Trump aide's lawyers: He lied to FBI to protect 'his master'

Michael Isikoff Chief Investigative Correspondent
,Yahoo NewsSeptember 1, 2018

Donald Trump, George Papadopoulos, Robert Mueller (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images, Alexandria Sheriff’s Office/Handout via Reuters, Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images) More

The lawyers for former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos say in a new court filing that their client lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russians because he was seeking to get a job in the administration at the time and wanted to preserve his loyalty to “his master” — an apparent reference to President Trump.

The new explanation for Papadopoulos’s lies to the FBI came in a 16-page court filing by his lawyers Friday night that also revealed new details about what the former Trump adviser has told special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators, including his claim that Trump himself specifically approved his efforts to set up a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 campaign.

As asserted by Papadopoulos’s lawyers, FBI agents first confronted their client after he stepped out of the shower at his mother’s home in Chicago on Jan. 27, 2017 — just one week after Trump’s inauguration. The agents sought to question him about his contacts with Joseph Mifsud, a Kremlin-linked professor in London, and other key figures of interest in the investigation into Russian ties to the Trump campaign.

Papadopoulos admittedly threw agents off the track, telling them that his contacts with Mifsud had begun before he joined the Trump campaign — instead of after he was named as a campaign adviser in March 2016. It was a crucial difference, misleading investigators about Mifsud’s reasons for reaching out to him as part of what the FBI later concluded was a wide-ranging Kremlin effort to cultivate officials of the Trump campaign.

“For that, Mr. Papadopoulos is ashamed and remorseful,” his lawyers wrote.

George Papadopoulos (Photo: George Papadopoulos via Twitter) More

But Papadopoulos’s lawyers insist that their client’s motives for lying were “far from the sinister spin” that Mueller’s prosecutors have suggested: Papadopoulos lied because he was trying to get a job with the Trump administration at the time and feared that if he told FBI agents the truth, it would hurt his chances.

“Caught off-guard by an impromptu interrogation, Mr. Papadopoulos misled investigators to save his professional aspirations and preserve a perhaps misguided loyalty to his master,” the lawyers wrote.

The filing by Papadopoulos’s lawyers came a week before his scheduled sentencing by U.S. Judge Randolph Moss. Mueller’s team is seeking a sentence of up to six months in federal prison, contending in their own brief that his lies damaged the FBI investigation, costing agents the opportunity to confront Mifsud when he was in the U.S. The prosecutors also argued that even after he pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, Papadopoulos provided little “substantial” information that the FBI didn’t already have.

To rebut that contention, Papadopoulos’s lawyers provided other new details about what the former campaign adviser revealed to Mueller as part of his cooperation agreement.

One example of previously undisclosed “critical information,” the lawyers wrote, is that in late May 2016, just before Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Athens for a state visit, Papadopoulos tipped off the government of Greece to a closely held secret that could affect that year’s U.S. presidential election: that the Russian government possessed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikolaos Kotzias greets U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington, March 13, 2017. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters) More

It has previously been reported that over drinks at a London bar, also in May 2016, Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that the Kremlin had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” But the disclosure about his conversation with a senior Greek official — described in the court filing as the foreign minister, apparently a reference to Nikolaos Kotzias — is the first indication that he spread the same information to another foreign government.

Even “more significantly,” the lawyers wrote, Papadopoulos also informed the FBI about Trump’s positive reaction when he first proposed using his Russia contacts to set up a pre-election summit between the then-GOP presidential candidate and Putin.

As laid out in the court filing, Papadopoulos presented his plan to arrange the summit with Putin at a March 31, 2016, meeting in Washington of the Trump campaign’s new national security advisory team. Trump himself presided over the meeting, which included then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., now Trump’s embattled attorney general.

“Eager to show his value to the campaign, George announced at the meeting that he had connections that could facilitate a foreign policy meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin,” the lawyers wrote.

“While some in the room rebuffed George’s offer, Mr. Trump nodded with approval and deferred to Mr. Sessions, who appeared to like the idea and stated that the campaign should look into it.”

That account would appear to contradict Sessions’ testimony to Congress last year that he “pushed back” on the idea of a Trump-Putin summit and told the young adviser that he was not authorized to represent the campaign on the matter.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, Nov. 14, 2017. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images) More

But it confirms an account first revealed in “Russian Roulette” — a book written by this reporter and David Corn — that Papadopoulos believed Trump “gave him encouragement” to pursue the idea.

In fact, after the meeting with Trump and Sessions, Papadopoulos aggressively followed up on his efforts to arrange a Putin summit. He met on several occasions with Mifsud, the Kremlin-linked professor; a young woman named “Olga” who he believed (wrongly) to be Putin’s niece; and a Russia-connected think-tank director in London — all while keeping senior officials of the Trump campaign informed about his efforts.

“George’s giddiness over Mr. Trump’s recognition was prominent during the days that followed the March 31, 2016, meeting,” the lawyers wrote. “He had a sense of unbridled loyalty to the candidate and his campaign and set about trying to organize the meeting with President Putin.”

Papadopoulos apparently learned about the Kremlin file on Clinton during one of his conversations with Mifsud in London in late April, after getting what he believed was the nod of approval from Trump to set up the conference with Putin.

As previously detailed by Mueller’s prosecutors, Papadopoulos had breakfast with Mifsud at a London hotel on April 26, 2016, and first was told that the Russians “had emails of Clinton. They have thousands of emails.”

What Papadopoulos told the Trump campaign about this — if anything — remains unclear. His lawyers wrote that their client later told the FBI “he does not recall” ever passing along the information about the Clinton emails to others in the Trump campaign. (The day after the Mifsud breakfast, Papadopoulos did email campaign policy official Stephen Miller vaguely: “Have some interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip when the time is right.”)

Joseph Mifsud (Photo: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS) More

But Papadopoulos did relay the information about the Clinton emails to Alexander Downer, the top Australian diplomat to the United Kingdom, during a night of heavy drinking at the Kensington Wine Room in London.

Downer’s later report of that conversation was a critical event that triggered the FBI to open up a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election and its outreach to members of the Trump campaign.

Left unexplained in the new court filing is why Papadopoulos passed along the same information about Russian “dirt” on Clinton to the Greek foreign minister. But the fact that he did so just a few days before Putin visited that country suggests he may have been trying to spur closer ties between Moscow and Athens.

At the time, according to published reports, Putin was seeking to drive a wedge between Greece and the European Union and encourage the Greeks to support rolling back E.U. sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea. That effort had an echo in the Trump campaign’s ambivalence about continuing sanctions against Russia.

Putin’s visit apparently bore some fruit. At his meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Putin told him that Russia would “never negotiate” over its annexation of Crimea. Tsipras did not push back.

“I would like to once again emphasize that strengthening our connections with Russia is our strategic choice,” Tsipras told Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript of the meeting.