Where Special Counsel Robert Mueller Could Take His Investigation Next

Oct 31, 2017
Originally published on October 31, 2017 10:12 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A day after the first criminal charges in the Russia probe, the name George Papadopoulos is only getting more attention. Investigators say he told members of the Trump campaign about his contacts with Russians last year. Papadopoulos was a foreign policy adviser for the campaign and pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. President Trump tweeted this morning that, quote, "few people knew the young, low-level volunteer named George who has already proven to be a liar. Check the Dems."

For more, we turn to NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, who's following this story. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The special counsel is not talking. But what do the documents in the case so far tell us about the significance of that guilty plea?

JOHNSON: George Papadopoulos is important not just because he pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. But also, remember; according to the special counsel, he found out months before the rest of the world that the Russians had thousands of emails, dirt on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump's opponent last year. Court papers in the Papadopoulos case mention his communications with a high-ranking Trump official, a campaign supervisor and another person Papadopoulos apparently notified about his efforts to make connections with people in Russia.

SHAPIRO: So there are those phrases high-ranking campaign official, supervisor - not names. And of course no one else has been publicly charged with crimes related to the contacts with Russia. But do we know who else in or outside of the campaign was aware of these activities by Papadopoulos?

JOHNSON: Yeah. We've been able to piece together using emails, information provided to congressional committees and other sources who those people are in the documents. One of those people was campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was of course indicted yesterday on conspiracy and other charges. Manafort's pleaded not guilty. His lawyer says there was no collusion with Russia. But there are other names surfacing in connection with Papadopoulos, too, people like former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski appeared on NBC's "Today" show. He was asked about whether he received emails from Papadopoulos. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

COREY LEWANDOWSKI: Well, you're asking me to remember an email from April of 2016 on a day that I - at any given day I would have received a thousand emails. And this would have potentially come from a low-level volunteer. So I don't remember the exact email, so I don't know if I'm that person or not. And I can't speak to who is that - who is named in that particular incident.

JOHNSON: Lewandowski went on to say he hasn't been contacted yet by the FBI, but he'll cooperate because his actions were, quote, "fully above-board and legal."

SHAPIRO: Another name that has come up is Sam Clovis. He's the Trump adviser who put together a national security committee during the campaign. What have you learned about what is happening with him?

JOHNSON: A lawyer for Sam Clovis says he had limited contact with George Papadopoulos. She thinks just one meeting. The lawyer says Clovis never told Papadopoulos improving relations with Russia was a top foreign policy goal of the campaign. And she says Clovis opposed any Russia trip for Trump or his staff members last year.

The lawyer says Clovis has not been in touch with Papadopoulos since before the election, and that matters, Ari, because next week, the Senate Agriculture Committee is holding a confirmation hearing for Sam Clovis. He's been nominated to serve as the department's top scientist.

SHAPIRO: Now, as we've said, the White House is distancing itself from Papadopoulos. I read that tweet earlier from President Trump where he wrote that Papadopoulos is a liar, that he was just a low-level volunteer. How significant a role did he play in the campaign?

JOHNSON: Well, Papadopoulos was a volunteer, but so were a lot of other people at high levels in the Trump campaign. Remember; Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman, never took a salary. We do know George Papadopoulos attended an important foreign policy meeting in March 2016. He was pictured sitting at the table with candidate Donald Trump, now the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and several other luminaries. And in his plea filing, Papadopoulos said he told Trump and other officials during that meeting that he'd made contact with intermediaries for Russia who said they could set up a meeting between Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin if they wanted.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks a lot.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.