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On Friday, former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos will face sentencing after pleading guilty last year to one count of making a false statement to FBI agents. It will close one small chapter in what has become a sprawling investigation into alleged collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice involving President Trump and members of his campaign. Many legal analysts had speculated that Mr. Papadopoulos could be the linchpin that would lead to the president’s downfall, after it was revealed that a London-based professor had told him Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos lied to federal agents about when he’d been told that tantalizing bit of information, insisting that it was before he joined the Trump campaign, rather than when he was already working as a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign. Now, however, a more nuanced picture of Papadopoulos’s role is starting to emerge. It appears he was not a covert operator at the center of any Trump-Russia conspiracy. And prosecutors are emphasizing to the judge that he did not provide “substantial assistance” to investigators. “It doesn’t sound like he is going to be an explosive witness,” says former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi.
It wasn’t the breakfast meeting in London with a mysterious Maltese professor in April 2016 that snared Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos.
What got him into trouble with Trump-Russia investigators were his less-than-candid answers to questions they posed to him nine months later – shortly after Donald Trump became president of the United States.
Mr. Papadopoulos told the truth when he relayed to federal agents that the London-based professor, Joseph Mifsud, had revealed to him that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. But Papadopoulos lied about when he’d been told that tantalizing bit of information. He insisted – at least a dozen times – that Professor Mifsud revealed it in February, before Papadopoulos joined the Trump campaign, rather than in late April, when he was already working as a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign.
That deception gave significant momentum to a theory of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians intent on meddling in the 2016 election. If members of the Trump team knew in advance that Russia possessed stolen emails, and the Trump campaign helped coordinate the public release of those emails in the months prior to the election, that would amount to an illegal conspiracy to undermine a presidential election.
That was the crime Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate, and many legal analysts speculated that Papadopoulos could ultimately prove to be the linchpin that would lead to President Trump’s downfall.
Now, 19 months into the Trump administration, a more nuanced picture of Papadoloulos’s role and significance to the investigation is starting to emerge. It appears Papadopoulos was not a covert operator at the center of any Trump-Russia conspiracy. His lawyers argue he was merely an ambitious young analyst swept up into something he didn’t fully comprehend. And prosecutors are emphasizing to the judge in his case that he did not provide “substantial assistance” to Trump-Russia investigators. It remains unclear what evidence Papadopoulos ultimately provided to federal agents – but it appears at this point to have little, if anything, to do with Russians and stolen emails.
“It doesn’t sound like he is going to be an explosive witness in any investigation,” says Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor and now a defense lawyer in Washington. “My gut is that his cooperation and the amount of information he has provided is a big nothing-burger.”
On Friday, Papadopoulos will stand before US District Judge Randolph Moss for sentencing after pleading guilty last year to one count of making a false statement to FBI agents. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Papadopoulos, who has no prior criminal history, faces up to six months in prison.
Prosecutors working for the special counsel are suggesting the 31-year-old energy analyst should spend at least some time behind bars. Defense lawyers are urging Judge Moss to reject a term of incarceration.
One small chapter
The judge’s pronouncement of punishment will close one small chapter in what has become a sprawling investigation into alleged collusion and obstruction of justice involving Mr. Trump and members of his campaign.
So far, 32 individuals have been indicted or pleaded guilty to charges brought by Mueller. They include 13 Russian citizens and three Russian companies under indictment for manipulating social media to influence US public opinion prior to the 2016 election. They also include 12 Russian intelligence officers charged with hacking and publicly releasing embarrassing emails from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee in 2016.
No US citizen – and no member of the Trump campaign – has yet been charged with conspiring with or participating in these alleged Russian efforts.
For his part, Trump has loudly and repeatedly denounced the investigation as a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
While Mueller is specifically tasked to investigate alleged US-Russia collusion, he has authority to prosecute other crimes he encounters, and charges have been brought against four members of Trump’s campaign. Former campaign chair Paul Manafort was recently convicted of bank fraud and tax evasion related to his past work as a consultant in Ukraine, and faces a second trial on similar charges later this month. Mr. Manafort’s associate, Richard Gates, who was charged in both cases, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.
Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about a conversation he had about sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the US a few weeks before Trump took office.
Papadopoulos was the fourth member of the Trump team to be charged. After pleading guilty to lying to federal agents, he agreed to cooperate with investigators.
But the special counsel’s office is apparently less than happy with Papadopoulos’s contribution to their investigation. In their sentencing memorandum to the judge, prosecutors said Papadopoulos had failed to provide “substantial assistance” to the investigation. Under federal sentencing guidelines, a defendant who provides “substantial assistance” usually receives a reduced sentence.
“Much of the information provided by the defendant came only after the government confronted him with his own emails, text messages, internet search history, and other information it had obtained via search warrants and subpoenas well after the defendant’s FBI interview as the government continued its investigation,” the memorandum says.
Defense lawyers paint a different picture of their client in their own sentencing memo to the judge.
Papadopoulos never intended for his misstatements to derail the investigation, the lawyers say. Instead, Papadopoulos wanted a prestigious job in the Trump administration, so he tried to avoid telling the FBI anything that might cast his would-be bosses in a negative light.
“Mr. Papadopoulos misled investigators to save his professional aspirations and preserve a perhaps misguided loyalty to his master,” the lawyers wrote in an apparent reference to Trump.
The lawyers also note that even after being told that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton, their client’s top priority wasn’t to pursue that dirt but instead to continue pursuing diplomacy – working toward opening the way for a possible Trump-Putin meeting and stronger US-Russia relations.
A protective order
One question left unresolved in the government’s memorandum is why federal agents waited six months to interview Papadopoulos.
The FBI has said it began a counter-intelligence investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in late July 2016. It was sparked after an Australian diplomat relayed to the US that Papadopoulos had revealed that Russia possessed “dirt” on Clinton.
This report seemed to verify allegations made in an opposition research “dossier” about then-candidate Trump produced by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Work on the dossier had been funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party.
Some of the information from the dossier was used to support a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to conduct a counter-espionage operation against Carter Page, another Trump campaign advisor. The surveillance authorization was initiated in October 2016 and was reauthorized three times. Papadopoulos is mentioned by name in all four FISA applications.
In a posting on Twitter Monday, Papadopoulos’s wife, Simona Mangiante, questioned why her husband’s name would appear in Mr. Page’s FISA warrant documents. “They don’t know each other,” she wrote. “Perhaps, George had a FISA on him too?”
FISA applications are classified as “Top Secret.”
FBI officials acknowledge that the Trump-Russia collusion investigation began as a result of the Papadopoulos disclosure. As such, Papadopoulos would have become the target of a US counter-intelligence operation and extensive surveillance in the US and overseas starting in late July 2016.
Such surveillance – and resulting intelligence reports – might be one reason prosecutors asked three weeks ago that Judge Moss issue a protective order preventing Papadopoulos and his lawyers from revealing any non-public information the government was about to disclose to the defense in advance of Friday’s sentencing hearing.
The order says in part that confidential government-provided information in the case “may not be disseminated or used in connection with any other matter without further order of the court.”
Papadopoulos’s wife mounted a campaign in recent weeks to rally support for her husband. In late August, she conducted a series of media interviews suggesting that her husband should reject his guilty plea and instead fight the charge. Then, late last week, she reversed course and said he would stand by his guilty plea.
In her interviews, Ms. Mangiante speculated that her husband may have been the victim of an attempted sting operation designed to create an appearance that Papadopoulos was colluding with Russians to justify opening an FBI investigation that would dovetail with allegations in the Steele dossier. Part of the conspiracy evidence she cited is that Professor Mifsud appears to have gone into hiding.
“My husband, I don’t want him to be the sacrificial lamb of the witch hunt,” she said during a recent interview on Fox News.
The couple has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to pay ongoing legal expenses. The page was opened on June 24 and has so far raised $8,342 of a $75,000 goal. To date, 180 people have made donations.