WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump "nodded with approval" at the suggestion of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a court filing that seeks leniency for a former campaign aide who lied to the FBI.
Lawyers for George Papadopoulos are seeking probation, saying the foreign policy adviser misled agents during a January 2017 interview not to harm an investigation but rather to "save his professional aspirations and preserve a perhaps misguided loyalty to his master."
Papadopoulos is a pivotal figure in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation as the first Trump campaign aide to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors. The revelation that he'd been told by a professor during the campaign that Russia had "dirt" on Democrat Hillary Clinton in the form of emails helped trigger the FBI's counterintelligence investigation in July 2016 into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The 16-page defense memo filed late Friday paints Papadopoulos as an eager-to-please campaign aide who was in over his head, and aims to counter the prosecution's narrative that Papadopoulos's deception irreparably damaged the investigation.
The defense lawyers say Papadopoulos was hired by the campaign in March 2016 despite having no experience with Russian or U.S. diplomacy. That month, he traveled to Italy and connected with a London-based professor who introduced him to a woman described as a niece of Putin's even though that was not true. That professor, Joseph Mifsud, would later tell him that individuals in Moscow possessed "dirt" on Clinton.
When Papadopoulos returned to Washington, he was "eager to show his value to the campaign" and "witnessed his career skyrocketing to unimaginable heights." At a March 31 meeting of Trump's national security adviser, Papadopoulos proposed that he could leverage his newfound Russian connections to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.
"While some in the room rebuffed George's offer, Mr. Trump nodded with approval and deferred to Mr. Sessions who appeared to like the idea and stated that the campaign should look into it," defense lawyers wrote. That language is a reference to Jeff Sessions, who at the time was a Republican senator from Alabama and key campaign aide and later became the Trump administration's attorney general.
Sessions, however, told the House Judiciary Committee last November that he resisted the idea of any Russia meeting.
"I pushed back at his trip and I was concerned that he not go off somewhere, pretending to represent the Trump campaign," Sessions told lawmakers. "He had no authority for that."
The inclusion of details about that meeting by defense lawyers seems intended to show that Papadopoulos provided the Mueller team with valuable insight about Trump campaign operations, even though prosecutors have said in their own sentencing memo that he did not provide "substantial assistance to them."
One morning in January 2017, two FBI agents knocked on the door of Papadopoulos's mother's home seeking to interview him. He agreed to accompany them to their office thinking they wanted to ask him about a Russian businessman, Sergei Millian, but soon the questions shifted to Russian influence in the election — and Papadopoulos was "surprised" and caught "off guard," the defense lawyers wrote.
Defense lawyers acknowledge that Papadopoulos "lied, minimized, and omitted material facts" to the FBI about his foreign contacts, including about when he had learned from Mifsud that the Russians had dirt on Clinton.
"Out of loyalty to the new president and his desire to be part of the administration, he hoisted himself upon his own petard," they wrote.
But they rejected the idea that those lies impeded the investigation, calling that argument by prosecutors speculative.
Papadopoulos was arrested on July 27, 2017 and began cooperating with federal investigators. He participated in four proffer sessions with prosecutors and provided important information, including a description of the March 2016 meeting at which he proposed to arrange a meeting with Putin "and the reactions of the people in the room."
"George Papadopoulos is now a convicted felon," the lawyers wrote. "When it came time to make a good decision he made a bad one. His arrest and prosecution served as notice to all involved that this was a serious investigation. He was the first domino, and many have fallen in behind. Despite the gravity of his offense, it is important to remember what Special Counsel said at George's plea of guilty: he was just a small part of a large-scale investigation."