WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump “didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no” to a campaign adviser’s suggestion last year that he meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a CNN report citing an unnamed official who was in the room at the time.
Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos made the suggestion at a March 31, 2016 meeting of Trump’s national security team, according to a federal indictment unsealed on Monday. However, CNN’s sources say that now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was leading the national security advisory council at the time, rejected Papadopoulos’ proposal.
Monday’s indictment, part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, revealed that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last month to lying to the FBI about being offered “dirt” from the Russian government on Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton. He is now cooperating with Mueller’s probe.
According to the indictment, Papadopoulos said he’d told other members of the national security team that he “had connections that could help arrange a meeting” with Putin.
The White House and the Department of Justice did not immediately return requests for comment about the interaction.
Papadopoulos’ revelations provide the clearest evidence so far of a possible link between Trump’s campaign and efforts by the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.
When reporters asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about Papadopoulos on Monday, she dismissed the March 2016 meeting as “brief.”
“I’m not sure that the president recalls specific details of the meeting,” she said.
On Wednesday, CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Sanders whether Trump recalled Papadopoulos raising the idea of meeting with Putin during that meeting.
“No, I don’t believe he does,” she said.
The White House and Trump allies have spent much of the week trying to distance the president from Papadopoulos, as well as Mueller’s investigation, by downplaying the former adviser’s role in the campaign.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Trump called Papadopoulos a “young, low level volunteer,” whom he claimed “few people knew.” But last year, Trump had praised him as “an excellent guy” when naming him to his national security team.
When reporters asked Sanders on Monday about a photo from the March 31 meeting that shows Papadopoulos at a table with Trump and Sessions, she minimized it by saying that “the president has thousands of photographs with millions of people.”
On Tuesday, former Trump adviser Michael Caputo reduced Papadopoulos’ role to just “a coffee boy” for the campaign.
The details of Papadopoulos’ indictment also raise more questions about what Sessions knew of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia, since he led the council Papadopoulos was part of. Sessions concealed several meetings with Russian officials and has recused himself from matters involving the multiple investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.