Forget Manafort -- The Big News Is The Papadopoulos Plea Deal

The extent of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia may remain unknown, but the existence of collusion is no longer in doubt.
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Monday was a busy day in Trumpworld. The news that Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had been indicted for conspiracy and money laundering received the most media attention.

While the charges against Manafort are both serious and potentially significant to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s larger inquiry into Russian interference with the 2016 election, they are not directly related to his activities as Trump’s campaign manager, and they involve Russia only peripherally.

Not so the plea agreement, made public on Monday, entered by former Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos.

Unlike the Manafort indictment, the Papadopoulos guilty plea goes directly to the heart of the charge of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Indeed, it establishes conclusively that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian representatives, although it remains unclear exactly which Trump campaign officials were involved. Remember that, unlike the charges against Manafort, which are likely to be contested, the charges against Papadopoulos have been admitted and stand as proven facts.

“Unlike the Manafort indictment, the Papadopoulos guilty plea goes directly to the heart of the charge of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.”

The key fact established by the plea agreement is that in his capacity as a Trump campaign advisor, Papadopoulos was informed by Russian contacts that the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” Papadopoulos discussed the Clinton dirt with his Russian contacts on multiple occasions, and attempted to set up meetings between his contacts and high-ranking officials of the Trump campaign.

There are significant gaps in the information contained in the indictment. For instance, the indictment doesn’t say whether Papadopoulos communicated about Russia’s Clinton dirt up the campaign hierarchy and, if so, how high.

Given his persistent efforts to introduce his contacts to campaign higher-ups, it is hard to believe that he didn’t. And the absence of information about that subject in the indictment doesn’t suggest that it didn’t happen. Prosecutors may have omitted the information because they didn’t believe it to be germane to the narrow subject of the indictment, Papadopoulos’ lying to the FBI, or they may have kept silent for tactical reasons.

So while the extent of the Trump campaign’s connection to Russia’s efforts to use stolen emails to interfere with the 2016 election remains unknown, the existence of it is no longer in doubt.

And there is likely to be much more of this story to come.

The letter agreement between Papadopoulos and the Special Counsel provides for an estimated sentencing guideline of “zero months to six months’ imprisonment.” The government doesn’t take lying to the FBI lightly, and it is unlikely that it would hold out the possibility of no jail time without getting something valuable in return.

Indeed, it appears that Papadopoulos has been cooperating with the Special Counsel’s investigation since he was quietly arrested in July. The plea agreement letter makes it clear that the severity of his sentence will depend on the degree of his cooperation. It states expressly that the government “agrees to bring to the Court’s attention at sentencing the defendant’s efforts to cooperate with the Government, on the condition that your client continues to respond and provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant.”

In addition to incentivizing Papadopoulos to sing, the plea deal sends an unmistakable message to other witnesses: If you tell us the truth about everything you know, we’ll give you a break. If you don’t, we’ll put you away for a long time.

All in all, a good day for the truth.

Follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner. Philip is an engaged citizen and a columnist who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.

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