We’ve known for months about the particulars of a federal case against Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager. We’ve known about Manafort’s shady overseas business dealings, and his dubious financial transactions, and his looming legal troubles. The only real question was whether he would be indicted first by New York prosecutors or Robert Mueller’s crew. Now we have our answer. The feds go first. What we didn’t know until Monday morning, however, is that another former Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, already has pleaded guilty to lying to the feds earlier this month about his own ties to the Russians. That plea deal, and not the Manafort indictment, is the real bombshell as the week begins.
The idea that someone within the Trump campaign, once an adviser to the president, already is cooperating with the special counsel’s investigators has to concern the president and his defenders in and out of office more than the 31-page, 12-count indictment unsealed against Manafort and his business associate early Monday in Washington, D.C. It will be relatively easy for the White House to try to spin the Manafort news as a one-off problem. He was a rogue. A bad apple. The president had no idea about the money laundering. Manafort was cut from the Trump team long before the election the Russians are said to have influenced.
The problem with spinning the Papadopoulos news is that the White House has no way to know when the cooperation may have begun and when it ends. What did this man know and when did he know it and what will happen to other Trump associates who may have tried to find out? Is Papadopoulos another rogue? Another bad apple? How many bad apples does it take to ruin the bushel? Another problem for the White House is that so many other Trump associates seem to have so many other relationships with so many other shady Russian operatives that pretty soon we’ll all consider it newsworthy when the one good apple emerges. No, really, was there a single Trump campaign official who was offended and outraged by these Russian gambits?
We know from the timeline offered by the feds that Papadopoulos didn’t put up much of a fight when they nabbed him in July for lying to them in January. There was no indictment, no criminal case, no jury trial, nothing. The feds evidently came to talk to Papadopoulos one week after Donald Trump was sworn into office — one week! — and have continued to talk to him off and on ever since, even after they arrested him in July. He is cooperating. And he will continue to cooperate so long as he can provide useful context and perspective on other statements made by other Trump officials as they are interviewed by Mueller and company.
How close to the heart of the political case against Trump — the conspiracy and collusion case involving Russian interference with the 2016 election — is Papadopoulos? We get some hints from the “Statement of the Offense” unsealed Monday. Papadopoulos acknowledged that an “overseas professor,” who Papadopoulos “understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials,” told him “about the Russians possessing ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” Papadopoulos then proceeded to lie about the timing of his contacts with this “Russian professor” when asked about them earlier this year. Evidence, prosecutors would have told jurors, of his guilty mind.
So you have Papadopoulos in a room. What do you ask him? Basic questions that will help shape where this investigation goes next. Who in the Trump campaign did he tell about this so-called “Russian professor”? Surely he didn’t keep this nugget to himself. What did that person or those people say in response? Did other Trump campaign officials with their own ties to Russians — and we know those folks exist — in turn tell Papadopoulos about the nature of their own contacts? Was there a regular “Russian Dirt on Hillary” meeting? Did anyone at any time ever suggest that any of this was wrong or illegal? Was now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told about this contact? If not, why not; wasn’t he in charge of Papadopoulos’s work? Did anyone at any time ever bring the candidate himself, or his sons, into the loop? If not, why not? Did anyone ever receive or perceive any guidance from higher-ranking Trump officials to encourage these Russian contacts. And so on.
The Manafort and Gates indictment places into the legal bloodstream many facts that already have been discussed and digested as a matter of politics. The fact that Trump associated himself with someone like Manafort, says more about Trump than it does about Manafort but we already know the president isn’t picky about the people with whom he surrounds himself. The unsealing of the Papadopoulos document, on the other hand, tells us something new and important; that no matter how loudly the president and his tribunes rage about phony collusion themes the theory is very much alive. In fact, on this Halloween Eve, we can steal a meme and say it this way: it’s alive and it’s dangerous and it’s coming from those once inside the campaign itself.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.