No sooner did we have a few minutes to digest the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, then news broke of a second indictment in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, this one accompanied by a guilty plea. George Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty in the same federal district court in DC to lying to FBI investigators. Papadopoulos is a much smaller fish than Manafort, and his indictment is a classic of the “charged only with crimes created by the investigation” genre, but his guilty plea is much more relevant to the subject of the Trump campaign’s willingness to be a conduit for Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about efforts he made in March and April of 2016 to get “dirt” in the form of “thousands of emails” on Hillary Clinton, from a source he “understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials” (a slippery phrase, but then informal networks of influence are a big part of how regimes like Putin’s operate). In fact, while Papadopoulos downplayed the pull with Russia of this “overseas professor” who was “based in London” to the FBI, he knew that the professor “had met with some of those officials in Moscow” in the spring, and “over a period of months, [Papadopoulos] repeatedly sought to use the professor’s Russian connections in an effort to arrange a meeting between the Campaign and Russian government officials.” The plea also references Papadopoulos meeting “a female Russian national,” and obviously it’s tempting to assume this refers to Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met in June with Donald Trump Jr. We don’t actually know that, however. In fact, at one point, the professor told Papadopoulos (incorrectly) that the woman was Putin’s niece. This may well have been a test of his gullibility.
The overall picture here looks similar to what we saw with the Trump Jr. story: People in the Trump campaign were desperate for dirt on Hillary, they were willing to work with anyone to get it, and Russian interests used this desperation to play them for suckers. Papadopoulos was frequently promised things, and promising things in turn to the campaign, that never got delivered. This is a running theme of Trump’s amateur-hour foreign-policy campaign team (in contrast, one would note, to the professionals now running his foreign-policy shop).
Where things get dicier for Trump is that the investigation and the Papadopoulos plea both focus on how this can all be tied back to Trump and his senior campaign staff. Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying about when he went to work for Trump relative to when he started talking to the professor; he tried to convince the FBI that he already knew about the professor’s dirt on Hillary before he joined the campaign. And on March 31, 2016, well before Trump had even locked up the Republican nomination, Papadopoulos told Trump and a roomful of Trump’s foreign-policy advisers “in sum and substance, that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.” The meeting, like many such things, never happened, but he kept the campaign (including an unnamed “senior policy advisor for the Campaign”) apprised that he was trying to arrange one, and the plea is mostly silent on what he was told by the campaign in return. Then, in late April — still well before the June meeting at Trump Tower — the professor began dangling “dirt” on Hillary: “They [the Russians] have dirt on her”; “the Russians had emails of Clinton”; “they have thousands of emails.”
Let us pause here to note that this is precisely the situation that many of us warned was a grave risk to national security with Hillary’s insecure email server, and which Hillary and her camp loudly denied to be a possibility while basically admitting it when they started complaining during the campaign (let alone after) about Trump publicly seeking leaks of her emails. This entire story is the perfect storm of an aggressive and devious foreign regime, a Republican nominee of low character surrounded by inept and naively cynical amateur advisers, and a Democratic nominee who was heedlessly reckless with national security out of partisan paranoia. Secretary Clinton exposed herself to what amounted to easy Russian blackmail, and everything else that happened followed from that.
Anyway, the plea then goes on to detail more of Papadopoulos’s efforts to get Trump to meet with Putin, but goes oddly silent on who else besides Papadopoulos was in the loop on efforts to get “dirt” or emails. In a curious footnote, Mueller specifically adds as an aside that one of Papadopoulos’ emails about a Putin meeting was forwarded internally within the Trump campaign to other foreign-policy advisers who put the kibosh on a direct Trump-Putin meeting: “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.” Of course, that message was lost on Trump’s son when he went on to have a meeting, but one not with a public representative of the Putin regime.
Does Papadopoulos know more about the involvement of others in the campaign in seeking “dirt” or emails from Russian sources? If so, it seems that Mueller doesn’t want to show his cards just yet, not with Papadopoulos pleading guilty and (one assumes) cooperating. But this is a much more interesting development than the Manafort and Gates indictments.