President Donald Trump nodded with approval when a former campaign adviser suggested a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2016, according to a court filing by lawyers seeking a lighter sentence for the adviser, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts during the campaign.
The description of the meeting with Trump and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions was revealed Friday in the filing, which argued that George Papadopoulos should be spared jail time because his lies did not hinder the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In the court filing, the lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss to place Papadopoulos on probation at his sentencing set for Friday, saying claims that his falsehoods impeded prosecutors with special counsel Robert Mueller were “speculative and contrary to the evidence.”
The attorneys wrote that Papadopoulos’s “motives for lying to the FBI were wrongheaded indeed but far from the sinister spin the Government suggests. Caught off-guard by an impromptu interrogation, Mr. Papadopoulos misled investigators to save his professional aspirations and preserve a perhaps misguided loyalty to his master,” an apparent reference to Trump.
Papadopoulos, 31, pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI about key details of his conversations with a London-based professor who had told the adviser the Russians held dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails.
Contesting prosecutors’ contention that Papadopoulos has provided little cooperation to the probe, lawyers argued that he has volunteered information in an effort to help – such as describing a March 31, 2016, meeting he attended with Trump and Sessions where Papadopoulos announced soon after introducing himself that he could get Trump a meeting with Putin.
For the first time, the lawyers revealed that the young adviser felt encouraged by Trump to continue those efforts, writing in the court filing that “Mr. Trump nodded with approval and deferred to Mr. Sessions, who appeared to also like the idea and stated that the campaign should look into it.”
That account conflicts with what Sessions, now attorney general, testified to Congress. The attorney general has given shifting accounts of his contacts with Russia during the 2016 race. He has also changed his story about the March 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with Papadopoulos and Trump.
At his confirmation hearing in January 2017, Sessions was asked whether anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with Russia. Sessions said he was “not aware of any of those activities” and added that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” The Washington Post then reported that Sessions had spoken twice to the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey Kislyak.
In October 2017, Sessions returned to Congress and testified that had met with Kislyak in his capacity as a senator, not as a Trump campaign surrogate. He was asked whether surrogates for the Trump campaign “had communications with the Russians.”
“I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened,” Sessions said.
Then, details surfaced about the March 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. “I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports,” Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee in November. He said he remembered offering “pushback” when Papadopoulos raised the idea, suggesting he had shut down the adviser’s proposal for a Trump-Putin meeting.
J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman and Trump adviser who said he was at the meeting, also recalled that Sessions “shut him down” when Papadopoulos offered to introduce Trump to Putin.
A spokeswoman for Sessions declined to comment.
Papadopoulos’s plea was one of the first major developments in the special counsel’s investigation that has produced the indictments or convictions of 32 people, including four Trump associates.
On Friday, Republican lobbyist W. Samuel Patten also pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington to failing to register as a foreign lobbyist in a case that began as a referral by Mueller’s office.
Papadopoulos’s sentencing will be a milestone marking the close of the case that launched the FBI investigation of possible Trump campaign connections with Russia. Officials have said the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation in summer 2016, after an Australian diplomat reported to American counterparts that Papadopoulos had told him over drinks in May 2016 that the Russians held damning information about Clinton.
Earlier in August, Mueller’s office said jail time was appropriate for Papadopoulos, arguing he had lied repeatedly to investigators and had not provided substantial cooperation since he pleaded guilty. They did not recommend a sentence, though federal sentencing guidelines call for Papadopoulos to face a maximum of six months in jail.
Papadopoulos’s lawyers also asserted for the first time that the adviser detailed for prosecutors a discussion he had in late May 2016 with the foreign minister of Greece, where he told the minister about the claim that the Russians held dirt on Clinton. The meeting took place days before Putin traveled to Greece and met with officials there, Papadopoulos’s lawyers wrote.
In a 16-page court filing, Papadopoulos’s lawyers said that despite the gravity of his offense, “he was just a small part of a large-scale investigation,” in over his head and “giddy” at the boost to his career from joining Trump’s team.
“To say George was out of his depth would be a gross understatement. Despite being a young energy policy guru, he had no experience in dealing with Russian policy or its officials,” wrote attorneys Robert Stanley, Thomas Breen and Todd Pugh. They added the government “has not shown counsel nor the Court any evidence tending to show its investigation was actually hindered.”
In recent weeks, Papadopoulos’s wife, Simona, had said in interviews that Papadopoulos had grown suspicious over the FBI’s treatment of him during the course of its investigation and was considering asking a judge to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea and fight the charges.
Papadopoulos had appeared to support the idea when he tweeted last week, “Been a hell of a year. Decisions.”
His mother, Kiki, had also tweeted, “Looks like a trial is coming!”
Simona Papadopoulos told The Washington Post she believed the FBI had worked to entrap her husband during its investigation, including by dispatching an American professor working in Cambridge to gather intelligence from him during the campaign.
She said she and her husband believe he was approached by other FBI informants as well and said they doubted a claim by the special counsel’s office that Papadopoulos’s lies impeded its investigation. She said withdrawing the plea would have required the FBI to provide more information about the investigation.
“Everything has to be on the table and transparent and argued and counterargued,” she said.
However, she said, Papadopoulos ultimately decided he wanted to “take responsibility for being less than candid” with the FBI.
Also, she said, a legal-defense fund established by the couple has not raised enough money to finance what would probably have been a lengthy legal battle, had Papadopoulos sought to withdraw his guilty plea.
Papadopoulos would have needed the judge’s permission to exit the plea deal, which some legal experts have said was unlikely, given that he had previously entered his guilty plea voluntarily and had affirmed in court that he understood the consequences. Had the judge signed off, the special counsel’s office could have sought to refile the case against him, charging him with additional felony counts that would have carried significantly more prison time.
“The downside risks far outweigh any upside benefit he could get,” said Michael Dry, a former federal prosecutor who now works at the firm Vinson & Elkins.
The Washington Post’s Salvador Rizzo contributed to this story.