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.)