Former Trump foreign policy adviser Papadopoulos pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russia during the campaign. That means big trouble for the president.
In isolation, George Papadopoulos’ guilty plea rebuts the claim that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is a “hoax.” In context, Papadopoulos’ confession fits into a bigger picture. Increasingly, it appears that Putin expected a Trump administration to soften U.S. policy toward Russia and even eliminate debilitating sanctions imposed after its incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Roll the tape:
- On March 6, 2016, only three other Republican presidential contenders (Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Gov. John Kasich (R-OH)) remained when Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis told 28-year-old George Papadopoulos that he would be joining the campaign as a foreign policy adviser. Clovis also told Papadopoulos that a principal foreign policy focus would be improved relations with Russia.
- On March 14, 2016, an intermediary for Russia initiated a process that led to direct contact between Papadopoulos and individuals connected to the Russian government. A week later, Trump identified Papadopoulos as a member of his foreign policy team, calling him an “excellent guy.”
- On March 24, 2016, Papadopoulos sent a message to seven Trump campaign officials about a possible meeting with Russian leadership. Sam Clovis responded that he would “work it through the campaign.” Clovis added, “Great work.”
- On March 31, 2016, Papadopoulos attended a national security meeting of Trump’s foreign policy team in Washington, DC, where Trump made his desires relating to Russia known. Fellow team member J.D. Gordon later quoted Trump as saying at that meeting, “I do not want to go to World War III over Ukraine.” Papadopoulos told the group he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Vladimir Putin. Afterward, Trump tweeted a photo of the group, which included his national security advisory committee chairman, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 1, 2016
- By April 26, 2016, the Democratic National Committee knew that its computers had been hacked, but it didn’t yet know the identity of the hackers. George Papadopoulos did. On that day, he learned that high-level Russian government officials claimed to have “thousands of emails” and related “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
- Throughout the spring and into the summer, Papadopoulos told his Trump campaign superiors, including Sam Clovis, Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort, that the Russians were interested in meeting with members of the campaign.
- Meanwhile, high-level communications between the Trump campaign and Russian officials also were occurring – although the Trump participants would later “forget” them. On April 27, 2016, during a private VIP session at the Mayflower Hotel before Trump’s first major foreign policy address, Jared Kushner and Jeff Sessions met Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. (At his Jan. 10, 2017 confirmation hearing for attorney general, Sessions denied any communications with the Russians; Kushner didn’t publicly disclose his Mayflower Hotel contact with Kislyak until July 24, 2017.)
- That same day, shortly after meeting with Sessions and Kushner, Ambassador Kislyak sat in the front row as Trump delivered his first major foreign policy address. Trump said that Russia and the United States “should seek common ground based on shared interests.”
- A few weeks later, Manafort forwarded to his deputy Rick Gates a message from Papadopoulos about a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian officials with this note: “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.”
- Meanwhile, the DNC’s hacked emails were about to go public. In June 2016, Jared Kushner took over the Trump digital campaign and hired Cambridge Analytica, principally owned by major GOP donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer. Kushner later said that he “found that Facebook and digital targeting were the most effective ways to reach the audiences.” At about the same time, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO reached out to Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, asking him to share Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails so the firm could aid their dissemination.
- On June 3, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received an email from a representative of the Agalarovs – a Russian family of oligarchs with whom Trump had pursued business deals. The message promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton as part of “Russia and its government support of Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin [Agalarov].”
- On June 7, just hours after Don Jr. confirmed the Trump-Russia meeting for Friday, June 9, Trump gave a primary election victory speech in which he said: “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
- At the June 9 meeting, Don Jr., Kushner, Manafort and three Russians – a lawyer with Kremlin ties, a Russian-American lobbyist reported to be a former Soviet military intelligence officer and a business representative of the Agalarovs – met at Trump Tower. The Russians discussed alleged wrongdoing by certain Hillary Clinton supporters, as well as U.S. sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. (Kushner omitted this meeting from his original application for national security clearance.)
- Then the drip-drip-drip began. In June, a Russian online persona (“Guccifer 2.0”) started releasing hacked documents from the DNC. In July, WikiLeaks did, too.
- During the Republican convention, J.D. Gordon – another member of Trump’s foreign policy team in attendance at the March 31, 2016 meeting – successfully advocated on Trump’s behalf for a change in a Republican Party platform plank that softened U.S. policy toward Ukraine.
- Also during the convention, Sessions and the Russian ambassador met again. Kislyak reported to his superiors that in the April and July meetings, he and Sessions had discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow.
- About all of this, the public heard lies. On July 24, 2016, Manafort denied that there were any contacts between Trump, the Trump campaign or Manafort himself and Putin’s regime, calling the idea “absurd.”
- At a press conference on July 27, 2016, Trump said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” And in August, Trump’s long-time confidant and campaign surrogate Roger Stone communicated with Guccifer 2.0 – the Russian online persona – and said publicly that he was “in communication with Julian Assange.”
- Through it all, Papadopoulos persisted in efforts to orchestrate a meeting between representatives of Trump and Putin. On Aug. 15, 2016, Sam Clovis encouraged Papadopoulos to make a trip to meet with Russian officials “if it is feasible.”
- Five days later, Russian provocateurs used a Facebook page called “Being Patriotic” to mobilize a pro-Trump flash mob in 17 Florida cities simultaneously, according to The Daily Beast. Between June 2015 and August 2017, a Russian government-linked troll farm served its Facebook content directly to an estimated 29 million people.
- On Sept. 8, 2016, Sessions met again with Ambassador Kislyak – this time in Sessions’ Senate office with two of Sessions’ senior defense specialists. More than a year later, Sessions eventually admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the meeting occurred, saying, “It could have been that in that meeting in my office or at the convention that some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were. I think that’s possible.”
- With the announcement of Trump’s election victory, the Russian Parliament erupted in applause.
- Two days day after the election, Russia’s deputy foreign minister was quoted as sayingthat the Russian government maintained contact with Trump’s “immediate entourage” during the campaign.
Now add a few key post-election events:
- On Dec. 1, 2016, Jared Kushner suggested to Ambassador Kislyak the use of Russian diplomatic facilities to establish a secure back channel for private communications between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin.
- In late December 2016, President Obama’s new sanctions against Russia for election interference complicated the picture. Although he initially denied doing so, Trump’s national security adviser-designate Michael Flynn spoke with Russian Ambassador Kislyak about the new sanctions. Then when Putin did not retaliate for the sanctions, Trump tweeted:
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
- In late January, a pro-Putin Ukrainian legislator and a former Trump business associate met with Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen at a luxury hotel in Manhattan. They gave Cohen a proposed Ukrainian peace plan that would lift Russian sanctions. Cohen was supposed to pass the plan along to then-national security adviser Flynn. At about the same time, the administration considered an executive order lifting Russian sanctions unilaterally.
Team Trump lied repeatedly about pre-election contacts between the campaign and Russia. Why? That’s one of the questions special counsel Robert Mueller is trying to answer, and former campaign adviser Papadopoulos is now a prosecution witness in the case. His guilty plea, released this week, filled in many holes in the still unfolding narrative about what exactly occurred last year.
That’s why, based on what the public already knows Papadopoulos to have told federal investigators, George Papadopoulos is Trump’s new nightmare.