Kremlin likely cultivated Trump adviser, experts say – Politico
He seemed to emerge out of nowhere: George Papadopoulos was a low-level foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump virtually unknown even within Washington national security circles.
But on Monday, news that the young energy consultant struck a plea agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller made Papadopoulos’ opaque background and murky role within Trump’s campaign one of the most important mysteries in American politics.
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In an Oct. 3 agreement released Monday alongside charges against Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his extensive interactions with Russian operatives — including a London-based professor who told him in April 2016 that Russian government officials had “thousands” of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
A court transcript released Monday night referred to Papadopoulos’ “ongoing efforts to cooperate” with Mueller’s probe — raising the question of whether he could incriminate other Trump associates.
White House and Trump allies dismissed Papadopoulos as a minor figure whose multiple contacts with the Russians amounted to meaningless freelancing.
One Trump campaign national security adviser who worked closely with Papadopoulos described him as a hapless and unpaid volunteer for Trump who “didn’t advise him on anything.”
“I think he was a guy that got in above his head and possibly will go to jail for doing something really stupid,” the adviser told POLITICO. “He showed up at one meeting and then tried to set up meetings with Russians but no one took him seriously on the campaign.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also described Papadopoulos in a Monday briefing as an unpaid volunteer whose role was “extremely limited.”
Law enforcement and intelligence experts were skeptical, noting the way court documents showed the Trump adviser earning positive feedback for some of his efforts. They added that, at a minimum, his story appears to shed further light on a multifaceted Russian effort to make inroads into the Trump campaign as part of the Kremlin’s scheme to influence the 2016 election.
Some former U.S. counterintelligence officials said the case bears the hallmarks of a Russian effort to cultivate an overseas “asset,” someone who could help Moscow get information — or even assist in the Kremlin’s effort to manipulate the 2016 election.
They also asked why, if Papadopoulos was a low-level functionary, he was pursuing contacts with foreigners — including what court documents call multiple email and Skype exchanges with a person claiming to have connections to the Russian foreign ministry — and why campaign emails show that he was encouraged to do so.
Adding to the confusion about Papadopoulos’ status in the campaign is a Trump campaign email contained in Monday’s court filing in which an unnamed senior Trump aide dismisses Papadopoulos’ proposal to set up a Trump trip to Moscow.
“We need someone to communicate that [Donald Trump] is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal,” wrote the aide, who the senior policy adviser said was Manafort.
It was unclear whether Manafort meant that a “low-level” person like Papadopoulos should be sent to Russia so as not to attract attention — or simply that a junior operative should be the one to communicate the message that Trump would not be visiting Russia.
Papadopoulos’ lack of any significant foreign policy and national security credentials also raise questions about how and why, after Trump identified him as a foreign policy adviser last year, he showed such enthusiasm for connecting campaign officials with the Russians.
Documents unsealed by prosecutors Monday showed that Papadopoulos admitted he lied in January to FBI agents about his contacts with the Russian professor, even though he knew the man had “substantial connections to Russian government officials.”
Papadopoulos told investigators that his contacts with the professor — who said he had met with Russian officials who told him about Clinton’s hacked emails, months before they became public — occurred just a few days after he joined the campaign, and that the professor took an interest in him “because of his status with the campaign.”
U.S. counterintelligence officials said that would be consistent with a Russian influence operation, designed to cultivate an insider who can provide Moscow with information or even act on the Kremlin’s behalf.
James Gagliano, a retired senior FBI official, said the details revealed in court documents Monday match Russian tradecraft, which relies on seemingly innocuous intermediaries who cultivate potential targets to determine whether they might cooperate willingly or could even be coerced to provide assistance.
“Asset recruitment involves having someone ‘safe’ approach you and ascertain your viability: How gullible or naive or desperate you might be. And then, you get passed off from the ‘safe’ approach guy to the more connected and skilled and knowledgeable operative,” Gagliano said. “It’s a classic [counterintelligence] recruitment method. Could the ‘professor’ have been the ‘safe’ entree guy? Speculation. But might be a good bet.”
In a sworn affidavit to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, one of the FBI agents who interviewed Papadopoulos suggested that his experience with the professor was consistent with known Kremlin recruitment tactics.
FBI special agent Robert Gibbs, a veteran counterespionage investigator, said Russian intelligence and security services often rely on private intermediaries, including “individuals associated with academia and think tanks in such a capacity.”
Gibbs said that tactic serves to “hide the overt involvement of the Russian government and provides deniability” of its actions.
On or about March 31, 2016, he said, Papadopoulos attended a “national security meeting” in Washington, D.C., with then-candidate Trump and other foreign policy advisers for the campaign. When he introduced himself to the group, the young volunteer said he had connections “that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.”
After his trip, Papadopoulos worked with the professor and an unnamed female Russian national who represented herself as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s niece to arrange a meeting between the campaign and the Russian government.
“Great work,” a campaign supervisor told him by email.
Two other people described in court documents as senior Trump campaign officials also had discussions with Papadopoulos about Russia’s interest in meeting with Trump, including in Moscow. When that didn’t seem possible, Papadopoulos relayed to campaign officials that his contacts in Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked if someone else could go.
After volunteering himself, Papadopoulos received an email from an unidentified Trump campaign supervisor saying, “I would encourage you” and another adviser to make the trip “if it is feasible.” The campaign adviser identified that official as Sam Clovis, a top campaign official and now senior Trump adviser.
That was just a few weeks after a June 9 meeting at Trump Tower in which other Russian operatives met with campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and senior adviser Jared Kushner, also ostensibly to receive damaging information about Clinton.
And it was around the time Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski approved a separate trip to Moscow by another of the unpaid foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, but not as an official representative of the campaign.
According to documents he turned over to federal officials earlier this year, Papadopoulos made frequent requests to travel on behalf of the campaign, not only to Russia. All of them were denied.
Papadopoulos’ attorneys declined to discuss the situation.
“We will have the opportunity to comment on George’s involvement when called upon by the Court at a later date,” Papadopoulos’ attorneys said in a statement. “We look forward to presenting all the facts that led to the events that resulted in this charge.”
Ali Watkins contributed to this report.
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