Since special counsel Robert Mueller unsealed two indictments and a guilty plea against three Trump campaign advisers on Monday, the White House has had one strategic imperative: Keep this burgeoning scandal away from President Trump.
The White House’s basic argument is that the legal action has nothing to do with the president or the campaign. But if the charge involves campaign activity, as is the case with the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, the argument is that Trump knew nothing about it.
Trump himself made this argument at a press conference on February 16.
“I was hoping we could get a yes or no answer on one of these questions involving Russia,” a reporter asked Trump. “Can you say whether you are aware that anyone who advised your campaign had contacts with Russia during the course of the election?”
Trump first responded that General Michael Flynn, an adviser to the campaign who briefly served as national security adviser, had contacts with Russia — without specifying whether they occurred during the election.
The reporter pressed Trump as to whether he knew of any campaign aides who had contacts “during the election.”
“Nobody that I know of,” Trump replied.
Until Monday, there was no evidence that Trump knew about any campaign contacts with Russians or their intermediaries.
In July, we learned about a June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr., campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and several Russians who had promised Trump Jr. damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Trump claimed he knew nothing about the meeting.
“The President was not aware of, and did not attend, the meeting,” a spokesman for Trump’s legal team said at the time.
But tucked away in the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos is a piece of information that undermines Trump’s February statement and draws him more directly into the scandal.
According to Papadopoulos, when he attended a March 31, 2016 campaign national security meeting he told the small group, which included President Trump, that he had ongoing communications with Russians that would allow him to facilitate a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin.
9. On or about March 31, 2016, defendant PAPADOPOULOS attended a “national security meeting” in Washington, D.C., with then-candidate Trump and other foreign policy advisors for the Campaign. When defendant PAPADOPOULOS introduced himself to the group, he stated, in sum and substance, that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.
The New York Times reports that “Mr. Trump listened with interest and asked questions of Mr. Papadopoulos” as he laid out his proposal. In the end Trump “didn’t say yes, and he didn’t say no,” and Papadopoulos continued to try to broker a meeting.
The detail that Trump attended the meeting was not essential to include in the guilty plea but Mueller chose to include it. Significantly, it suggests that Trump is not being honest about what he knew about his campaign’s engagement with Russia. This is a string that Mueller will likely continue to pull. It could mean that, as the investigation develops, Trump himself may become a more central figure.