As the Trump administration tried Monday to downplay federal charges against three former campaign aides, it was the case of the least senior of them that suggested the president and those close to him are not yet out of the legal woods.
Most attention Monday focused on the indictment of President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his top associate, Rick Gates. The longtime allies were hit with a dozen charges stemming from their private business practices between 2006 and 2016. There was nothing in a 31-page U.S. government document laying out its case against them to link their alleged illegal actions to Trump or his 2016 presidential campaign.
That gave White House aides and Trump’s private legal team the opportunity to brush off the charges. During a midday CNN interview, Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s private lawyers, said the Manafort-Gates charges stem from actions taken before the 2016 campaign and are unrelated to Trump’s presidential bid. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed that account during her daily briefing.
But as official Washington pored over the Manafort-Gates indictment document, the Justice Department released another one that detailed a guilty plea entered Oct. 5 by George Papadopoulos. (The plea deal had been sealed until Monday.)
The self-described “foreign policy expert,” who joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, was charged with making false and misleading statements to federal officials who questioned him about the timing and substance of his connections to two Russians. Both of the Russians claimed ties to senior Kremlin officials eager to help Trump’s campaign, and one promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton after Papadopoulos had joined Trump’s team.
While Sanders used her daily press briefing to characterize Papadopoulos as a low-level campaign staffer who had little impact on the campaign’s strategies — and who did not even warrant a place on the payroll — the fact that Mueller’s team was honing in on his contacts with the Kremlin shows the investigation has moved to allegations of potential cooperation between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government.
Federal investigators allege that Papadopoulos misled them about his relationships with a Russian professor known to have ties to the Putin government and with a female “Russian national” he believed had similar ties.
What’s more, Papadopoulos also knew the professor had met with Russian officials “immediately prior” to telling him about “thousands of emails” that could be problematic for Clinton. Papadopoulos, “over a period of months,” tried “repeatedly” to use the professor’s connections “in an effort to arrange a meeting between the Campaign and Russian government officials,” the government documents allege.
The plea deal released Monday states Papadopoulos did attempt to convince Trump campaign officials to set up a meeting with Russian officials.
In May 2016, Papadopoulos emailed campaign officials that his Russian contacts wanted to meet with the candidate. Higher-ups did not rule out meetings with Russian officials, according to the court documents.
“Lets discuss. We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips,” the senior campaign official replied, referring to Trump. “It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
But Sanders tried to swat away the notion that anyone else involved with Trump’s White House bid had any interest in those meetings, saying Papadopoulos’s requests were never green-lighted by senior campaign officials.
“That shows his importance in the campaign,” she said, “and his role in coordinating anything officially for the campaign.”
Sekulow said the president has not been asked to answer questions from Mueller or his team.
Democrats weigh in
The message from Sekulow and White House officials is perhaps best summed up by Sanders’ statement that they are are not concerned about the indictments or guilty plea because it “doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
But congressional Democrats who have been involved in House and Senate investigations into Russia’s 2016 election meddling say otherwise — and they are pointing to the Papadopoulos plea rather than the more widely known case involving Manafort.
“I think the most interesting news is around George Papadopoulos. That stipulation of facts shows first that he was, as a senior foreign policy adviser, someone the president called ‘an excellent guy,’” California Democrat Eric Swalwell, a leading voice on the House Intelligence panel as it conducts its own Russia probe, told MSNBC.
The court documents show Papadopoulos was “working with the Russians, traveling abroad during the campaign, and then taking meetings with Russians about dirt that they had on Hillary Clinton,” Swalwell said Monday.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the leading Democrat on the Intelligence panel, called the scenarios described in the documents “a classic Russian intelligence operation, in which a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign was approached in London — or bumped, in intelligence parlance — by a person claiming to have substantial connections to Russian officials.”
Schiff identified something in the timeline laid out in the Papadopoulos plea document that Mueller likely will zero in on: The campaign aide’s emails to the Trump foreign policy team about the Russian professor’s offer of “dirt” on Clinton came months before a leaked email exchange that shows Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, enthusiastically accepting an offer of help from a middleman and setting up a June 2016 meeting with a well-connected Russian lawyer.
That is “something that might further explain both why the high-level Trump campaign officials took the meeting and what they hoped to obtain,” Schiff said in a statement.
Democrats on Monday also called on their GOP colleagues to pass legislation to guard special counsel Robert S. Mueller III from being fired by Trump.
But Sanders said they shouldn’t worry — for now, at least. The president’s top spokeswoman signaled Trump is not inclined to fire Mueller at this time. But she left ample wiggle room in her response when asked if he intends to do just that, saying there is “no intention or plan” to do to Mueller what Trump did to former FBI Director James B. Comey.
Then there’s the president’s stalled agenda. Sanders was asked if the president and his senior staffers are concerned the legal problems for Manafort, Gates and Papadopoulos will further distract from passing things like Trump’s much-desired tax overhaul.
“We’re not worried about it distracting because it doesn’t have anything to do with us,” she replied. “Because this is something that is action that took place outside of the campaign or campaign activity.”