Yesterday, the White House distanced itself from former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos after news of his indictment broke, noting that he served as a “volunteer” in an “extremely limited” role. This morning, Donald Trump offered a more predictable form of distancing — the Twitter trashing. Trump only referred to Papadopoulos by his first name and noted that he “has already proven to be a liar” — right after citing Paul Manafort’s lawyer in denying any collusion existed during the campaign:
The Fake News is working overtime. As Paul Manaforts lawyer said, there was "no collusion" and events mentioned took place long before he…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 31, 2017
….came to the campaign. Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 31, 2017
Papadopoulos has indeed been charged with making false statements to investigators — in fact, that’s the only crime alleged in his allocution. However, Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates also face the same charges, along with several others relating to FARA violations, alleged money laundering, and conspiracy. What’s the difference? Trump realizes that the Manafort indictment has little to do with him, so it’s safe to cite it as an attack on anything Papadopoulos might produce.
The morning meltdown could have been worse, if the Washington Post’s reporting is accurate. One secondhand source told the Post’s reporting team that “the walls are closing in,” as “everyone is freaking out”:
Initially, Trump felt vindicated. Though frustrated that the media were linking him to the indictment and tarnishing his presidency, he cheered that the charges against Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, were focused primarily on activities that began before his campaign. Trump tweeted at 10:28 a.m., “there is NO COLLUSION!”
But the president’s celebration was short-lived. A few minutes later, court documents were unsealed showing that George Papadopoulos, an unpaid foreign policy adviser on Trump’s campaign, pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the FBI about his efforts to broker a relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The case provides the clearest evidence yet of links between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials. …
“This has not been a cause of great agita or angst or activity at the White House,” said Cobb, the White House lawyer overseeing Russia matters. He added that Trump is “spending all of his time on presidential work.”
But Trump’s anger Monday was visible to those who interacted with him, and the mood in the corridors of the White House was one of weariness and fear of the unknown. As the president groused upstairs, many staffers — some of whom have hired lawyers to help them navigate Mueller’s investigation — privately speculated about where the special counsel might turn next.
Under the circumstances, then, the Twitter response seems relatively muted. However, Politico reports this morning that it wasn’t “as much of a freakout as you might think,” and that the Papadopolous indictment hadn’t driven anyone to drink. Josh Dawsey reports that the main reaction was to wonder who exactly he was:
The Papadopoulos news, however, was unexpected inside the White House. Several senior White House officials and campaign aides said they knew little about him and had spent the morning trying to sift through old campaign emails to see if they’d had contact with him, if they were on calls with him and what exactly his role was.
“I have no idea who that guy is,” one former senior campaign official said. “Or if he was listening to anyone or just going rogue.”
They expected the next indictment to go in a different direction:
White House officials have also told others for several months that they expect former national security adviser Michael Flynn will be indicted, possibly for undisclosed foreign lobbying work, according to aides and advisers, and grand jury testimony has continued. Flynn’s lawyer declined to comment Monday, and he hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.
That will be more problematic for Trump than either Papadopoulos or Manafort. Neither of those two got to the inner circle of the White House.
Just how much is there to fear from the Papadopoulos indictment? In my column for The Week, I argue not much — if everyone told the truth to investigators:
The original collusion accusation was that the Trump campaign might have worked with Russian intelligence to hack emails at the DNC and of John Podesta at the Center for American Progress, not the Clinton server. The Clinton server got taken down in early 2013, more than two years before Trump ran for office. Even if Papadopoulos had somehow gotten Clinton’s “thousands of emails” from his Russian contacts, it wouldn’t necessarily have been illegal. Papadopoulos only ran afoul of the law when he lied about his contacts to investigators; he’s charged with several instances of making false statements, not of espionage.
Furthermore, the allocution suggests that the Trump campaign didn’t take the bait. They knew that Papadopoulos had gone abroad seeking contacts, but that isn’t unusual for a foreign-policy adviser. Neither would it be unusual for such an adviser to attempt to set up meetings between a candidate and world leaders, though Putin was politically radioactive by this point in the presidential campaign. The Trump campaign’s disinterest in meeting with Putin gets a mention from prosecutors in a footnote in the allocution. A campaign official, identified later as Manafort by NBC News, wrote that they “need someone to communicate that DT [Trump] is not doing these trips.”
However, the Manafort-Gates indictment doesn’t let them entirely off the hook either, and might wind up being a problem for members of Congress of both parties:
The indictment didn’t name the firms, but earlier reporting linked Manafort and Gates to Mercury LLC, run by longtime Republican politician and lobbyist Vin Weber, and the Podesta Group, the progressive lobbying shop set up by brothers John and Tony Podesta. John served as Obama’s transition chair in 2008, and later as his chief of staff in 2014-15. Tony ran the Podesta Group — until he abruptly resigned hours after the Manafort-Gates indictment was published. …
Mueller makes clear with both indictments that Trump and his campaign did a very poor job of vetting their appointments. The Manafort-Gates indictment puts K Street’s lobbying industry squarely in the middle of the swamp, and Manafort and Gates in an even more central position. Plus, we now have three former members of the Trump campaign under indictment, and Papadopoulos has been cooperating with prosecutors for months prior to the unsealing of his plea and allocution.
These may never rise to the level of legal threats to Trump’s presidency, but they certainly speak to his judgment, as did the lack of vetting on major appointments such as Flynn’s. How did a man like Manafort come within a mile of a major party campaign? And why is Trump still citing Manafort and/or his defense team as a means of defending himself?