WASHINGTON — The White House today downplayed the campaign importance of a foreign policy advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about the nature and timing of his contacts with Russians regarding a meeting with Donald Trump and negative information on Hillary Clinton.
The Oct. 5 guilty plea from George Papadopoulos was unsealed on the same day as indictments against former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his aide Rick Gates were unsealed, and the pair surrendered to the FBI. Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty today to a 12-count indictment including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA statements, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.
Papadopoulos was charged to have lied on Jan. 27 to D.C. FBI agents in their investigation “about the timing, extent, and nature of his relationships and interactions with certain foreign nationals whom he understood to have close connections with senior Russian government officials.” He was arrested July 27 at Dulles airport.
The 30-year-old aide from Chicago, a former research fellow at the Hudson Institute with a focus on international energy issues, advised Ben Carson’s presidential campaign for a few months before joining the Trump camp in May 2016. After Inauguration Day, he became an oil and gas policy consultant. “President Trump recommendation about me: ‘George is an oil and gas consultant; excellent guy,'” he states on his LinkedIn bio.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters this afternoon that the Manafort/Gates charges and Papadopoulos’ perjury plea don’t “have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign’s activities.”
“It was extremely limited. It was a volunteer position. And again, no activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign,” she said of his Russia contacts. “He reached out and nothing happened beyond that. Which I think shows, one, his level of importance in the campaign; and two, shows what little role he had within coordinating anything officially for the campaign.”
Sanders said the administration expects Mueller’s investigation “to conclude soon.” She said she hadn’t discussed potential presidential pardons of any of the individuals named today and “we should let the process play through before we start looking at those steps.”
Pressed on whether Papadopoulos was directed or encouraged to reach out to Russia — the court filing in the case cites emails with the campaign supervisor in which the aide was praised for his work on trying to set up a high-level Russia meeting — Sanders replied, “I’m telling you that he was a volunteer member of an advisory council that literally met one time.”
Sanders said Trump responded to today’s news “the same way the rest of us in the White House have, and that’s without a lot of reaction because it doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
“These were seasoned operatives that worked on a number of campaigns,” she said of Manafort and Gates; the latter stayed on Trump’s presidential campaign after Manafort left. “Paul Manafort was brought in to lead the delegate process, which he did. And was dismissed not too long after that.”
Manafort relinquished his passport and is now under house arrest; his bail was set at $10 million. Gates’ bail was set at $5 million.
Before the Papadopoulos news broke this moring, President Trump tweeted: “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus????? ….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said at a manufacturing event in his home state today that “it is big news, but this is what you get from a special counsel.”
“They made an indictment. I really have nothing to add because I haven’t even read it, so I’m not going to speculate on something I haven’t read,” Ryan said.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) tweeted, “Months ago I & many other Republicans vowed to support Mueller investigation & allow it to work its way through process to get the facts. In light of today’s indictments we must continue to support and allow the integrity of the process to work.”
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) needled the accused on Twitter: “Dear Paul Manafort & Richard Gates: Here’s a fun fact for you. Federal prosecutors have a conviction rate of 93%. Thank you Special Counsel Mueller for draining the Swamp. #MAGA”
Citing a tweet noting that they face 10-15 years in prison on current charges, Lieu added, “If you were Manafort and Gates, would you flip and tattle?”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the indictments “show that the special counsel’s probe is ongoing in a very serious way — the rule of law is paramount in America and the investigation must be allowed to proceed unimpeded.”
“The president must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel’s work in any way,” Schumer added. “If he does so, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues.”
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow told CNN today that Trump “is not interfering with special counsel Mueller’s position; he’s not firing the special counsel.”