Donald Trump had no idea what just hit him. Just as the president was screaming on Twitter that he or his campaign hadn’t colluded with the Russians, Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to be the judge of such things, unsealed a criminal case against George Papadopoulos, who has already pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI for … attempting to collude with the Russians. According to his plea agreement, which Mueller and team quietly made him sign earlier this month, he faces up to six months in prison for the offense.
And all of this was on top of Monday’s early-morning news that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, had just been publicly charged as the first high-profile target of Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Manafort aide Rick Gates was also indicted.
But by every objective measure, Papadopoulos, minor actor though he seems to be, is the biggest bombshell of Monday’s revelations — and Mueller’s first major signal of what he’s been up to since his appointment last May. For one, the acts that gave rise to Papadopoulos’s conviction arose and were investigated by the FBI before Mueller was tapped to lead the probe into links between the Trump campaign and Moscow — which undercuts Trump’s repeated claims that the special counsel is on a witch hunt and that collusion never occurred.
Here, one caveat is in order: As much as the word has taken on a life of its own in the imagination of the #resistance, Papadopoulos’s crime wasn’t collusion with the Russians. Collusion continues to be a quasi-legal term that isn’t exactly punishable under federal law — except to the extent that the misdeeds in question amount to campaign-finance violations or criminal conspiracies.
With that out of the way, it is impossible not to conclude, after reading about the conduct over which Mueller nailed Papadopoulos, that the Trump campaign aide, whose title was foreign-policy adviser, was trying hard to cozy up to the Russians. And to procure from them something that Trump himself repeatedly obsessed over: any and all hacked emails relating to Hillary Clinton and her campaign.
From the “statement of the offense” that Mueller filed in federal court in Washington today — that is, the facts underlying Papadopoulos’s guilty plea — we find that FBI agents met with Papadopoulos and caught him lying about his contacts with a Russian-connected professor who claimed to have “dirt” and “thousands of emails” related to Hillary Clinton. (The Washington Post reports that the professor is Joseph Mifsud, director of the London Academy of Diplomacy.) It turns out that back in March 2016, Papadopoulos met this professor in Italy, where Papadopoulos disclosed that he was set to become a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign. The professor, for his part, took great interest in Papadopoulos and claimed to have “substantial connections with Russian government officials,” which in turn would only increase the aide’s profile in Trump’s orbit.
Indeed, over the next several months, Papadopoulos’s persistence in wanting to become friendly with this professor and a “female Russian national,” both of whom remain unidentified in court filings, led him to connect with the upper reaches of the Russian foreign ministry — all in hopes of setting up a bilateral meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos quickly took advantage of his new acquaintances, such that during a March 31, 2016, meeting to discuss national-security policy with the campaign, he “in sum and substance,” according to Mueller’s prosecutors, boasted to Trump and others gathered for the occasion that he could hook up a meeting between the then-candidate and Putin.
“The Russian government has an open invitation by Putin for Mr. Trump to meet him when he is ready,” he emailed the campaign in late April. In a follow-up meeting that same month with the professor, the latter told him about the “dirt” he had on Clinton, namely, the “thousands of emails” that could prove damaging to her campaign. (Of note: The batch of John Podesta emails obtained by WikiLeaks were hacked in March.)
The problems began for Papadopoulos when the FBI learned of these exchanges and then asked him about it. All along, the campaign aide downplayed these contacts and said they happened before he joined the campaign. A trove of emails the FBI got ahold of told a different story. And Papadopoulos only made things worse for himself when, following a second interview with the FBI, he proceeded to delete his Facebook account — where he seemed to brag about his Russian contacts — and changed his cell-phone number, presumably to hide whatever digital trail he may have left.
That’s only the information that’s public. In the plea agreement Mueller reached with Papadopoulos’s lawyers, there’s an expectation that his sentencing will be put off for as long as he also cooperates with the government: “Your client also agrees that the sentencing in this case may be delayed until your client’s efforts to cooperate have been completed, as determined by the Government, so that the Court will have the benefit of all relevant information before a sentence is imposed.”
In addition, as USA Today’s Brad Heath rightly notes, though Papadopoulos was convicted in early October, he was arrested and charged in July. As one of the documents unsealed in court today makes clear, the former campaign aide, who by then had already done enough to merit a federal charge, “met with the Government on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions.” There’s absolutely no telling what this information is, or what kind of perjury traps Papadopoulos may have helped Mueller’s team put down for other fact witnesses or subjects who may be familiar with the aide’s Russian involvement. Needless to say, some of them now may be wondering if they have been completely forthcoming with Mueller. And if they haven’t spoken to him yet, they may be thinking long and hard about how much they are willing to spin or distort the facts.
All that to say: The special counsel delivered. He has only taken a couple of public steps in the sprawling Russia investigation — for instance, there’s nothing yet on whether Trump may have obstructed justice in his firing of James Comey — but each was potent and deliberate enough to signify that, all along, he wouldn’t succumb to pressure or give away his game ahead of time. For all we know, he’s only getting started.