Andrew C. McCarthy:
As related in my earlier column on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Paul Manafort and an associate, today on balance is a good day for the Trump administration. Of course, you never want to see your former campaign chairman get charged with crimes. Nevertheless, after all these months of investigation, the much-anticipated Manafort charges turned out to be unrelated to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, let alone to any purported Trump-campaign collusion therein.
On that collusion question, today’s other development in Mueller’s investigation seems more relevant. As David French and Dan McLaughlin detail, the special counsel announced the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos — which apparently happened on or about October 5 — to a single count of making false statements to government investigators. As Rich Lowryobserves, Papadopoulos was a low-level Trump-campaign adviser. He had contacts with Russians who claimed to have close connections to the Putin regime.
As outlined in a 14-page “Statement of the Offense,” Papadopoulos’s principal offense was to lie to the FBI about when these contacts occurred. He told the FBI they happened before he joined the campaign; in fact, they happened not only after he was aboard but only because he was aboard. Upon close examination, the story unfolded in the offense statement is actually exculpatory of Trump and his campaign. To understand why, we need to revisit the term “collusion.”
First, some background.
Papadopoulos is a climber who was clearly trying to push his way into Trump World. We recall that much of the Republican foreign-policy clerisy shunned Trump during the campaign. Thus did comparatively obscure people like Carter Page get seats at the table. George Papadopoulos was another of these: a 30-year-old who graduated from DePaul in 2009, later got an M.A. from the London School of Economics, and worked at the Hudson Institute for about four years.
While living in London in early March 2016, he spoke with an unidentified Trump-campaign official and learned he would be designated a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign. These arrangements are very loose. Papadopoulos was a fringe figure, not plugged into Trump’s inner circle.
In London, Papadopoulos met an unidentified Russian academic (referred to as “the Professor”), who claimed to have significant ties to Putin-regime officials and who took an interest in Papadopoulos only because he boasted of having Trump-campaign connections. There appears to be no small amount of puffery on all sides: Papadopoulos suggesting to the Russians that he could make a Trump meeting with Putin happen, and suggesting to the campaign that he could make a Putin meeting with Trump happen; the Professor putting Papadopoulos in touch with a woman who Papadopoulos was led to believe was Putin’s niece (she apparently is not); and lots and lots of talk about potential high- and low-level meetings between Trump-campaign and Putin-regime officials that never actually came to pass.
In the most important meeting, in London on April 26, 2016, the Professor told Papadopoulos that he (the Prof) had just learned that top Russian-government officials had obtained “dirt” on then-putative Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The dirt is said to include “thousands of emails” — “emails of Clinton.” The suggestion, of course, was that the Russians were keen to give this information to the Trump campaign.
This may raise the hopes of the “collusion with Russia” enthusiasts. But there are two problems here.
First, Papadopoulos was given enough misinformation that we can’t be confident (at least from what Mueller has revealed here) that the Professor was telling Papadopoulos the truth. Remember, by April 2016, it had been known for over a year that Hillary Clinton had used a private email system for public business and had tried to delete and destroy tens of thousands of emails. The Russians could well have been making up a story around that public reporting in order further to cultivate the relationship with Papadopoulos (whom they appear to have seen as potentially useful). Note that the Professor suggested the Russians had Clinton’s own emails. But the emails we know were hacked were not Clinton’s — they were the DNC’s and John Podesta’s (Hillary is on almost none of them). So, Papadopoulos’s Russian interlocutors could well have been weaving a tale based on what had been reported, rather than on what was actually hacked and ultimately released by WikiLeaks.
Second, and more significant: If the proof, at best, implies that the Russians acquired thousands of Clinton emails and then had to inform a tangential Trump campaign figure of this fact so he could pass it along to the campaign, that would mean Trump and his campaign had nothing to do with the acquisition of the emails.
As observed above, this brings us back to the meaning of “collusion.” I’ve long argued that this term has been used by Trump’s accusers because they don’t have proof of criminal collusion. The term “collusion” can have a dark connotation, but it really only means some kind of concerted activity — not necessarily illegal. Prosecutors don’t care about collusion; they care about conspiracy — an agreement by two or more people to commit a violation of a criminal statute. That is, even if there is some concerted activity, collusion is not a crime unless the Trump campaign conspired with the Putin regime to do something federal law makes a crime — for example, to hack communications systems.
If Trump officials and associates did not do this, then their activities may be unsavory, but they are not criminal. It is a disgraceful thing for an American political candidate to seek damaging information about his or her opponent from a despicable, anti-American regime. But it is not illegal. A criminal investigation is about proving crimes, not revealing dirty politics.
To put it another way: Notice that Mueller did not make Papadopoulos plead guilty to collusion with Russia. For a prosecutor, there is nothing better than getting a cooperating accomplice to admit guilt to the scheme the prosecutor is investigating. It goes a long way toward proving that the scheme existed. Once you’ve got that, it’s much easier to prove that the cooperator’s confederates are guilty, too. But even though there’s a great deal of evidence that Papadopoulos colluded with Russia, there’s no charge along those lines. There’s just a single false-statement charge on which, according to the plea agreement, he’s probably looking at no jail time, and certainly no more than six months. Why no collusion charge? Because collusion is not a crime.
Thus, I think the Papadopoulos guilty plea helps Trump in two ways.
First, when did “making false statements to government investigators” become illegal? It certainly wasn’t in 2015-2016, when Hillary and her gang were being questioned.
Trump made the joke that maybe the Russians can find Hillary’s “lost” emails. Perhaps he had been told the Russians had them but, obviously, did not pursue getting access to them himself.
Again, the left will not be in any hurry to get into the details and resolve the case. They merely want the appearance of guilt by association despite the fact that the more information that comes out, the further from “collusion” Trump is shown… PROVEN… to be.