A former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, has secretly pleaded guilty as part of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Papadopoulos was arrested in July and pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI about his contact with a Russian professor with ties to Kremlin officials, prosecutors said on Tuesday. The case was only made public on Tuesday.
The case is not directly related to the explosive charging of campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates on Monday. However, both cases arose out of the investigation launched in May by Mueller to investigate whether anyone close to Trump participated in a Russian government effort to influence last year's presidential election.
Papadopoulos, who had suggested that Donald Trump meet with top Russian leaders during the campaign, is now cooperating with Mueller's probe, and his indictment lists an unidentified campaign supervisor who also was aware of contacts with the Russians.
His plea represents the most explicit evidence connecting the Trump campaign to the Russian government's election meddling. However, the White House responded on Tuesday to say Papadopoulos was a volunteer who had little influence.
In a case summary made public on Tuesday, prosecutors describe how Papadopoulos held himself out to be a conduit between the Trump campaign and high-level Russian officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos was one of five foreign policy advisers to the Trump campaign.
The unidentified professor made contact with Papadopoulos in 2016, claiming to have "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails" and saying he had substantial connections to Russian government officials.
Papadopoulos met with the professor in London around March 21, 2016, prosecutors said. The professor brought with him a "female Russian national" introduced to Papadopoulos as a relative of Putin.
Ten days later, the indictment said, Papadopoulos attended a "national security meeting" that included Trump. When introduced at the meeting, Papadopoulos said he had connections he could use to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin, it said.
The unnamed female Russian national began communicating with Papadopoulos after the meeting.
"As mentioned we are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump," she wrote in an April 2016 email disclosed by prosecutors. "The Russian Federation would love to welcome him once his candidature would be officially announced."
Also around that time, prosecutors said, Papadopoulos emailed a high-ranking official of the Trump campaign "to discuss Russia's interest in hosting Mr. Trump. Have been receiving a lot of calls over the last month about Putin wanting to host him and the team when the time is right".
Days later, Papadopoulos thanked the professor for his "critical help" in arranging a meeting between campaign aides and the Russian government, saying, "It's history making if it happens," according to prosecutors.
The indictment reveals that one of Papadopoulos' emails to a Trump campaign official was forwarded to another campaign official with a message that "DT is not doing these trips".
"It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal," the official, unnamed in the indictment but previously identified by the Washington Post as Manafort, wrote.
Wow. Read this section of the Papadopoulos charge, including the footnote. Someone "low level" has to visit Russia as to not send a signal. pic.twitter.com/Qz2c1zNQ6Y??? Renato Mariotti (@renato_mariotti) October 30, 2017
???Papadopoulos has admitted that in a January interview with the FBI he lied about his contacts with the Russian professor and told authorities that the conversation occurred before he became an adviser to Trump's campaign. In fact, he met the professor days after joining the campaign as a foreign policy adviser.
He was hired by the Trump campaign in March 2016 to help with foreign policy issues.
His attorney released a statement on Tuesday saying a comment would be made at a more appropriate stage.
"We look forward to telling all of the details of George's story at the time," the attorney said in a statement.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded on Tuesday to say that Papadopoulos played little role in Trump's campaign and his attempts to set up meetings were "repeatedly rejected".
"[His role] was extremely limited, it was a volunteer position and... no activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign," she said.
"He asked to do things, he was basically pushed back and not responded to in any way."
Donald Trump has not responded however his son, Donald Trump Jr, retweeted a tweet by right-wing commentator John Cardillo that said: "Papadopoulos was an unpaid foreign policy campaign adviser who stupidly lied to the FBI. He wanted Trump to meet Putin, Trump Team said no."
Investigations into Russian links with the Trump campaign, including Mueller's and probes by several congressional panels, have dogged Trump's presidency since the Republican took office in January. Trump has denied any allegations of collusion with the Russians and called the probes "a witch hunt." The Kremlin also has denied the allegations.
US intelligence agencies concluded earlier this year that Moscow interfered in the campaign, including by hacking into and releasing Democratic emails in order to try to embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Bloomberg, Washington Post, New York Times