Untangling the Papadopoulos Puzzle  

It is sometimes difficult to keep track of all the things that are going in the world of Trump-Russia. Of course, the main reason for this is that the world of Trump-Russia has very little left in common with what it supposedly started off as. There is no collusion anywhere to be found but there are Manafort’s taxes, Cohen’s taxis, a few internet trolls, and of course George Papadopoulos.

I have to admit I did not take a particular interest in the Papadopoulos case until I saw Papadopoulos’ wife, Simona, on a TV show talking about his case. What struck me was how crude and unpolished her points were. I don’t mean to take anything away from Simona’s efforts, she was clearly trying to help her husband, but I realized that there was literally no one helping these two young people. It was painfully evident that she and her husband did not have an effective legal or PR strategy. In fact, in view of the recently released sentencing memo drafted by Papadopoulos’ own lawyers, whatever legal and PR strategy they might have had, they stood in direct contradiction. While Simona insisted her husband was not a coffee boy, the entire legal argument is premised on Papadopoulos having been a coffee boy who was totally out of his depth.

But still, I wondered, where was the Lanny Davis or the Michael Avenatti of this case? Why was it left to a desperate wife to try and articulate the case for her husband? It was like everyone had hung Papadopoulos out to dry.

I started looking at articles and, more importantly, the legal documents related to Papadopoulos’ case. I found a lot of things that just didn’t add up. Why would Papadopoulos, if he really had found a treasure trove that could help Trump get elected, not tell the Trump campaign about it? Instead he told Alexander Downer and Nikos Kotzias. Why? How did the authorities know that Papadopoulos lied about the date on which Papadopoulos supposedly found out about Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton? Why did Papadopoulos lie when he had an easy way out?

The more I read, the more complex everything became. For starters, I found out that the person who is supposed to have told Papadopoulos about the “dirt”, Joseph Mifsud, denies having ever told Papadopoulos about any “dirt”. The whole story turned out to be far messier than I had expected. Unfortunately, it is a mess that will likely end up with a young man going to prison, essentially because he told Downer an exaggerated story and then either did not remember a detail of his exaggeration or lied about that detail.

The following is an educated guess at what really happened. The only person who knows with certainty is Papadopoulos himself. While I am responsible for my own words and conclusions, I would like to thank Stephen McIntyre for giving me a 101 on the case and letting me bounce ideas around with him.

Untangling the Papadopoulos puzzle

On March 7, 2016, George Papadopoulos, who was living and working in London at the time, caught a very lucky break. Papadopoulos, who had worked briefly on the Ben Carson campaign, somehow managed to talk his way onto the Trump campaign. Nothing was set in stone but we know that this is the date when Papadopoulos was told that he would have a place on the campaign.

On March 14, 2016, Papadopoulos was on a trip to Rome to visit a university as part of his work for a London-based think tank, LCILP. During this visit, he met Professor Joseph Mifsud, who was associated with the university. Papadopoulos, who, by his own lawyers’ admission was very giddy about his new – yet to be announced – appointment to the Trump campaign, told Mifsud that he would be joining Trump and that the Trump campaign was keen on cultivating better relations with Russia. Upon hearing this, Mifsud took an interest in Papadopoulos.

This is one of the key moments in the whole story. Parts of the media seem to have pushed the narrative that Mifsud took an interest in Papadopoulos because he could use Papadopoulos as some sort of conduit to set up Trump-Russia collusion. This would require that Mifsud was a Russian agent of some kind and that this agent had a chance meeting on a campus that just happened to include his collaborator-to-be.

Of course, the only way this would make any sense at all is if Mifsud had found out about Papadopoulos’ appointment before March 14 and had sought him out on campus. But that could not have happened because Robert Mueller himself, via Papadopoulos’ statement of offence, states that Mifsud was not interested in Papadopoulos until Papadopoulos told him about joining Trump. By Mueller’s own admission this was a chance meeting and it was Papadopoulos who spilled the beans and got the ball rolling.

In reality then, a giddy Papadopoulos thought Mifsud might be able to help him meet people that he could use to advance his own standing in the Trump campaign. Likewise, Mifsud thought that Papadopoulos could help raise Mifsud’s profile by establishing a direct line to the Trump campaign. Papadopoulos and Mifsud entered into what they thought was a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.

Then, on March 21, 2016, Papadopoulos’ appointment was made official.

On March 24, 2016, Mifsud met Papadopoulos in London and brought along a Russian lady who Papadopoulos was given to believe was a niece of Vladimir Putin, but who was just a student with no such connections to Putin.

On March 31, 2016, Papadopoulos joined a meet-and-greet with a group of other advisors and candidate Donald Trump himself. It was at this meeting that Papadopoulos announced that, through his contacts, he could facilitate a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. This was no doubt premature and another sign of Papadopoulos trying to impress beyond his means. There are some conflicting accounts as to how the campaign reacted to Papadopoulos’ idea. It appears that some people thought it might be worth looking into, although this could have also just been polite talk or polite nodding. Whatever it was, Papadopoulos did not perceive it as a total rebuke, which is why he continued on his quest to establish Russian contacts.

As an aside, by March 2016, Trump had repeatedly and publicly said that he would like to improve relations with Russia. In fact, as far back as September 2015, there was widely publicized talk of Trump meeting Putin on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

According to Papadopoulos’ lawyers’ sentencing memo, after the meet-and-greet with Trump, Papadopoulos became even more giddy and continued pursuing his goal of setting up some sort of meeting between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. He emailed both people at the campaign, as well as the Russian lady who he thought was a niece of Putin. Also, on April 18, 2016, Mifsud, via email, introduced Papadopoulos to the convenor of a Russian think tank, someone whom Mifsud apparently knew through academic connections. Although the think tank convenor was said to have contacts at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he did not commit to anything beyond meeting Papadopoulos and, later, that Papadopoulos might be able to meet someone at the Ministry if he were to come to Moscow.

Meanwhile, Papadopoulos kept himself busy promoting, to the Trump campaign, the idea that he had important Russian contacts. For instance, on April 25, 2016, Papadopoulos emailed someone on the campaign to the effect that there was an open invitation by Putin for Trump to meet. There is no evidence that the Russian student or the think tank person ever said such a thing.

Then, on April 26, 2016, Papadopoulos met Mifsud again and Mifsud is alleged to have told Papadopoulos that Russia had obtained “dirt” in the “form of thousands of emails” on Hillary Clinton. There is a book by Roh and also an interview in an Italian newspaper in which Mifsud denies having said any of this.

What is crucial to understanding the “dirt” claim is the realization that Papadopoulos never told anyone at the Trump campaign about it. In fact, the day after the alleged Mifsud revelations, Papadopoulos emailed the Trump campaign, still talking about setting up a meeting between the campaign and Russian officials. In an email dated April 30, 2016, Papadopoulos thanked Mifsud for his help in arranging a meeting between the campaign and Russian officials. Once again, Papadopoulos was getting ahead of himself as no such meeting had been arranged.

While Papadopoulos never told anyone in the Trump campaign, he did, allegedly, tell two people about the “dirt” claim. Those two were Alexander Downer, the Australian Ambassador in London, and Nikos Kotzias, the Greek Foreign Minister. Papadopoulos allegedly told Downer at some point around May 10, 2016, and allegedly told Kotzias in late May 2016.

Why would Papadopoulos tell Downer and Kotzias but not tell anyone in the Trump campaign? This is the key to understanding this whole story.

Before I talk about what I think the answer is, we need to address the question of what the “dirt” was. According to Papadopoulos, the “dirt” was in the form of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails. There are three different batches of emails which he might have meant:

1. Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 deleted emails;
2. the hacked DNC emails; or
3. John Podesta’s spearfished emails.

The media narrative presupposes that it is the hacked DNC emails that Papadopoulos found out about. This assumption is fed by the apparent opening of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation as a result of the FBI matching up the release of the hacked DNC emails in late July 2017 with what Papadopoulos is supposed to have told Downer. But while the FBI and Downer might have assumed that Papadopoulos was talking about the DNC emails, this assumption does not match the known facts. If Mifsud had told Papadopoulos about stolen emails on April 26, 2016, he could not have meant the DNC emails because those had not yet been exfiltrated by that date. That leaves Hillary’s actual emails and Podesta’s emails. It is possible that “dirt” meant Podesta’s emails (which were obtained in March 2016), but by reference to what Papadopoulos himself told the FBI about the “dirt”, namely “the Russians have emails of Clinton” and “they have thousands of emails”, it is more likely that Papadopoulos was talking about Hillary’s actual emails. It should be noted that, in terms of his conviction for lying, it does not really matter which emails Papadopoulos was talking about.

Another important point to recall in this context is that there was a lot of speculation in the media that Russian operators had Hillary Clinton’s emails long before any of this took place. For instance, on Feb 12, 2016, Forbes ran a story that Putin might have Hillary’s deleted emails.

What then happened in May 2016, when Papadopoulos told Downer and Kotzias about the “dirt” and why did he only tell them and not the campaign? Only Papadopoulos knows for sure but the one explanation that manages to reconcile all the oddities of the case is that Mifsud did not have any insider information. Perhaps, he and Papadopoulos made idle chat about Hillary’s emails, perhaps Mifsud speculated about Russian “dirt”, as I am sure many people did at the time. But there was no magic treasure chest of emails that Mifsud knew about. If he did, Papadopoulos would have told the campaign. But why, if it was so inconsequential, did he relay it to Downer and Kotzias? The explanation that fits is that he did it in order to make himself look more important. If he had told Downer that this was a story he read in Forbes, or that it was something that he and a professor had theorized over, that would not have been very interesting. There would also be no connection to Papadopoulos himself. But Papadopoulos wanted to play with the big boys, he wanted to be the guy who seemingly pulled the strings and organized summits and so on. That is why he had to be part of the story. Telling Downer and Kotzias that he found out about the missing emails from his own source, an important source with connections to Russian authorities, would do a lot more to raise Papadopoulos’ profile than to say that it was just speculation that he had read about in Forbes. The fact that Downer spent eleven years as Australia’s Foreign Minister, and that Kotzias was and remains Foreign Minister of Greece would have made both of them fruitful contacts whom Papadopoulos no doubt wanted to both impress and cultivate. It would also explain why he didn’t tell the Trump campaign, there was nothing to tell.

This explanation renders it more or less irrelevant whether Papadopoulos and Mifsud actually talked about any “dirt”. They might have done, but, if they did, it was inconsequential talk, in the sense that no state secrets were being spilled – again, if there had been, Papadopoulos couldn’t have contained himself and would have told the campaign. Papadopoulos relayed an embellished version of what was in actual fact a mere speculative story to Downer and Kotzias. The fact that Downer provided the “dirt” information to the FBI (there are several accounts as to how exactly the information was passed along), tells us that Papadopoulos must have portrayed his source as someone very important. Downer would not have called the FBI for a story that everyone could have read in Forbes, nor for a story that amounted to mere speculation by a professor in London.

Overall, I think the explanation that makes the most sense is that Papadopoulos took known information, namely that Russia might have Hillary’s emails, and embellished it to the point where Papadopoulos himself became part of the story, specifically by having a source with Russian connections who trusted Papadopoulos sufficiently to tell him that Russia had Hillary’s emails. It might have been a half-truth in the sense that Mifsud might have bragged a bit himself but it was certainly not some bombshell revelation in the sense that Mifsud knew something that no one else knew. Again, if it had been, an overeager Papadopoulos would have told the campaign.

By the end of May, Papadopoulos had made himself a leading protagonist in the story. But things soon turned sour for Papadopoulos. First, he was rebuked by the campaign to the point where his contact person did not even deign respond to Papadopoulos directly. Also, his efforts to set up a meeting with Russian officials came to nothing, and in October 2016, he told an associate that he was no longer with the campaign.

However, after Donald Trump won the election, Papadopoulos’ hopes were raised once more, and he must have thought that he might be able to gain a position within the new administration. There were about 5000 positions to be filled, so Papadopoulos’ hope was not entirely misplaced. And, indeed, on January 27, 2017, Papadopoulos was supposed to have had an interview with someone from the Trump campaign about the possibility of taking on some position. Unfortunately for Papadopoulos, that morning, two FBI agents showed up at his mom’s house in Chicago wanting to talk to him. By January 2017, Papadopoulos had probably not thought about Downer, Mifsud and the “dirt” for a while. After all, this was just an embellished story used to elevate himself and nothing nefarious. Papadopoulos’ sentencing memo also suggests that Papadopoulos had no idea that the FBI wanted to talk about the “dirt”. Rather, he felt – and the FBI agents deceptively confirmed – that this was all about another character, Sergei Millian, an unconnected person who seems to have played no role whatsoever in Papadopoulos’ dealings with Mifsud and Downer.

But, of course, what the FBI really wanted to talk about was the “dirt”. Unbeknownst to Papadopoulos, the FBI had become aware of Papadopoulos’ conversation with Downer, which had led them to open a counterintelligence investigation back in July 2016. Papadopoulos probably had no idea whatsoever that Downer had relayed their chat at a London wine bar to anyone, let alone to the FBI. To his complete shock, Papadopoulos must have realized during the FBI interview what his embellished story had set off. His little fib had given rise to an FBI investigation. Papadopoulos must have felt like the guy who carelessly discarded a cigarette and set off the world’s biggest wildfire. He must have known he was in big trouble, even if not necessarily legal trouble. If anyone found out that Papadopoulos had gone off on a reckless showboating tour in front of the former Australian Foreign Minister, and also the current Greek Foreign Minister, surely there would be no job for Papadopoulos in the new administration. Worse still, if anyone found out that his grandstanding had inadvertently led to an FBI investigation, he would be finished beyond Trump world. No wonder then that he did not admit to showboating and instead repeated the story which he had told Downer. Better pin it all on Mifsud than be exposed as a reckless braggart.

Ironically, in the end, it was not the fib he told Downer, nor the fact that he repeated it to the FBI, that got him into trouble. It was a seemingly inconsequential statement about timing that got Papadopoulos in legal trouble. Downer had told the FBI that Papadopoulos stated he found out about the “dirt” in “late April”. In contrast, Papadopoulos told the FBI that he found out about the “dirt” “before I even got with Trump”. Since Papadopoulos was undeniably announced as an advisor on March 21, 2016, and even sat with Trump on March 31, 2016, what Papadopoulos told the FBI did not match what Downer told the FBI that Papadopoulos had said. At that point Papadopoulos’ legal fate was sealed.

For the sake of completeness we should also ask whether this was a case of poor memory? Probably not. Papadopoulos repeated his statement about finding out before joining the Trump campaign at least a dozen times during his FBI interview. If he wasn’t sure, he would not have repeated it that many times. In fact, telling it that many times suggests that it was an active attempt at misleading.

Papadopoulos probably felt that giving a wrong date was a way of minimizing the impact of having told Downer an embellished story. If the story he told Downer was not connected to Papadopoulos’ role on the campaign, then perhaps no one would bother making further inquiries. He would have read the hysteric news reports about Trump-Russia, especially after the “dossier” was published in early January 2017. That too must have weighed on his mind during the FBI interview. Perhaps he thought – since the FBI was investigating what he had told Downer – that Mifsud really was some sort of Russian spy. Perhaps, in his panic, he thought that he had been targeted in some way by Mifsud. He might have felt that, in order to save his job prospects, the best thing to do in the circumstances would be to completely separate the “dirt” story from anything to do with the campaign. That meant that the “dirt” story had to be moved back to a point in time when Papadopoulos was not yet on the campaign.

What seems fairly sure is that, a panicked Papadopoulos misled the FBI in order to insulate his campaign role from his embellishing. This was a young man who had just realized that he had inadvertently set off a massive political and legal wildfire. He could not have been thinking clearly.

Whatever his reason was for lying, Papadopoulos never had much of a chance that his hastily concocted explanation was going to fly. In reality, the FBI already knew that Papadopoulos was lying about the date. Downer had, months earlier (as evidenced in Adam Schiff’s FISA memo), given the FBI a different date. Papadopoulos probably had no idea that Downer would have remembered or reported such a seemingly minor detail. But he had, and it did not fit with Papadopoulos’ story. The argument that Downer remembering the date threw Papadopoulos off is further supported by Simona, who recently wondered whether Papadopoulos’ conversation with Downer had been recorded. It probably wasn’t but this is the sort of thing someone would ask if they were reflecting on how such a small detail could have been memorized.

To sum up, I think that Papadopoulos was never told anything about any emails or any “dirt” beyond what the media and public were speculating about already. All he knew, like everyone else, was that Russia might have Hillary’s deleted emails and might use them against her. To make himself look more important, Papadopoulos told Downer and Kotzias that he had been told the “dirt” story by a source with connections to Russia. Papadopoulos did not expect that Downer would pass the exaggerated story along to the FBI. When the FBI came to interview Papadopoulos, he realized, from the FBI’s questions, that, somehow, the “dirt” story must have come to the FBI’s attention. Papadopoulos panicked and decided that the best thing he could do was to repeat the story he had told Downer and Kotzias. The main difference between his account to the FBI and to Downer was the date on which he had allegedly been told about the “dirt”. Papadopoulos probably used a different date in order to downplay any connection between his embellished story and the Trump campaign. Chances are that Papadopoulos did not think that giving a different date was going to be a problem. It was just a minor detail and it was unlikely that Downer would have remembered it.

Telling the FBI the wrong date is what Papadopoulos was convicted of when he signed the plea. Technically, he also pleaded guilty to falsely telling the FBI that his communications with Mifsud and the Russian student were inconsequential but I don’t think Mueller could have proved that in Court. In fact, the evidence suggests that they were, in fact, inconsequential. This part was just something that Mueller put in the plea deal to spice it up (similar to what happened in the Michael Cohen case). Thus, we are effectively left with the one charge of lying about a date, a charge that is likely provable in Court. There is no doubt that Papadopoulos gave different dates and that he likely did so on purpose. Thus, legally, this is a fairly safe conviction.

Ironically, when all is said and done, the exact date makes little difference to the overall picture for the FBI as both dates would have suggested that Mifsud knew something that may not yet have been in the public domain.

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