Steve Bannon dismissed him as a “nobody.” Former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo branded him a “coffee boy.” Donald Trump, unwilling to waste precious characters spelling out the man’s many-syllabled last name, referred to him in a tweet as “the young, low-level volunteer named George, who has already proven himself to be a liar.”
Although Trump should not ordinarily be trusted when it comes to evaluating his roster of close associates — his intermittent efforts to belittle relationships with Bannon, his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Russian-American businessman Felix Sater have been laughable — there’s not much reason to disbelieve him here. George Papadopoulos, once a foreign policy adviser to the president, is indeed a nobody. But this is the entire point of Papadopoulos, who this week pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russia during the presidential campaign: His marginality is the very thing that made him useful to the campaign, alluring to Moscow, and invaluable to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Richard Nixon, after all, did not send his chief of staff to break into the Democratic National Committee. He sent a team of hapless idiots.
Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old DePaul University grad with a bad complexion and inflated credentials, started off as an intern and then junior employee at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. In December 2015, he became a foreign policy advisor for Ben Carson’s fake presidential campaign before becoming an advisor for Donald Trump’s campaign in March 2016. His lack of experience, though, did not prevent the Trump campaign from encouraging him to travel to Russia. Indeed, his nobody-ness seems to have been a feature, not a bug.
The most intriguing line from Monday’s dump of legal documents — more interesting even than the million-dollar line-item for Paul Manafort’s collection of oriental carpets—comes in a footnote on page eight of the “Statement of the Offense” of Papadopoulos’s guilty plea for lying to investigators. Papadopoulos had emailed “a high-ranking campaign official” with the urgent, if ungrammatical, message that “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime and have been reaching out to me to discuss.” The high-ranking campaign official, according to an August account in The Washington Post, was Paul Manafort. Manafort forwarded Papadopoulos’s message to yet another campaign official with the note, “Lets discuss. We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
That he’s a nobody is the entire point of Papadopoulos.
The meaning of that footnote is a matter of debate. The August piece in the Post, which seemed to rely on sources angling to downplay the collusion storyline, suggested that Manafort meant that a low-level official should be designated to rebuff Moscow’s request. Many commentators in the last 24 hours have picked up that interpretation, arguing that Manafort wanted to avoid sending a strong negative signal to Moscow, which could have damaged the campaign’s relationship with Russia. The New York Times, though, interpreted the line differently in a piece from Monday: Manafort was saying that a low-level official should take the trip instead of Trump to avoid sending a signal to other parties, presumably the media and/or the intelligence community, about collusion. The legal document prepared by Mueller’s office doesn’t interpret the line one way or the other. In any event, Papadopoulos then received a note of encouragement from Sam Clovis, co-chairman of the campaign, to travel to Moscow, “if it’s feasible.” The trip never happened, but the mere suggestion to Moscow that it might happen likely sent a signal all by itself: whatever Russia was offering, the answer, at worst, was “definitely maybe.”
The Russians seem to have had some success cultivating Papadopoulos as an asset. Mueller appears to have had far more. On July 27, federal agents secretly arrested Papadopoulos after his plane landed at Dulles Airport. He’s been “proactively cooperating” ever since, which has led many to speculate that he might have had further conversations with Trump campaign officials while wearing a wire.
Whether Papadopoulos’s cooperation with investigators has led to any evidentiary breakthroughs, though, is almost beside the point. There is already enough in the public record to bring charges against the president for obstruction of justice and against numerous campaign officials for violations of the Logan Act, which prohibits ordinary citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. The hurdles to Mueller’s investigation are not evidentiary, they’re political: at any moment, Trump could dissolve the investigation, either by firing Mueller or by issuing blanket pardons. By necessity, then, Mueller’s task is not simply to build a case — he also needs to choreograph public gestures to mitigate political risk. Viewed through that lens, Papadopoulos’s guilty plea, combined with the indictments of Manafort and Gates, have already played a crucial role, not only in framing Mueller’s investigation, but also in protecting it from White House interference.
As a feat of dramatic timing, Monday’s events compel us to admire Mueller’s artistry. At 8 a.m. EST, smartphones lit up with the news that Manafort and Gates were being indicted. Fifteen minutes later, Trump, reportedly holed up in the White House residence since before dawn yelling at the T.V., watched helplessly as Manafort surrendered to authorities. When the actual text of the indictment was unsealed 45 minutes later, though, the initial reaction in the West Wing was relief: Manafort had been arrested for money-laundering. No mention was made of Donald Trump or the 2016 campaign. A bullet had been dodged, it seemed, and soon enough Trump shot off a series of triumphal tweets. (One in particular is likely to be remembered: “....Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”) Within minutes of Trump’s digital victory lap, though, news broke that Mueller had already secured a guilty plea from Papadopoulos — and that young Greek-American had been cooperating with the investigation for months.
Trump is now in an impossible position. To pardon Manafort for money-laundering that occurred years before the campaign would be preposterous. But to pardon only Papadopoulos, a figure of no consequence, would be equally bizarre. If Mueller had come on stronger, issuing indictments that directly threatened the president, Trump would almost certainly have been provoked into a dramatic step such as firing Mueller or picking up the pardon pen. If Mueller had vacillated, targeting only Manafort’s financial crimes, he would have made himself vulnerable to Trump’s argument that the investigation was a fishing expedition that didn’t serve the public interest. By ingeniously combining the two moves, though, Mueller has increased the odds that the investigation will survive through the midterms and eventually lead to impeachment under a Democratic Congress. As of now, Trump hasn’t been directly targeted: Ty Cobb, his chief lawyer, can continue to plausibly argue that the White House should cooperate with Mueller because he’s unlikely to snare Trump himself. On the other hand, the “fake news” storyline is now defanged, and if Trump fires Mueller, it will register to the public as a lawless gesture of self-preservation.
Mueller’s task is not simply to build a case — he also needs to choreograph public gestures to mitigate political risk.
Legal timelines are famously open-ended, often spiraling over years. Political timelines, though, are less flexible.The reality is that Trump is running out of time. If Mueller’s investigation lasts until next year — an election year — it will become harder to squash. As time goes on, Republicans will face increasing pressure to protect the investigation from White House interference for fear of being punished in the midterms. Blowing up the investigation now presents risks of its own, especially considering Trump is already on the record saying it’s no big deal.
Many have assumed that as Mueller closes in, Trump will inevitably fire him. I wouldn’t be so sure. With each passing day, the stakes get higher and higher, and getting rid of Mueller gets harder and harder. For much of his life, Trump has been lucky in his opponents. So far, however, when it comes to the biggest game of his life, he’s facing a skillful enemy and drawing a poor hand.