The former Trump campaign adviser’s crime, his plea, and his falling out with Mueller’s team, explained.
George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was sentenced Friday afternoon to 14 days of incarceration and a year of supervised release.
It’s a milestone for special counsel Robert Mueller. In July 2017, Papadopoulos was the first person to be arrested as part of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential campaign. He then struck a plea deal, which Mueller’s team unsealed in October.
That plea deal shocked the political world. In it, the ex-Trump adviser admitted that nearly two months before news broke that leading Democrats’ emails had been hacked, he was tipped off that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” After that, he talked extensively to three foreign contacts (two of whom were Russian) to try and set up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin, and kept several top Trump campaign aides in the loop on his efforts.
It was not clear whether Papadopoulos told other Trump aides about that email tip. But this connection arguably was (and remains) the closest Mueller has come to establishing collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia involving the illegally hacked emails. When this news came out, many thought this would be a turning point in the probe.
But we’ve since learned that Papadopoulos played a much smaller role in the Mueller investigation than many thought — in part because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
“The defendant did not provide ‘substantial assistance,’” Mueller wrote in a recent court filing — and explained that after learning Papadopoulos was talking with the media last December, his team canceled all further planned questioning of him.
After that came another twist: Papadopoulos and his wife Simona Mangiante have lately tried to align with Trump again. Simona in particular, who once said Papadopoulos would be the “John Dean” of the Russia investigation, has recently been talking extensively to the press, denouncing Mueller’s probe as a witch hunt, and voicing Trump-friendly talking points. She even said Papadopoulos was considering revoking his plea, and asked Trump to pardon him.
In the end, Papadopoulos decided to stick with his plea. He argued that he should only get probation, but Mueller’s team recommended “a period of incarceration” of up to six months.
On Friday, then, Judge Randolph Moss sentenced him to 14 days of incarceration, a year of supervised release, 200 hours of community service, and a $9,500 fine, Politico’s Kyle Cheney reports.
Shortly after the sentence was announced, both the New York Times and CNN published excerpts of interviews they did with Papadopoulos earlier this week. In them, he mostly stuck to the story of what he told the FBI. But he was notably cagey on one detail: whether he told others in the Trump campaign that the Russians had emails related to Clinton.
“As far as I remember, I absolutely did not share this information with anyone on the campaign,” he told CNN. But then he hedged: “I might have, but I have no recollection of doing so. I can’t guarantee.”
What George Papadopoulos did during the Trump campaign
In early 2016, the Chicago-born Papadopoulos was a 28-year-old energy consultant with an interest in foreign policy. Though he was living in London at the time, he hoped to land a US government job, and got a gig advising Ben Carson’s presidential campaign. After Carson quit the race, Papadopoulos applied for a gig with Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner whose toxicity to the party establishment made it tough for him to land traditional advisers.
In early March, Papadopoulos got the job — he’d be an unpaid foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, working under campaign co-chair Sam Clovis. And very early on, his plea documents state, Clovis told him that improving relations with Russia would be a key goal of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy.
Then, over the next few weeks, Papadopoulos met and began to establish regular contact with three foreign nationals who he understood to have connections to the Russian government. They are:
- Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor then based in London. He met Papadopoulos in Italy shortly after Papadopoulos agreed to join the Trump campaign, and (per the plea) said he had substantial connections with top Russian government officials.
- Olga, a Russian national who Mifsud claimed was a relative of Vladimir Putin’s with ties to top Russian officials. Mifsud brought her to meet Papadopoulos in London.
- Ivan Timofeev, a Russian academic who Mifsud said had connections to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Much of the contact, which continued for months, was focused on efforts to arrange a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Indeed, at a meeting with Trump and his foreign policy team on March 31, 2016, Papadopoulos offered to set up such a meeting.
In the months afterward, Papadopoulos emailed Clovis, Corey Lewandowski, Stephen Miller, and Paul Manafort to update them on his efforts (which did not, in the end, result in any meeting between Trump and Putin).
In the midst of all this, on April 26, 2016, Papadopoulos heard a bombshell from Professor Mifsud. He had just returned from meeting top Russian officials in Moscow, he said, and he’d learned that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton. Papadopoulos later told the FBI that Mifsud specifically said Russia had “thousands of emails.”
The timing of this is crucial — because there was zero public indication that Russia had hacked top Democrats’ emails at this point. News of the DNC hack wouldn’t become public until June, and the Podesta email hack wouldn’t leak until October. (However, Papadopoulos says Mifsud was referring to Hillary Clinton’s own emails, which were never actually leaked, unless you count those she sent to Podesta.)
Though we still don’t know whether Papadopoulos told others in the Trump campaign about the Russian dirt on Clinton — in a recent court filing, his lawyers said he told Mueller he doesn’t “recall” doing so — we know he told some people, including the foreign minister of Greece. Most infamously, Papadopoulos told Australian diplomat Alexander Downer in a London bar in May.
After the DNC leaks began two months later, Australia tipped off the US government that Papadopoulos seemed to know what was coming. So Papadopoulos is why the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties — the very investigation that Mueller now oversees.
Now, Papadopoulos wasn’t only involved with Russian matters in the campaign. He helped set up a meeting between Trump and the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He was in frequent contact with Greek officials (Papadopoulos is of Greek ethnicity). He even accepted $10,000 in cash from an Israeli-American consultant he thought was tied to Israeli intelligence. It was, in short, an action-packed year.
Papadopoulos was charged for lying to the FBI
By January 27, 2017, Trump was the new president, and Papadopoulos was in the midst of trying to land a job in his administration — maybe in the NSC, or the State Department, or the Department of Energy, per his lawyers. That’s when two FBI agents showed up at his door in Chicago, asking to talk to him regarding an investigation they were conducting.
In the two-hour interview, the FBI later said, Papadopoulos lied repeatedly about those foreign contacts during the campaign:
- When pressed, he admitted that Mifsud told him about Russian email dirt on Clinton, but repeatedly insisted that happened before he joined the Trump campaign, which he called a “very strange coincidence.” (In reality, Mifsud only met him after he got the Trump gig, and told him about the email dirt after they’d been in contact for more than a month about campaign matters.)
- He also claimed he met Olga, the Russian national, before the campaign and had only inconsequential contacts with her. (Again, they’d actually talked extensively over months about setting up a Trump/Putin trip.)
- He left out that Mifsud had introduced him to Ivan Timofeev, the Russian academic with MFA connections, and didn’t mention their extensive efforts to set up a Trump-Putin meeting.
Hours after that interview with the FBI, Mueller’s team now says, Papadopoulos submitted his biography and a description of his Trump campaign work to an administration official, in hopes of landing an Energy Department job.
FBI agents interviewed Papadopoulos again a few weeks later, on February 16. After that interview, he appears to have panicked. The next day, he deactivated the Facebook account he’d had since 2005, which he had used to exchange some messages with Mifsud and Timofeev. He also changed his cell phone number.
Finally, on July 27, Papadopoulos flew into Dulles Airport in Virginia — where FBI agents in the investigation now headed by special counsel Robert Mueller arrested him. Over the next few months, Papadopoulos had proffer meetings, in which they discussed a potential plea deal. And eventually, they struck such a deal, in which Papadopoulos agreed to plead guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
But Papadopoulos fell out with Mueller’s team after his plea
Mueller dramatically unsealed Papadopoulos’s plea on October 30, 2017 — the same day Paul Manafort and Rick Gates first appeared in court to face separate charges in the special counsel’s probe.
It was a bombshell. This little-known Trump foreign policy aide was now admitting that he was told Russia had gotten Clinton-related emails — “dirt” they could use to hurt her campaign — long before that news was publicly known.
Trump allies tried to attack and dismiss Papadopoulos as unimportant and inconsequential to the campaign, with one ex-campaign aide famously calling him a “coffee boy.” But his apparent flip stoked rampant speculation about who else in the Trump campaign he might be incriminating.
But we’ve since learned that, behind the scenes, Papadopoulos’s cooperation was far less important to Mueller than many assumed — as Mueller’s team argued in a positively scathing sentencing memo. They wrote:
The defendant did not provide “substantial assistance,” and 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.
Mueller’s team also said that, after Papadopoulos’s four proffer sessions, he was scheduled to return for further questioning in late December 2017. But “upon learning that the defendant had participated in a media interview with a national publication concerning his case, the government canceled that meeting,” they wrote. They never questioned him again.
The following month, January 2018, Papadopoulos’s then-fiancée Simona raised eyebrows by talking to the Washington Post. “I believe history will remember him like John Dean,” she announced, referring to the White House counsel who famously flipped on President Nixon. “There’s a lot to come,” she added. In context, it now seems she may have been trying to get Mueller’s team’s attention again, after they canceled his questioning.
But by March, the Papadopouloses seem to have found different people to talk to.
That’s when Chuck Ross, a reporter for the Daily Caller, published a detailed story raising questions about the efforts of Stefan Halper — a Cambridge professor — to contact Trump campaign officials in 2016. Halper would eventually be revealed as an FBI informant, and over the next few months, President Trump, his allies in Congress, and conservative media outlets would try to drum this up into a scandal they dubbed “Spygate.”
Ross’s first Halper story mentions Papadopoulos 36 times, describes specific emails and interactions between Halper and Papadopoulos, and extensively relies on an anonymous “source” he describes as “familiar with Papadopoulos’s thinking.”
Whether that source is Papadopoulos himself, Simona, or a third party they’d authorized to speak for them isn’t clear. What did become increasingly clear in the ensuing weeks, though, is that Papadopoulos and Simona were now trying to align themselves with Trump — and against Mueller.
In a new series of interviews, Simona all of a sudden began voicing Trump-friendly talking points — that the Russia investigation was all bogus, that the charges against her husband were trumped up, that the FBI played dirty, and that George was used as “a target to infiltrate the campaign. She even outright asked Trump for a pardon.
This drama continued over the summer in a series of cryptic tweets by George and Simona. In August, Simona publicly declared that her husband was thinking about withdrawing his guilty plea and suing the government.
I can’t wait for the truth to come out.
— Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos (@simonamangiante) August 17, 2018
George meets all the conditions to be considered the “sacrificial lamb” of the #WitchHunt. He has been the target of Western intelligence & Clinton’s allies #halper #downer #tawil #mifsud. Nobody deserves a #PARDON more the he does.
— Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos (@simonamangiante) August 23, 2018
It is, however, enormously risky to withdraw a guilty plea — Papadopoulos is on record admitting he committed a crime. So in the end, he decided to stick with the deal. And that deal now means he’ll be incarcerated for two weeks.