Trump officials encouraged George Papadopoulos to build 'partnership with Russia' with TV interview, emails reveal

Administration have sought to paint 30-year-old as low level volunteer whose outreach to nation was not authorised, new evidence shows otherwise

Rosalind S. Helderman,Tom Hamburger
Sunday 25 March 2018 20:07 BST
The energy consultant pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the country last year
The energy consultant pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the country last year (Fox News)

When a Russian news agency reached out to George Papadopoulos to request an interview shortly before the 2016 election, the young adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump made sure to seek approval from campaign headquarters.

“You should do it,” deputy communications director Bryan Lanza urged Papadopoulos in a September 2016 email, emphasising the benefits of a US “partnership with Russia”.

The exchange was a sign that Papadopoulos – who pushed the Trump operation to meet with Russian officials – had the campaign’s blessing for some of his foreign outreach.

Since Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts during the campaign and agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert S Mueller III, Trump officials have sought to paint the 30-year old energy consultant as a low level volunteer whose outreach to Russia was not authorised by the campaign – and in some cases, was actively discouraged.

But emails described to The Washington Post, which are among thousands of documents turned over to investigators examining Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign, show that Papadopoulos had more extensive contact with key Trump campaign and presidential transition officials than has been publicly acknowledged.

Among those who communicated with Papadopoulos were senior campaign figures such as chief executive Stephen Bannon and adviser Michael Flynn, who corresponded with him about his efforts to broker ties between Mr Trump and top foreign officials, the emails show.

As late as December 2016, as president-elect Mr Trump was preparing to take office, Papadopoulos tried to serve as a conduit for the defence minister of Greece, transmitting what he said was a proposal for a strategic alliance from the Russian-allied Greek official that was reviewed by both Mr Bannon and Flynn, then in line to be national security adviser.

The previously undisclosed emails paint a portrait of a young researcher who demonstrated an early and intense interest in joining Mr Trump’s presidential bid, beginning in July 2015, just weeks after the celebrity mogul announced his candidacy – eight months before his name first publicly surfaced.

Thomas Breen, an attorney for Papadopoulos, declined to comment. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

In a tweet after Papadopoulos pleaded guilty, Mr Trump wrote that “few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar.” Another Trump campaign staffer dismissed Papadopoulos as a mere “coffee boy” during the campaign.

Papadopoulos is the only associate of Mr Trump known to have told prosecutors he had advance warning that the Russians held emails that could be damaging to Mr Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. A London-based professor told Papadopoulos in April 2016 that the Russians had dirt on Ms Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, according to his plea agreement.

It is not known if Papadopoulos relayed that information to other campaign officials.

The young aide was not a central player in Mr Trump’s inner circle. At times, he appeared as a supplicant to his superiors on the campaign, who occasionally ignored his notes or appeared to rebuff him, the emails show. Shortly after joining the campaign, Papadopoulos was rebuked by campaign officials for giving an unauthorised interview to a British newspaper, The Washington Post previously reported.

But the documents also indicate that amid Papadopoulos’s advocacy of closer ties to Russia, he retained access to top officials – even after Mr Trump’s victory.

A former intern and researcher at the conservative Hudson Institute, Papadopoulos was living in London when the 2016 presidential race kicked off. Less than a decade out of college, he had never worked for a campaign before.

In July 2015, Papadopoulos contacted then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski about his interest in joining Mr Trump’s campaign, according to an email he sent the following month to deputy campaign manager Michael Glassner, now executive director of Mr Trump’s re-election effort.

“The reason for my message is because I have been in touch with Mr Corey Lewandowski since early last month about obtaining an advisory role to Mr Trump on matters of energy security and US policy in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he wrote to Mr Glassner.

He corresponded for months with both Mr Lewandowski and Mr Glassner, according to the emails. The two campaign officials responded politely, but initially told him no job was available.

Mr Glassner and Mr Lewandowski did not respond to requests for comment.

In December 2015, Papadopoulos went to work for the campaign of neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was then challenging Trump for the GOP nomination.

After several months, Papadopoulos reached out again to the Trump campaign to inform them he would be leaving the flagging Carson campaign.

“I wanted to let you know that I stopped working as Ben Carson’s principle foreign policy adviser. I’d be interested in getting on board with the Trump team. Is the team looking to expand?” Papadopoulos wrote to Mr Glassner early in March 2016.

At the time, Mr Trump was surging in the polls and the real estate developer was under increasing pressure to name foreign policy advisers to his team.

Mr Glassner quickly connected Papadopoulos with campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis.

Mr Clovis and Papadopoulos spoke by phone four days later, a conversation in which Mr Clovis said improving relations with Russia was a top campaign foreign policy goal, according to what Papadopoulos later told prosecutors. Mr Clovis, who did not respond to a request for comment, has previously denied that account.

Later that month, Mr Trump himself named Papadopoulos among a list of five people advising his campaign on foreign policy during a meeting with The Washington Post editorial board. “Excellent guy,” the candidate said.

At the end of March, Papadopoulos attended a meeting of Mr Trump’s newly named national security advisory group at Mr Trump’s not-yet-opened hotel in Washington. After introducing himself, the young adviser announced he could organise a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr Trump, according to court documents.

The following month, he intensified his outreach to new Russian contacts he had met through the London professor, Joseph Mifsud. They included a woman who had been introduced to him as a Putin relative and Ivan Timofeev, a director of a Moscow think tank. Papadopoulos highlighted these contacts in numerous emails to campaign officials disclosed by prosecutors and described previously to The Washington Post.

In May, Papadopoulos forwarded to campaign officials a note he received from Mr Timofeev informing him that Russian foreign ministry officials were open to a Trump visit. That idea was batted down by campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who emailed his associate Rick Gates: “We need to communicate that DT is not doing these trips.”

Still, Papadopoulos persisted and was encouraged by Mr Clovis in August to pursue meetings on his own “if feasible,” according to court documents. A lawyer for Mr Clovis has said he was merely being polite and did not authorise Papadopoulos to represent the campaign abroad.

That spring, Papadopoulos spoke to a group of researchers in Israel, where he announced Mr Trump believed Putin was a “responsible actor and potential partner,” according to The Jerusalem Post.

Several months later, Papadopoulos alerted the campaign that he had an opportunity to speak to the Russian news outlet Interfax.

“Received a request from Interfax Russian News Agency with Ksenia Baygarova on US-Russia ties under a President Trump. What do you think?” he wrote to Mr Lanza on 9 September 2016. “If the campaign wants me to do it, can answer similar to the answers I gave in April while in Israel.”

Mr Lanza gave the go-ahead, citing the conflict in Syria as a reason to work the Russians. Papadopoulos then offered to send the campaign a copy of the interview after it was published.

“You’re the best. Thank you!” Mr Lanza responded.

Mr Lanza declined to comment.

In the interview, published 30 September 2016, Papadopoulos told the Russian media outlet Mr Trump had been “open about his willingness to usher in a new chapter in US-Russia ties,” specifically citing the need for cooperation in Syria.

According to prosecutors, Papadopoulos also sent the Interfax story to Mr Mifsud after its publication.

Ms Baygarova, the Interfax reporter who interviewed Papadopoulos, said in an email to The Washington Post that she reached out to Papadopoulos after being assigned to interview a representative of both presidential campaigns. She said she sent messages to each person on a list of Trump foreign policy advisers. Only Papadopoulos responded.

She said he insisted on answering questions in writing, resisting edits even after they met in person in New York. During their meeting, she said Papadopoulos was “very nice and friendly”.

“I got the impression that he was not very experienced. However, he did seem to be a very ambitious and sincere Trump supporter,” she said.

Around the same time, Papadopoulos began communicating with Mr Bannon about messages he was receiving from a contact at the Egyptian embassy about that country’s interest in organising a meeting between President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Mr Trump.

The emails show Papadopoulos was the first to alert the campaign to Mr El-Sissi’s interest in meeting and then connected top campaign leadership to the Egyptian embassy.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Egyptian embassy confirmed that an embassy official contacted Papadopoulos as a way to reach the Trump campaign.

Mr Bannon requested talking points from Papadopoulos for the meeting, sought a phone call with him to discuss it and ultimately asked Papadopoulos to contact the embassy to alert an official when a time was finalised, the emails show. Papadopoulos’s role in the meeting was first reported by The New York Times.

“This is a great move on our side. A home run,” Papadopoulos wrote to Mr Bannon, in an email that has not previously been reported.

“Agree,” Mr Bannon responded. “But very hard sell to DJT.”

Mr Trump and Mr El-Sissi met the next night at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The session put the GOP nominee on a par with Ms Clinton, who had previously announced she would be meeting with the Egyptian leader while he was in town. Mr Sessions and Flynn also attended the Trump meeting.

“We met for a long time, actually. There was a good chemistry there,” Mr Trump told Fox Business’s Lou Dobbs the next day.

William Burck, an attorney for Mr Bannon, declined to comment.

Papadopoulos continued to position himself as a go-between for Mr Trump’s top staff and key foreign officials after Mr Trump’s victory.

In December 2016, Papadopoulos alerted Mr Bannon that he had recently been in contact with Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, a pro-Russian Greek nationalist who has met with Putin.

“They want to sign a government-to-government agreement with the USA for all rights to all energy fields offshore, strategic foothold in the Mediterranean and Balkans,” Papadopoulos wrote in an email.

Mr Bannon forwarded the message to Flynn and Flynn’s deputy, KT McFarland.

“Will work this one,” Flynn responded.

It is not clear if Flynn pursued the Greek offer. In late December, Flynn wrote in an email to Papadopoulos that he believed the young adviser’s suggestions presented “great opportunities.”

“We will examine these and determine if this is something we should take on early. Stay in touch and at some point, we should get together.”

He signed the email, “Mike”.

Robert Kelner, an attorney for Flynn, declined to comment. An attorney for Ms McFarland did not respond to a request for comment.

In an interview, Mr Kammenos said he did not seek Papadopoulos’ help in reaching Trump’s aides. He said that before the election, Papadopoulos sent him an energy proposal he thought had merit.

By Mr Trump’s election, he said he had concluded Papadopoulos was not a major figure in Mr Trump’s world and established his own contact with the presidential transition.

Mr Kammenos added: “I think Mr Papadopoulos is a very young person with dreams.”

The Washington Post

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