In liberal circles, there seems to be little doubt that the first indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller have resolved the issue at the heart of Russiagate. “What we already know about the Trump-Russia scandal should be enough to destroy a presidency,” concludes New York’s Eric Levitz. Ezra Klein of Vox declares it is now “almost impossible to believe that there wasn’t collusion between Trump’s operation and Russia.” The Trump campaign waged a “conspiracy against our democracy” and acted as “a vehicle for Russian subversion,” writes Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times. “[T]he question is no longer whether there was cooperation between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but how extensive it was.”
The main impetus for this certitude comes not from the case against Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort and former business partner Rick Gates. The tax-fraud, money-laundering, and conspiracy charges against them have no direct connection to Russia or the 2016 campaign. Instead, it comes from the plea agreement of former Trump foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who has admitted to lying to investigators about his contacts with foreign nationals said to be tied to Russia.
It is true that Papadopoulos’s plea document details the most tangible link known to date between Trump’s election team and the alleged Russian interference campaign. Papadopoulos affirms that an “overseas professor” whom he “understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials…told him about the Russians possessing ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of ‘thousands of emails.’” Papadopoulos says he was told this in April 2016, weeks after the hacking of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s e-mail account and months after the targeting of the Democratic National Committee began.
We also learn that at his only known encounter with Trump—a March 2016 meeting in Washington, DC, along with other aides—Papadopoulos informed the group that “he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.” Papadopoulos followed up with multiple e-mails to Trump campaign officials and his overseas intermediaries—the professor, and two others he says the professor introduced him to. In a footnote, Mueller adds that a “high-ranking Campaign official” weighed the move, but instead of sending to Trump to Moscow, ultimately advised that “it should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
In the end, there was no meeting. But, taken together, these disclosures mark the first time we see a Trump official being informed that the Russian government was in possession of stolen Hillary Clinton e-mails per se. Papadopoulos’s sworn declaration raises the question—without answering it—of whether he shared this information with the rest of the campaign.
But before we move up the impeachment clock, caution is warranted. Let’s assume for a moment that Papadopoulos is being truthful that the “thousands” of Clinton e-mails allegedly in Russia’s possession were revealed to him by a “professor,” unnamed in the indictment but since publicly identified as Joseph Mifsud of the London Academy of Diplomacy. The indictment does not say that Mifsud is a Russian operative—it only cites Papadopoulos’s account that he “claimed to have substantial connections with Russian government officials.” (Emphasis added.)
Perhaps Mifsud does have the “substantial connections,” he allegedly claimed, and did also tell Papadopoulos about the e-mails. For his part, Mifsud has rejected Papadopoulos’s story except for confirming that they met. Mifsud also denies links to the Russian government, saying his Russia ties are strictly academic. But if he is lying, and is a Kremlin cutout, consider how he would have been outed: According to The Washington Post, Papadopoulos identified Mifsud in an e-mail that “was among more than 20,000 pages that the Trump campaign turned over to congressional committees after review by White House and defense lawyers.” In other words, if the Trump campaign was made aware that the Russians had Clinton’s e-mails, then they willingly provided the US government with information to identify their intermediary’s Kremlin source.
What we do know is that Papadopoulos has a record of embellishing his credentials. And more importantly, we already know that he reported false claims to the campaign about his contacts as he tried to position himself as the middleman to Moscow. He transmitted one of the false claims knowingly: Papadopoulos e-mailed his superiors that he had met with the Russian ambassador in London, which prosecutors say never happened. He also told them he had been introduced to a “Female Russian National” identified as “Putin’s niece,” who turns out to have no relations to Putin. Whoever the “Female” is, we are told she was also “introduced” as someone “with connections to senior Russian government officials.” We learn as well that the professor then connected Papadopoulos to a person who “told [Papadopoulos] he had connections to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
No other person claiming ties to the Russian government enters the picture. The special counsel offers no determination on whether any of these people actually have the deep Kremlin ties that they allegedly claimed. In short, the indictment’s claims about the alleged Russian-tied figures aren’t even based on what prosecutors claim to believe about them, but on what Papadopoulos says he was informed. All we know about them is Papadopoulos’s description of who he was “told” they were, who they were “introduced” as, or who they “claimed” to be.
It is possible that all of Papadopoulos’s claims will prove to be true. If they are, investigators will hopefully determine not just what the Trump campaign knew but what the Russian government had on offer. Both sides—the Clinton camp funding the Steele dossier and meeting with Ukrainian officials, the Trump camp taking a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer promising incriminating information on Clinton—have shown their willingness to accept “oppo” from abroad. But trafficking in stolen e-mails would raise the bar.
It is also possible Papadopoulos is lying, or was misled. If the latter, he would be far from alone. As I wrote for The Nation in October, the Russiagate controversy is short on concrete evidence and suffused with innuendo, supposition, and unverified—or even demonstrably false—claims. Mueller may end up reversing that trend, but at this point in his probe, it appears that not much has changed.