Politics & Policy

The Papadopoulos Case Needs a Closer Look

George Papadopoulos (image via LinkedIn)
Is the former campaign adviser accused of misrepresenting his subjective state of mind, not objective reality?

Congress should be taking a very hard look at the prosecution of George Papadopoulos. To these eyes, the harder one looks, the more the Papadopoulos case appears to be much ado about nothing. That is no small thing: The “much ado” here is a purported Trump–Russia conspiracy to subvert a presidential election.

There has always been something fishy about the charge filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller against Papadopoulos, who was a green-as-grass 28-year-old when he made the big primary-season move from Ben Carson–campaign novice to Trump-campaign novice. Peruse the “Statement of the Offense,” filed by Mueller’s lead prosecutor on the case, Jeannie S. Rhee (who is fresh from a stint representing the Clinton Foundation — and donating $5,400 to the Hillary Clinton campaign). You find that there is collusion with Russia pouring off every one of the document’s 13 pages — meetings with shadowy figures portrayed as Kremlin operatives, apparent schemes to undermine Mrs. Clinton, ambitious plans for pow-wows between candidate Trump and strongman Putin.

Yet . . . there is no charge having anything to do with “collusion” — in the criminal-law sense of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to commit “cyber-espionage” or otherwise sabotage the 2016 election.

Instead, after the big 13-page wind-up, Papadopoulos ends up pleading guilty to a minor false-statements charge — one that is convoluted and, in the scheme of things, trivial. In essence, Papadopoulos is said to have lied about the timing and scope of his contact with the Maltese academic Joseph Mifsud. Mueller, Rhee & Co. allege that Papadopoulos falsely claimed that the contacts started before he joined the Trump campaign. It turns out that they started on March 14, 2016; this was some time after he “learned he would be a foreign policy advisor for the campaign” (page 3, paragraph 4) but a week before the campaign’s March 21 announcement that he was a campaign “policy advisor” (page 4, paragraph 6).

In concluding that this seems picayune, it is not my purpose to challenge the technical legal sufficiency of the charge. The requirement to prove a false statement was “material” (see Section 1001 of the federal penal code) is a very low hurdle. My point is — and has been — that, since allegations of “collusion” have roiled the nation and threatened a presidency for nearly two years, a ho-hum false-statements charge is a strange way to treat the one and only guy who, according to the special counsel, colluded up a storm.

But this only scratches the surface of strangeness.

While much that has gone on in the Mueller investigation is curious, I have assumed the candor of the special counsel’s portrayal of the Papadopoulos case: The young man was approached by an agent of Russia, who eventually informed him (on April 26, 2016) that the Kremlin had “dirt” on the Democratic party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the form of “thousands” of “emails of Clinton” (pages 3–7). To my mind, then, the only questions involved (a) the nature of Mifsud’s relationship to the Putin regime and (b) whether the emails in question were the hacked DNC emails (which Democrats have suggested) or the thousands of emails Clinton deleted from her homebrew server (which seemed to me more likely).

Yet, important reporting by the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross, the Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel, and Lee Smith at Real Clear Investigations calls for a more exacting perusal of Mueller’s allegations. Specifically: (1) Is Mueller really claiming that Papadopoulos was approached by an agent of Russia and (2) did this agent actually claim that the Russians’ “dirt” involved emails — and if so, is there reason to believe he knew what he was talking about?

When one looks carefully at Mueller’s statement of the offense, and at the one-count criminal-information to which Papadopoulos pled guilty, one realizes Mueller is not claiming that Mifsud and his associates truly were Kremlin operatives — only that Papadopoulos was under the impression that they were. The information legalistically accuses Papadopoulos of lying about his “interactions with certain foreign nationals whom he understood to have close connections with senior Russian government officials” (emphasis added). That is, Papadopoulos is accused of misrepresenting his subjective state of mind, not objective reality.

Mueller is not saying Mifsud and his associates really have close connections to Putin’s regime. And as Lee Smith details, it is highly unlikely that they do. Mifsud himself has denied that he is a Russian operative, and those who know him well describe him as tied to Western intelligence agents. As for the Russian associates he introduced to Papadopoulos, they are: a woman who falsely claimed to be Putin’s niece, and who falsely promised to introduce Papadopoulos to Russia’s ambassador to Britain; and Ivan Timofeev, whom Mueller and Rhee pregnantly describe as “the Russian MFA connection” (as in Ministry of Foreign Affairs) but who is actually a young academic researcher running a think tank that has some sort of tie to the MFA but no discernible connections to Russian intelligence.

Two of Smith’s sources, German lawyer Stephan Roh and French political analyst Thierry Pastor, are friends of Mifsud’s who have written a book called The Faking of Russia-gate: The Papadopoulos Case, an Investigative Analysis. According to them, Mifsud denies that he told Papadopoulos anything about emails related to Clinton — and, indeed, denies that he was told anything by Russians about such emails.

My first impression on reading that is: “So what? Mifsud is probably lying.”

But then, once again, I examine Mueller’s statement of the offense more carefully. It contains only a fleeting reference in which Papadopoulos says Mifsud told him that, among the “dirt” they had on her, “the Russians had emails of Clinton”; “they have thousands of emails.” There is no other indication that Mifsud made such a claim to Papadopoulos or anyone else.

Again, so what, right? Papadopoulos is cooperating with Mueller and has said he heard Mifsud talk about emails. So what more do we need to know?

Well . . . maybe a lot.

Remember, there is no allegation that Mifsud actually knew that the Russians had Clinton emails, let alone that he ever showed Papadopoulos any such emails. The claim is that Mifsud was told by unidentified Russian officials that the Kremlin had the emails.

So, what happens after Mifsud, allegedly, told Papadopoulos the Russians had these emails? According to Mueller’s statement of the offense, the following day Papadopoulos sends two emails to high-ranking Trump-campaign officials about his meeting with Mifsud, and neither one of them says anything about emails. It appears that Papadopoulos was myopically focused on the possibility — farfetched, but apparently real to Papadopoulos — that Mifsud could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.

Now, again, this does not mean Mifsud did not mention emails to Papadopoulos. But let’s consider the critical events that Mueller and Rhee omit from the statement of the offense.

On approximately May 10, just two weeks after the April 26 meeting with Mifsud, Papadopoulos has his barroom meeting with the Australian diplomat Alexander Downer. Both Chuck Ross and Kim Strassel note that, in an interview with the Australian press, Downer recounted that Papadopoulos was not specific about what kind of material he’d heard Russia was holding. He did not say emails. He did not even say it was “dirt” on Clinton; only that whatever it was “could be damaging to her.”

As Strassel observes, the New York Times blockbuster report that touted the Papadopoulos–Downer meeting as the catalyst for the FBI’s Russia investigation does not actually say that Papadopoulos told Downer the Russians had emails. Moreover, Strassel’s reporting contradicts the suggestion floated by the Times and government officials that Downer reported Papadopoulos’s statements to Australian intelligence, which then passed them along to the FBI. Instead, Downer gave his information directly to . . . wait for it . . . the Obama State Department (that would be the State Department whose former boss was the Democratic nominee for president). This is consistent with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’s revelation that the FBI’s opening of a counterintelligence investigation was not predicated on any reporting from a foreign intelligence service.

Meanwhile, in September 2016, Stefan Halper, a British-American academic with longtime connections to the CIA, was tasked by the FBI to approach Papadopoulos. As Ross has reported, based on an unidentified source with knowledge of the conversation, Papadopoulos told Halper he knew nothing about any emails or Russian hacking — notwithstanding Halper’s aggressive, loaded questioning on the subject.

It is very hard to understand what is going on here. But in light of the centrality of Papadopoulos to the Obama administration’s purported suspicions about Trump-campaign “coordination” in Russia’s election-meddling — suspicions that are said to have justified the use of the government’s counterintelligence powers against the administration’s political opposition — it is essential to nail down what the Papadopoulos prosecution has established.

Several questions suggest themselves:

• Is Special Counsel Mueller contending that Mifsud and his associates were authentic agents of Russia, or merely that Papadopoulos may have thought they were?

• What exactly does the special counsel allege that Mifsud told Papadopoulos the Russians were hoarding? Did Mifsud really say the Russians had emails? If so, exactly what emails?

• Lee Smith notes that the FBI interviewed Mifsud in February 2017, shortly after the FBI interviewed Papadopoulos. Did Mifsud deny being a Russian operative? Did he admit to telling Papadopoulos that the Russians had Clinton-related emails, or did he deny it (as he denied it to Smith’s sources)?

• What if any role did the State Department play in the transmission to the FBI of Alexander Downer’s account of his meeting with Papadopoulos? How did the State Department describe what Papadopoulos said? How does that description square with what Papadopoulos, Mifsud, and Downer told the FBI?

The nation has been led to believe that Papadopoulos was interacting with clandestine agents of Russia, who told him the Kremlin was in possession of thousands of emails that could damage Clinton — emails that media reporting has implied were the ones hacked from the DNC and published during the campaign. There are, however, grounds to believe an alternative version of events: A very low-level, inexperienced Trump-campaign adviser was interacting with a Maltese academic who had no real Kremlin ties and no inside information about whether Russia actually possessed damaging information about Clinton, in the form of emails or otherwise; this young campaign adviser then made a vague claim to an Australian diplomat, who did not hear him say anything about emails, and did not report the conversation to his government through regular channels.

After nearly two years of collusion banter, Congress needs to find out which of these accounts is closer to the truth.

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