails.
As observed above, this brings us back to the meaning of “collusion.” I’ve long argued that this term has been used by Trump’s accusers because they don’t have proof of criminal collusion. The term “collusion” can have a dark connotation, but it really only means some kind of concerted activity — not necessarily illegal. Prosecutors don’t care about collusion; they care about conspiracy — an agreement by two or more people to commit a violation of a criminal statute. That is, even if there is some concerted activity, collusion is not a crime unless the Trump campaign conspired with the Putin regime to do something federal law makes a crime — for example, to hack communications systems.
If Trump officials and associates did not do this, then their activities may be unsavory, but they are not criminal. It is a disgraceful thing for an American political candidate to seek damaging information about his or her opponent from a despicable, anti-American regime. But it is not illegal. A criminal investigation is about proving crimes, not revealing dirty politics.
To put it another way: Notice that Mueller did not make Papadopoulos plead guilty to collusion with Russia. For a prosecutor, there is nothing better than getting a cooperating accomplice to admit guilt to the scheme the prosecutor is investigating. It goes a long way toward proving that the scheme existed. Once you’ve got that, it’s much easier to prove that the cooperator’s confederates are guilty, too. But even though there’s a great deal of evidence that Papadopoulos colluded with Russia, there’s no charge along those lines. There’s just a single false-statement charge on which, according to the plea agreement, he’s probably looking at no jail time, and certainly no more than six months. Why no collusion charge? Because collusion is not a crime.
Thus, I think the Papadopoulos guilty plea helps Trump in two ways.
First, it underscores that, whatever “collusion” might have happened, at this point there is no criminal-conspiracy case. Even though Mueller has patently gotten cooperation from Papadopoulos, there is no indication that the defendant has provided any evidence that comes close to implicating the president in a crime.
Second, the offense statement supporting the plea also helps Trump politically. There is an interesting footnote on page 8. Here’s the context: On May 21, 2016, Papadopoulos emailed an unidentified top Trump-campaign official, explaining with urgency that Russian officials (presumably including Putin, at least in Papadopoulos’s mind) wanted to meet Trump and “have been reaching out to me to discuss.” Mueller then drops this footnote:
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.
Now, there could be multiple interpretations of this. But the most natural one, it seems to me, is that Trump has no intention of meeting with Russians, and if there are going to be meetings at all, it must be at a low level so the Russians do not construe Trump to be making any commitments or accommodations.
As we have long noted, even if the Trump campaign did not commit prosecutable crimes, there could be significant political damage — perhaps even to the point of impeachable offenses — if Trump were shown to have traitorous or other deeply corrupt arrangements with Russia. Let’s say, hypothetically, that the Trump campaign covertly agreed to make harmful policy concessions to the Kremlin in exchange for Putin’s damaging Clinton with compromising information. Such an arrangement might not clearly violate any criminal laws, but it would be a grave political wrong that would demonstrate unfitness for high office.
The Papadopoulos plea deal does more to undermine than establish a real, actionable collusion case against the president.
Based on what we can glean from the Papadopoulos plea, however, this sort of thing was not going on. Don’t get me wrong: I found Trump’s outwardly friendly attitude toward Putin during the campaign to be very disturbing. I still find it disturbing. But while it seems clear that the Trump campaign would have been delighted to get dirt on Clinton from Moscow (just as the Clinton campaign was delighted to get dirt on Trump from Moscow), it appears — at least in the context of Papadopoulos’s case — that they were taking pains not to make express or implied deals with the Kremlin.
Of course, media-Democrat champions of the collusion narrative will celebrate the specter of Russia’s holding out the possibility (apparently unfulfilled) of transmitting to the Trump campaign scads of damaging information about Hillary Clinton. But on close examination, the Papadopoulos plea deal does more to undermine than establish a real, actionable collusion case against the president.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial publication.