A former adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russian agents.
According to an unsealed court document, George Papadopoulos lied to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who were interviewing him after Mr Trump's January inauguration, when the FBI was investigating the Russian government's effort to interfere in the 2016 US presidential campaign.
The document says Mr Papadopoulos misrepresented the timing of his contact with a man promising damaging information on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and falsely claimed he did not understand that the professor, who promised “dirt” on Ms Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails”, had ties to the Russian government.
Shortly after learning he would be a foreign policy adviser for Mr Trump’s campaign, the document says, Mr Papadopoulos met a professor who claimed to have “substantial connections with Russian government officials” - ties Mr Papadopoulos thought he could leverage to magnify his value to the Trump campaign, the document says.
The interest was allegedly mutual, with the formerly indifferent professor showing “great interest” in Mr Papadopoulos once he was tabbed by the Trump campaign, according to the court document. Both the timing of that contact and the professor’s proclaiming his links to Russia undercut Mr Papadopoulos’ initial statements to investigators.
After meeting Mr Papadopoulos, the document states, the professor introduced the Trump campaign aide to a Russian national who said she was a “relative of Russian President Vladimir Putin with connections to senior Russian government officials”. The professor later introduced Mr Papadopoulos to a representative of Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the weeks to come, according to the document, Mr Papadopoulos repeatedly contacted other Trump campaign officials about arranging a meeting with the Russian government.
American intelligence agencies believe Mr Putin ordered a concerted campaign to upend the 2016 presidential election by spreading misinformation, and that he developed a clear preference for Mr Trump. They have concluded that the Russian government directed the hacks of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton operative John Podesta, which became a persistent feature of the presidential campaign as WikiLeaks published the missives - prompting Mr Trump to proclaim “I love WikiLeaks”.
On April 26, according to the document, the professor told Mr Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on Ms Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails”.
The document does not say if those emails are the same ones that Russian-directed hackers poached from Democratic sources. WikiLeaks began publishing emails - which founder Julian Assange has said did not come from Russian sources - about two months after the professor allegedly alerted Mr Papadopoulos that Russians “have dirt on” Ms Clinton in the form of emails.
The unsealing of the court document, dated October 5, coincided with the indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for money laundering and signaled that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into linkages between the Trump campaign and Russia was entering a new phase.
Court documents laying out the cases against Mr Manafort and Mr Papadopoulos do not specifically implicate Mr Trump, and the President responded to the news by continuing to bat down the idea of wrongdoing, writing on Twitter that there was “NO COLLUSION”.
In a Monday press conference, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought to downplay Mr Papadopoulos' role in the campaign, calling it “extremely limited” and a “volunteer position”.
“He reached out and nothing beyond that”, she said of his contacting other campaign officials about Russia-related meetings.
But in describing Mr Papadopoulos’s contacts with multiple high-ranking campaign officials, the court document hints at the breadth of an investigation that is examining the larger universe of Trump campaign officials.
In late March, according to the document, Mr Papadopoulos told Mr Trump and other foreign policy advisers he could arrange a meeting with Mr Putin. In April, he repeatedly emailed foreign policy team members about Russian contacts.
Once Mr Papadopoulos had been introduced to an unnamed representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in mid-April, the document states, Mr Papadopoulos emailed a “senior policy advisor” to float the idea of Mr Trump meeting Mr Putin. The day after being offered Russian “dirt” on Ms Clinton, Mr Papadopoulos emailed that same high-ranking advisor about “some interesting messages coming in from Moscow”, according to the document.
He also contacted an unidentified “high-ranking campaign official” about Russia’s desire to host Mr Trump. In subsequent weeks, the court document says, Mr Papadopoulos repeatedly called and emailed campaign officials about arranging a meeting. Eventually a campaign official encouraged Mr Papadopoulos to make the trip, according to an email cited in the court document, but the journey never materialized.
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