President Donald Trump immediately tried to downplay the importance of the indictment of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
But the guilty plea of North Side native and DePaul University graduate George Papadopoulos — which was unsealed Monday also — ultimately could prove just as troublesome for the White House.
That’s because the former Trump campaign policy adviser and 2005 Niles West High School graduate admits he lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russians during last year’s presidential race. And Papadopoulos, 30, has been cooperating with the feds since late July.
“There’s a large-scale, ongoing investigation of which this case is a small part,” a federal prosecutor told a judge earlier this month, according to a court transcript.
Papadopoulos’ case represents “the first criminal conviction arising from the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election,” according to a newly unsealed court filing by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III earlier this month.
Papadopoulos was remembered as a “nondescript” student at DePaul by a faculty member who said the young man “was prone to embellishing.”
In pleading guilty on Oct. 5, Papadopoulos admitted to “making false statements” when he talked voluntarily to FBI agents on Jan. 27 in Chicago — just a week after Trump’s inauguration — about his connections with Russians who claimed to have “dirt” on Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor,” Papadopoulos said during the sealed hearing, according to a transcript made available Monday.
Papadopoulos mischaracterized his dealings with an unnamed professor of diplomacy based in London who cultivated ties to him after he joined the Trump campaign. The professor allegedly told him he had “thousands of emails” regarding Hillary Clinton, according to federal court documents.
Papadopoulos “was interested in the professor because, among other reasons, the professor claimed to have substantial connections with Russian government officials” that Papadopoulos “thought could increase his importance as a policy advisor to the campaign,” the records show.
This professor brought a woman — introduced as a relative of Russian President Vladimir Putin with connections to senior Russian government officials — to a meeting he had with Papadopoulos around March 24, 2016, soon after Papadopoulos joined the Trump campaign.
The Papadopoulos probe moved fairly quickly after his first FBI interview last January.
He was arrested after getting off a plane at Dulles Airport outside of Washington on July 27 and started cooperating with the government “on numerous occasions,” federal authorities say.
In exchange for his cooperation, Papadopoulos likely will receive a more lenient sentence. He faces a maximum five-year sentence but could spend six months or less behind bars.
Papadopoulos wrapped up his campaign work in January 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile. He never joined the Trump administration and recently claimed to work as an oil, gas and energy consultant.
Two Chicago criminal-defense attorneys, Thomas Breen and Robert Stanley, are representing Papadopoulos. In a statement, they said, “It is in the best interest of our client, George Papadopoulos, that we refrain from commenting on George’s case.
“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.”
Papadopoulos was born in August 1987 at Swedish Covenant Hospital on the Far North Side. He lived in Lincolnwood while attending Niles West, graduated in 2005, picked up a bachelor’s degree in political science from DePaul in 2009 and earned an advanced degrees from University College London, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Neighbors said Papadopoulos has lived for the past few years with his mother and brother in a six-bedroom home that towers above the bungalows on a quiet block in the Ravenswood neighborhood, a short walk from where he was born.
“They’re good neighbors, lovely people,” said artist Jerry Severino, who lives behind the Papadopoulos home.
George Papadopoulos “was always considerate and a gentleman,” Severino added.
“I’m kind of shocked. We heard he was working for Trump and I just kind of thought, ‘Ugh, really?'”
Papadopoulos’ father, Antonios, is a nephrologist in Addison and a board member of the United Hellenic Voters of America, which endorsed Trump, according to the group’s website.
George Papadopoulos was a little-known adviser in Ben Carson’s failed presidential campaign who burst into the news last year when Trump announced his foreign policy team.
Trump mentioned his name along with others on his foreign policy team in a Washington Post interview.
Richard Farkas, a political science professor at DePaul who taught Papadopoulos, said he was surprised to hear about his position in the Trump campaign and found him unqualified for such a role.
“As a student, I remember him to be nondescript,” said Farkas, who teaches classes about Russian politics and foreign policy and U.S.-Russia relations. “He had very little experience, and he was prone to embellishing to get the position he wanted in the campaign.”
After Trump shoved Papadopoulos into the spotlight, Papadopoulos became a subject of ridicule in some stories. That’s because Papadopoulos was unknown in upper levels of establishment GOP foreign policy experts and shared some less-than-overwhelming credentials on his LinkedIn page.
What caught the eye of reporters back in March 2016 was his listing that he was a U.S. representative at the 2012 Geneva International Model United Nations.
He also noted he was “a top five finalist to represent the United States at the 2011 emerging leaders UNESCO forum in Paris, France.”
And his work as a research associate at the Hudson Institute between March 2011 and September 2015 was not seen in Washington foreign policy circles as being at an advanced enough level to warrant a high-level position in a presidential campaign.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed Papadopoulos’ role in the Trump campaign.
She said the Papadopoulos plea deal “has nothing to do with the activities of the campaign. It has to do with his failure to tell the truth. That doesn’t have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign’s activities.”
Asked to explain the role of Papadopoulos in the campaign, she said, “It was extremely limited; it was a volunteer position. And again, no activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign in that regard.”