Dawn broke Monday in Washington with news reports anticipating special counsel Robert Mueller’s first indictments in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. The anticipators got the basic story right: Mueller charged former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an associate with an array of financial-related crimes.
Ah, but Mueller wasn’t done. In a stunning development, the special counsel revealed that low-level Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians who claimed to have “dirt” about Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
That potentially puts Papadopoulos somewhere in proximity to the heart of the Russia investigation. Yet Papadopoulos wasn’t on the radar of the anticipators, which is a useful fact to remember as this investigation proceeds: Handicap the significance of events at your peril. Any wags who claim to have this whole affair figured out — whether in defense of Trump or in damnation — are blowing smoke or showing their political stripes. No one outside the investigation has enough info to make any proclamations in advance about where Mueller may be going.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty on Oct. 5 and has been cooperating with the investigation, Mueller said. The public knew nothing of the plea before Monday because Mueller reveals details when they suit the investigation, not parlor room curiosity. Of course leaks happen, but so do surprises. President Donald Trump on Monday was still tweeting his reaction to the Manafort indictment (“NO COLLUSION,” he typed) when the Papadopoulos news broke.
The facts we know begin with U.S. intelligence agencies saying in January that Russians had hacked Democratic emails last year as part of an effort to interfere with the election. In March, FBI Director James Comey confirmed he was investigating Russian efforts to monkey with the election and said he was looking at any possible links between people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, “and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.” In May, Trump fired Comey, which led to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
Back to the present: We know Manafort is in trouble because he allegedly tried to hide millions of dollars earned from prior consulting work for the pro-Russian government of Ukraine. He clearly was a bad choice to become Trump campaign chairman and lasted just three months in his position. His coziness with Russian interests is intriguing, but is not proof of nefarious activity. He and his business associate, Rick Gates, pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Papadopoulos is an even odder figure to analyze. In March 2016, he became a Trump foreign policy adviser. That title may have grossly exaggerated his influence and expertise. We vaguely remember him from news accounts last year as the 2009 DePaul University grad whose credentials included participating in a Model United Nations event.
According to his plea agreement, Papadopoulos lied to FBI investigators about his dealings with foreign nationals he believed to be connected to the Russian government while he was working for the campaign. One of the Russians allegedly was a niece of Vladimir Putin. The Russians passed word to Papadopoulos that they had “dirt” on Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” He and the Russians seemed keen to set up a meeting of some sort with Trump to discuss U.S.-Russia ties. “Great work,” a campaign supervisor emailed Papadopoulos at one point.
So what really happened? News accounts portray a Trump Tower meeting that involved campaign officials, including Manafort, and a Russian attorney who claimed to have information that could be used against Clinton in the campaign. Did Papadopoulos play a role in arranging that meeting? We don’t know. Yes, thousands of Clinton campaign-related emails were hacked by the Russians. But there’s not yet any public evidence connecting the dots to confirm any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
In August, The Washington Post reported on emails between Papadopoulos and the Trump campaign, which were among documents turned over to congressional committees. They showed that senior officials had “reacted coolly” to the suggestions by Papadopoulos of a Trump campaign meeting with Russian leadership.
No question, Monday was a bad day for President Trump: Two campaign officials indicted, while a third has pleaded guilty. Perhaps this is a turning point in the investigation, but in what direction? We don’t yet know. Neither, we suggest, does anyone but Mueller.
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