Today was supposed to be about Paul Manafort. Over the weekend, news leaked that the Justice Department would be issuing indictments first thing Monday morning as part of their investigation into allegations the Russian government interfered in the presidential election. Journalists, guessing it would be Trump’s former campaign manager Manafort, camped outside his house and the nearest FBI office.
They were not disappointed. Indictments were issued for Manafort and for his colleague, Rick Gates. The charges are for tax evasion, and are not directly related to the Trump campaign, but nonetheless this was the most dramatic development in the scandal since former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to lead the inquiry. Until about 90 minutes later.
Just after Manafort delivered himself to the FBI office, news broke that George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, had pleaded guilty to perjury. The details of the plea deal are staggering, and the implications are far more important than the Manafort indictments for several reasons.
- This is the first substantiated evidence that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The details of the charge against Papadopoulos make it explicitly clear that members of the president’s campaign team were in regular contact and actively working with Russians they knew to be connected to or part of the Russian government. At one point, Papadopoulos even believed one of his Russian interlocutors was Vladmir Putin’s niece.
- The Trump campaign was in contact with the Russian government explicitly to obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of illegally obtained “thousands of emails”. This was not about simply making friends or comparing notes in an effort to flesh out Trump’s foreign policy platform. The campaign team was looking for Russian help to win the election.
- This contact with the Russians was well known within the campaign and even encouraged. Papadopoulos was regularly updating a “senior policy advisor” and his “campaign supervisor”. At other points he was in contact with two “high ranking campaign officials” as described by the FBI. And Papadopoulos was not pestering them to make contact with the Russians, which is how it was described in the past. He had been told that Russia was a Trump priority and his efforts to make contact were approved. He was even told he was doing “great work” and was encouraged by his supervisor to travel to Russia to have in-person meetings with the Kremlin officials.
- Even Trump knew. In at least one meeting, Papadopoulos briefed Trump in person about his conversations with the Russians. Notably, this meeting took place not long before Trump began to publicly call on Moscow to release Clinton’s emails.
- And they knew it was wrong. Papadopoulos, after being warned by the FBI that making any false or misleading statements was a federal crime, still tried to hide all the details of his Russian contacts. And then he attempted to cover his tracks by deleting his Facebook account that contained records of his messages to the Russians and got rid of the cell phone he had used. You don’t do that if you think what you were doing was innocent.
- It shows that a member of the Trump campaign with first hand knowledge of the Russian collusion has been flipped by the FBI, and is now giving evidence against his former colleagues. As a liaison between the campaign and the Russian government, Papadopoulos appears to be critically important to the investigation and is ideally placed to know the most important details of the alleged collusion.
- And, finally, the Papadopoulos plea deal reveals that the FBI was on this months earlier than anyone realized. He is accused of lying during interviews with the Bureau that took place only seven days after Trump’s inauguration. Today’s revelations only reflect what they found out at the beginning of this investigation. What have they uncovered in the nine months since?
In short, the unexpected unsealing of the Papadopoulos guilty plea reveals that the months of speculation and rumour regarding possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government are not only true, but represent what can only be described as the biggest political scandal in recent history. And this is only Mueller’s opening move.
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