In addition to the indictment of Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, yesterday brought news of the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign. Some commentators have suggested that the Papadopoulos plea presents a bigger potential risk to Mr. Trump than the Manafort indictment. I’m not sure that will ultimately prove to be true, partly because I suspect the real risk to Mr. Trump and his coterie of retainers and hangers-on lies in inquiries Mr. Mueller is, or may yet be, making into their finances.
Nonetheless, the Papadopoulos plea does suggest several points:
First, the Statement of the Offense accompanying the plea is chock full of assertions which, if true, give the lie (yet again) to the initial claims of Mr. Trump and associates that there were no contacts between the campaign and Russian interests. It is undoubtedly correct that Papadopoulos himself was an insignificant figure in the Trump campaign universe and a complete nobody in the real world of foreign affaits. (Indeed, the fact that the Trump campaign brought on such an utter neophyte as one of five foreign policy advisors is a shocking testament to the unwillingness of anyone of substance to associate with the campaign.)
BUT, it appears Papadopoulos was in contact with people who had genuine, if slightly attenuated, Russian government connections, people who were expressing interest not only in making general connections with Trump and his campaign, but were offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And the dangled dirt allegedly included emails which any reasonable person would have to have inferred had been obtained clandestinely and probably illegally. Critically, Papadopoulos apparently passed all this along to very significant people in the Trump campaign – people such as Sam Clovis, the campaign national co-chair, and Corey Lewandowski, the one-time campaign manager. If the Statement of Offense is accurate, these higher-ups encouraged Papadopoulos’s efforts, even those that obviously involved very questionable dealings with a traditionally hostile foreign power.
Second, even if everything in the Statement of the Offense is true, none of the Trump campaign’s senior officials may have committed any crime. It is not a crime for senior members of a presidential campaign to talk with representatives of foreign governments. Indeed, if the point of the talks is to introduce the candidate and those around him to significant foreign actors and to learn about international issues relevant to the campaign and to American foreign policy, they can be laudable. Even seeking opposition research that would appear to emanate from Russian intelligence services might not itself be criminal, even if (at least in a rational world) it would be politically poisonous if the Russian intelligence connection were revealed. If it should ever be shown that such material was delivered, and used, more difficult legal questions would arise. But nothing so far revealed suggests that the Papadopoulos overtures produced anything concrete.
Third, nonetheless, Mr. Papadopoulos’s fate illustrates the risk facing all the current and former Trump insiders. They are under immense pressure from Mr. Trump and others around him to deny or minimize the extent of Russian contacts. The pressure may stem purely from Mr. Trump’s aversion to political embarrassment, rather than any fear of overt criminal liability. But with the Papadopoulos case, Mueller’s team has served notice that it will not be lied to. They want the whole truth, with no fudging, or felony charges will be forthcoming.
If those who haven’t yet talked to Mueller are getting, and taking to heart, competent legal advice, they will tell absolutely everything they know. If they don’t, we can confidently expect more indictments akin to that of Mr. Papadopoulos. The result should be that Mueller will get to the bottom of the Russian connection story. If he does, I wouldn’t necessarily bet that the bottom line will be exposure of treasonous collusion. The more likely outcome will be a continued slow exposure, bit by bit, of farcical bungling by unprincipled foreign policy naifs who would have committed crimes if they could, but were baulked by either their own incompetence or Russian unwillingness to deal directly with such boobs.
That said, I would not be surprised to see a significant number of Trump World inhabitants unwilling to come clean, even in the face of the Papadopoulos example. In which case more of them will go down. And, as has so often proven the case over the years, it won’t be the underlying criminality of their flirtations with Moscow that gets them, but the cover-up.