This’ll get 1/1,000th the amount of attention that the Manafort indictment is getting even though, at first glance, it’s juicier for Russigate aficionados than the Manafort news is. As Ed noted earlier, there’s nothing about the campaign or Russia collusion in the Manafort charges. It’s significant for the Russiagate investigation if and only if it leads Manafort to roll over and testify against criminal campaign activities of which he’s aware. Assuming there are any such activities to begin with.
For a criminal document alleging some connection between the campaign and Russia, you need to turn to this guilty plea by former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, who copped to making false statements to the FBI earlier this year. (The plea is dated October 5 but had been sealed until now.) What kind of statements? Well…
“Dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” huh? Yep, the plea agreement goes on to say:
Why does the allegation about Papadopoulos trying to broker a meeting between Trump and the Russian government sound so familiar? Because WaPo reported on it back in August, in a story that was actually — and surprisingly — highly favorable to the campaign. In WaPo’s telling, Papadopoulos pushed and pushed for meetings with Russian contacts, a Trump trip to Moscow, etc, only to be met with disinterest or cautions by supervisors like Sam Clovis, Jeff Sessions, and Paul Manafort. That story was published on August 14; according to the plea bargain revealed today, Papadopoulos was arrested on July 27. Clearly someone in Trumpworld got wind of his arrest, panicked at the thought of what Papadopoulos might say, and scraped together as many exculpatory emails as he/she could find before handing them off to WaPo for that story.
Significantly, there’s not much in the plea bargain that claims Papadopoulos was aided and abetted by the campaign in his efforts to get Team Trump talking to the Russians. At one point an unnamed supervisor tells him “good work” and at another point a “high-ranking campaign official” refers him to a deputy when Papadopoulos inquires about a Trump trip to Russia. The idea of the candidate himself going to Moscow was met coolly, it seems — imagine the optics! — but maybe not the idea of a representative from the campaign going:
*ready to die* pic.twitter.com/YAvGSApx8A
— Sen. Lemon Gogurt (R – MS) (@Ugarles) October 30, 2017
WaPo reported the first line of that underlined bit, about Trump not doing any Russia trips, in its August story that seemed so favorable to the campaign. It did not report the second line about getting someone lower-level to go.
Given Papadopoulos’s age and inexperience, his interest in being the point man in a big Trump/Russia tete-a-tete reeks of a junior advisor trying to prove his value to the people around him by freelancing some amazing coup. Papadopoulos is just 30 years old. He started off last year as an advisor to Ben Carson’s campaign and his resume was so bereft of real credentials that he resorted to listing his time at Model UN on his LinkedIn page. Sounds like some opportunistic well-connected Russian chose to flatter his ego by using him as a conduit to reach out to the campaign but that Papadopoulos was never taken very seriously internally. Ask yourself this: Why, with Paul Manafort on a first-name basis with Putin confidants like Oleg Deripaska, would the campaign have needed to go through a rando like Papadopoulos to get Hillary Clinton’s emails? It would have been insanely reckless to trust a kid who’s not well-known to the campaign’s brain trust with facilitating something as sensitive as a secret Trump/Russia summit or major collusion involving Clinton kompromat. But we’ll see. Again, someone inside Trumpworld was sufficiently worried about Papadapoulos after his arrest to start the damage control efforts in WaPo even before the arrest was publicly known.
One other key detail from the plea bargain: Papadopoulos appears to be cooperating with Mueller’s office.
The terms of the plea agreement with Papadopoulos’s lawyer notes that “The Government agrees to bring to the Court’s attention at sentencing the defendant’s efforts to cooperate with the Government, on the condition that your client continues to respond and provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant.” Hmmm. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee also identified Papadopoulos recently as a “person of interest” in the investigation, meaning someone who might have pertinent information related to collusion. Like I say, it seems extremely unlikely that Papadopoulos would have been entrusted with brokering something between the campaign and the Kremlin *but* he might have interesting things to say about how much interest key players like Manafort and Flynn — and Trump? — had in cooperating with Russia. Stay tuned.
Update: I think this is exactly right:
The fact that it was released today (didn't have to be) seems like a signal from Mueller that the focus is still on Trump-Russia collusion…
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) October 30, 2017
Mueller knew that people would read the Manafort indictment and say, “This has nothing to do with campaign collusion with Russia!” Releasing the Papadopoulos plea seems like his way of saying he’s not done yet.
Update: Wow. Now that’s an interesting catch.
The FBI interview where Papadopolous lied about his Russia contacts came on the same day, Jan. 27, Trump asked Comey for a loyalty pledge.
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) October 30, 2017
Update: People are citing the footnote I posted above as evidence of why the campaign might have preferred Papadopoulos as a point man on Russia to one of Manafort’s connections. Eh, I don’t know. Again, Papadopoulos didn’t even start out with the Trump campaign. He’s only 30 years old. If you were going to use a low-level staffer as the conduit for Russia collusion, you’d want someone whose loyalty you’d trust completely, like Hope Hicks. Papadopoulos was a wild card.
Update: Another good point about the footnote: Because it’s written ambiguously, it may not be that the campaign wanted a low-level staffer to attend a meeting with Russia in Trump’s place. It may be that they wanted the staffer to *decline* the meeting on Trump’s behalf rather than have Trump do it himself, lest his communication with Moscow leak and raise suspicions. Even commentators who are normally unfavorable to Trump are reading it that way.