The first charges unsealed in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of the presidential election suggest a sweeping investigation, but one focus is clear: He’s building a case that Donald Trump’s campaign was in close touch with Russian officials who aimed to defeat Hillary Clinton.
That hypothesis begins with a cooperating witness, George Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old junior foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russian operatives. According to a court filing by Mueller, at least two high-level Trump campaign supervisors and other officials were aware of Papadopoulos’ contacts and communications with the Russians.
Papadopoulos received information from the same Russians in April 2016 that they had thousands of emails containing “dirt” on Clinton — about three months before the WikiLeaks organization began to release troves of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, according to the court filing. While prosecutors say Papadopoulos shared information about his contacts with the Russians with the campaign, they don’t say whether he told superiors about the emails.
“People thought there was smoke, but this is evidence there was fire,” said Philip Hilder, a former federal prosecutor who specializes in white-collar criminal defense.
Before laying out the charges against Papadopoulos on Monday, Mueller unsealed indictments against former campaign manager Paul Manafort and an aide, Rick Gates, who have been put under house arrest. Those indictments focus on their business dealings without mentioning Russian collusion, and the Papadopoulos charges don’t name the campaign officials said to have received his information.
Trump on Tuesday morning dismissed the charges as bunk in a series of tweets, misstating the timeline of events that prosecutors laid out, which stretch until this year:
“The Fake News is working overtime. As Paul Manafort’s lawyer said, there was ‘no collusion’ and events mentioned took place long before he came … to the campaign. Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!”
But Hilder sees a connection.
“This may not look like it’s related to Manafort, but they’re all intertwined, and the several roads lead to the same location,” he said.
According to prosecutors, various campaign officials supported Papadopoulos’ contacts with Russians. (“Great work,” an unnamed supervisor responds to one of his emails reporting back.) How high that support went, and who knew about it, will be an important thread for prosecutors.
In March 2016, Papadopoulos suggested to Trump a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Jeff Sessions, then a foreign-policy adviser and now attorney general, shot down the idea, according to a U.S. official. Papadopoulos kept pitching the notion, according to the court filing. In April 2016, he emailed a high-ranking Trump campaign official “to discuss Russia’s interest in hosting Mr. Trump,” prosecutors said.
Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who’s now managing director of consulting firm Berkeley Research Group, said that after Papadopoulos’s arrest in July, Mueller may have used him to make recordings that could result in charges against others.
“Anyone who’s had a conversation with that guy since July until last night should be thinking about what they said to him,” Cramer said.
Taken together, the charges against the three men reveal that Mueller’s team has access to tax documents and international financial records going back years, as well as internal emails and other information related to those who worked on Trump’s presidential campaign.
“This shows they’re putting their nose to the grindstone and they’re bringing rock solid cases,” Cramer said.
The charges show how decisions that Trump made when he was still a long-shot candidate are coming back to haunt him. He threw together a ragtag team of political operatives and campaign advisers with scant vetting or experience. The documents describe an atmosphere of frantic grasping for an edge against Clinton, who personified the political establishment.
Although the Papadopoulos filing doesn’t name any other Trump campaign officials, the descriptions of the former junior foreign policy adviser’s emails to these people sends a clear message: Mueller’s team knows a lot about what went on in the campaign. The depth of that knowledge could impact some of those officials’ decisions on whether to cooperate with Mueller.
The list of possible targets is long, and may include former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who, like Manafort, initially failed to disclose work for foreign interests.
After he left the administration, Flynn filed an updated registration form showing that he hadn’t disclosed contacts and payments from foreign entities while serving Trump starting in February 2016.
At the time, Flynn, a retired Army general, ran a consulting business. In one case, Flynn Intel Group received $530,000 from Inovo BV, a Dutch company working for Turkey’s government, to lobby the U.S. for extradition of a dissident cleric who has opposed President Recep Erdogan.
FBI agents asked Flynn in January whether he talked with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak of Russia about sanctions imposed by then-President Barack Obama in retaliation for Russia’s election meddling.
Flynn resigned Feb. 13 after only 24 days on the job. In his resignation letter he apologized to the president for giving “incomplete information” about his interactions with the Russian ambassador.
Papadopoulos’ cooperation also could ratchet up pressure on other former campaign officials. They include Corey Lewandowski, who was running the campaign when Papadopoulos was channeling Russian requests, before Manafort took over in May, and Sam Clovis, a talk-radio host who was a senior policy adviser.
Carter Page, a campaign adviser who traveled to Moscow in July 2016 and delivered a speech there that criticized U.S. foreign policy, said in an email that he had no relationship with Papadopoulos. He said he is focused on his libel lawsuit against Yahoo News over an article last year that said he had met with senior Russian officials in an attempt to soften U.S. sanctions against Moscow.
The Mueller investigation is also wrapping in some Democrats. According to the Manafort indictment, two unidentified Washington lobbying firms were paid $2 million for work related to Manafort’s clandestine influencing scheme.
One of the firms, cited only as Company B in the indictment, is the Podesta Group, according to a person familiar with the matter. Tony Podesta, the brother of Clinton’s former campaign manager John Podesta, left the firm Monday, the person said.