WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that a former campaign aide thrust into the center of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe “has already proven to be a liar.”
On Twitter, Trump sought to dismiss Chicagoan George Papadopoulos, who has provided key evidence in the first criminal case connecting Trump’s team to alleged intermediaries for Russia’s government.
Said Trump: “Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!”
Papadopoulos was approached by people claiming ties to Russia and offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, according to court documents unsealed Monday. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about the conversations and has been cooperating with investigators, the documents said.
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Papadopoulos’ guilty plea and the possibility that he’s working with Mueller’s team came as an unexpected twist in the mounting drama surrounding the criminal probe. A separate welter of charges Mueller announced Monday against Trump’s ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime aide Rick Gates do not appear directly related to their work for Trump.
But Papadopoulos’ case cuts close to the central question of Mueller’s investigation: Did Russia try to sway the election? Did Trump’s campaign know?
“The Russians had emails of Clinton,” Papadopoulos was told by a professor with ties to Russia during a breakfast meeting at a London hotel in April. U.S. investigators said that the following day, Papadopoulos then emailed a Trump campaign policy adviser, “Have some interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip when the time is right.”
The court papers do not name the professor. But a comparison of conversations cited in the court papers and emails previously obtained by The Associated Press show the professor is Joseph Mifsud, honorary director of the London Academy of Diplomacy. Mifsud did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Papadopoulos was arrested in July and has been interviewed repeatedly by authorities, the filing said.
After entering his guilty plea he was ordered not to contact other Trump officials and prohibited from foreign travel. In one of the unsealed files, an FBI agent working for Mueller bluntly hinted that more former Trump associates could soon be questioned.
Papadopoulos’ lawyer, Thomas M. Breen, based in Chicago, declined to comment on the guilty plea but noted that “we will have the opportunity to comment on George’s involvement when called upon by the court at a later date. We look forward to telling all of the details of George’s story at that time.”
The incident echoes elements of a June 2016 meeting involving Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials at Trump Tower. The president’s son organized that sit down with a Russian lawyer who was offering negative information about Clinton.
The White House immediately cast Papadopoulos as a mere volunteer with little influence during last year’s campaign. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said his role was “extremely limited” and that “no activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign.”
Trump named Papadopoulos to his foreign policy advisory council in March 2016, among a short list of experts amid growing public pressure on Trump to demonstrate he had a bench of foreign policy expertise.
During a March 21, 2016 meeting with The Washington Post editorial board, Trump called Papadopoulos an “excellent guy.”
Shortly afterward, Trump tweeted a photo of his advisory council meeting, with Papadopoulos among a handful of advisers at the president’s table. In his plea filing, Papadopolous admitted that he told Trump and other top campaign national security officials during that meeting that he had made contact with intermediaries for Russia who said they could set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The court filings recount Papadopoulos’ meetings abroad starting in March 2016, after he’d been named to Trump’s board. Papadopoulos initially told the investigators the meetings came before, and later admitted that was untrue. Papadopoulos also deleted a Facebook post about his travels, the documents said.
The court filings say he met first with the professor who boasted of damaging emails and then later with an unnamed Russian woman, who claimed to be related to Putin and sought to arrange a meeting between Trump and the Russian leader. The professor also introduced Papadopoulos to a third unnamed person who claimed he had connections to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The two men then exchanged emails about a possible meeting between Trump campaign aides and Russian government officials.
The third man is Ivan Timofeev, according to the emails obtained by the AP. Timofeev is director of programs at a Moscow think tank, the Russian International Affairs Council. In a statement posted in August on the council’s website, Timofeev acknowledged his 2016 contacts with Papadopolous, saying his group “requested an official inquiry concerning Mr. Trump or his team members’ possible visit.” He said the council regularly hosts officials from the U.S. and that the Trump campaign “initiative was a matter of routine” for the council.
The court records didn’t specify which emails the Russian claimed to have.
The timing of the new disclosures about Clinton emails may be significant because the scope of the Kremlin’s efforts to hack Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee were just beginning to be understood by March 2016, weeks before Papadopoulos was told of damaging emails.
It’s unclear how frequently Papadopoulos was in contact with the campaign officials. Sanders initially said the foreign policy advisory board convened only once, but the White House later clarified she was speaking only of official meetings with Trump in attendance. An official involved with the group said the group met on a monthly basis throughout the spring and summer for a total of about six meetings.
The tweets came as Democrats, and a few Republicans, in Congress have a clear message for Trump — don’t mess with Robert Mueller.
Concerned that the president may fight back after Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling led to two indictments and a guilty plea for his former advisers Monday, top Democrats laid down a marker for the president, who earlier in the year criticized Mueller and the probe.
“The president must not, under any circumstances and in any way, interfere with the special counsel’s work,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. “If he does, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues and the truth — the whole truth — comes out.”
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, added, “Members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, must also make clear to the President that issuing pardons to any of his associates or to himself would be unacceptable, and result in immediate, bipartisan action by Congress.”
Republicans were less explicit, but many sent a similar message.
“I don’t think anybody in their right mind at the White House would think about replacing Mr. Mueller unless there was a very good reason,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has been both a critic and a friend to Trump over the last year.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, a Trump critic, said he “can’t even imagine” that Trump would fire Mueller.
Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer, shot down both possibilities of firing Mueller and pardons in an interview Tuesday with ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“The president has not indicated to me or to anyone else that I work with that he has any intent on terminating Robert Mueller,” Sekulow said.
On pardons, he said: “I have not had a conversation with the president regarding pardons. And pardons are not on the table.”
Sekulow’s comments came a day after the first charges were announced by Mueller. Former Trump campaign chairman Manafort and his associate Rick Gates both pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and money laundering charges. Another former adviser, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents when asked about Russian contacts.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters after the charges were released that “there is no intention or plan to make any changes in regards to the special counsel.” But lawmakers have been on guard since May, when Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey and Mueller was appointed.
Trump was initially more critical of the special counsel, and at one point his legal team looked into potential conflicts surrounding the team Mueller has hired, including the backgrounds of members and political contributions by some members of his team to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
After Trump made those rumblings, two bipartisan bills emerged in the Senate Judiciary Committee that would attempt to protect any special counsel. Legislation sponsored by Graham would prevent the firing of any special counsel unless the dismissal was first reviewed by a panel of three federal judges. Legislation co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina would let any special counsel for the Department of Justice challenge his or her removal in court.
After an initial flurry of support, the bills have stalled as Trump has quieted his public criticism of Mueller. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he was undecided on the bills after some law experts questioned their legality in a hearing.
As senators returned to the Capitol Monday evening for votes, many Republicans were lukewarm or declined to say whether they would support the legislation. Graham said of his own bill, “I don’t feel an urgent need to pass that law until you show me a reason Mr. Mueller is in jeopardy.”
Some Republicans said they were reviewing the legislation. “It would be a problem” if Trump fires special counsel or pardons indicted people, said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, another recent critic of Trump.
The main message from Republicans was that the charges wouldn’t affect legislative work. Republicans are hoping to make some progress on tax reform, and are hoping to stay focused on that goal.
“It doesn’t distract us in any way,” Corker said. “I don’t see it being a factor at all.”
That remains to be seen, as Republicans have had a difficult time this year enacting any major policy as Trump has taken aim at some in his own party.
It’s also unclear how the charges will affect several congressional investigations into the Russian interference and whether it was connected to Trump’s campaign. Neither the Senate nor the House intelligence committees have interviewed Papadopoulos or Gates, according to sources familiar with the probes. And only the Senate intelligence panel has talked to Manafort.
The sources declined to be named because the committees’ interviews are private.
As the investigations have gone on for several months, some Republicans have called for them to end. The Senate Judiciary Committee probe into the meddling and the House intelligence probe have split along partisan lines. And Democrats fumed last week as House Republicans launched new probes into Clinton and former President Barack Obama.
Some Democrats indicated that the congressional investigations should step up as Mueller’s probe found new evidence.
“It is a pretty sobering, shattering moment in American history,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democratic member of the Judiciary panel, said of the charges. “It is the end of the beginning, but not the beginning of the end.”