Op-Ed

Plea agreement biggest news of Russia probe

While the biggest news on Monday was the indictments Robert Mueller has handed down against former President Donald Trump aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, he also released a plea bargain with a heretofore minor figure in the Russia scandal by the name of George Papadopoulos. And that could actually be the day’s biggest news.

That’s because while Manafort and Gates sure look like they’re going to jail, as of yet they aren’t cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. Papadopoulos is, which means that he likely has information that will lead Mueller closer to the heart of the case.

Papadopoulos was a junior foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. In August we learned that he had tried to set up meetings between Trump officials — and even Trump himself — with representatives of the Russian government. At the time, his suggestion was characterized as having been rejected by other Trump officials as inappropriate while Trump was a candidate.

But now that we’ve seen the details of Papadopoulos’ plea, it sure looks like that wasn’t the whole story.

He has agreed to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians. Specifically, he falsely claimed that they had occurred before he joined the campaign in March 2016. He had communication with a professor who had contacts in the Russian government; this professor told him that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” The professor introduced him to a female Russian national who was supposedly Vladimir Putin’s niece (she wasn’t), and to someone who supposedly had connections in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Based on those conversations, Papadopoulos pressed the campaign to set up meetings with the Russians, a suggestion that never came to fruition.

So what does this have to do with the larger case? I spoke with Barbara McQuade, a professor at the University of Michigan law school who is a former U.S. attorney and has worked extensively in criminal and national security cases. I asked: If Papadopoulos was just some low-level nobody tossing around ideas that were rejected by the campaign’s higher-ups, why would Mueller offer him a plea deal?

“I think it’s a fair conclusion to think that he has information that is valuable in the prosecution of others,” McQuade says. “You would only offer that cooperation if you’ve sat down with him and learned that he has information that is of value.”

Prosecutors believe he has information valuable in building a case against others. Manafort, on the other hand, is not cooperating — at least not yet. It’s a common tactic to hand down one set of indictments and then offer a defendant the chance to start cooperating, since if he doesn’t they’ll keep investigating, and who knows what else they’ll find. “I think that’s quite possible, that there are additional potential charges against Manafort, and he could still cooperate,” McQuade said.

If Manafort is going to flip, there are only so many people he could flip on, who are actually closer to the center of whatever happened than he was. That could include Kushner, perhaps Donald Trump Jr., and of course Trump himself.

But right now, Papadopoulos is the one who is providing Mueller an entry into the heart of the Trump campaign and its relationship to Russia. Which is why McQuade says, “That one, because of its relevance to that larger question, strikes me as maybe the more important development today.” And this is just getting started.

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