The White House on Tuesday sought to take credit for the arrest of a former Trump campaign aide who had repeated contacts with Russia-linked officials offering “dirt” on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — marking the latest damage control move as the Russia probe intensifies.
President Donald Trump and other White House allies had so far sought to downplay the role of George Papadopoulos, a campaign foreign policy adviser, whose plea deal was made public by special counsel Robert Mueller on Monday, the same day two top Trump campaign officials were indicted on charges unrelated to the campaign.
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Trump derided him Tuesday morning as a “liar” while former campaign aide Michael Caputo dismissed him as “the coffee boy.”
Press secretary Sarah Sanders went further Tuesday afternoon, claiming the White House and the campaign deserved credit for helping Mueller’s team build its case that Papadopoulos had lied to the FBI about his contacts.
“Papadopoulos is an example of actually somebody doing the wrong thing while the president’s campaign did the right thing,” Sanders said. “All of his emails were voluntarily provided to the special counsel by the campaign, and that is what led to the process and the place that we’re in right now is the campaign fully cooperating and helping with that. What Papadopoulos did was lie and that’s on him and not on the campaign and we can’t speak to that.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about when the documents in question had been turned over. Papadopoulos was initially interviewed as part of the FBI’s probe into Russian election meddling on Jan. 27. He was arrested in July.
The Washington Post reports that Trump’s campaign handed over emails implicating Papadopoulos to the special counsel in August — after he had already been arrested.
Court documents indicate that Papadopoulos has been a cooperative witness as part of the special counsel’s probe.
Sanders on Tuesday also defended other campaign officials who interacted with Papadopoulos, including by claiming that one official — who has been identified in news reports as campaign aide Sam Clovis — did not encourage Papadopoulos to travel to Russia.
“My understanding is there wasn’t encouragement,” Sanders said.
But according to the plea deal, the official who has been identified as Clovis wrote, “I would encourage you…[to] make the trip … if it is feasible.”
The obfuscation was part of a broader push on Tuesday against new questions raised by Mueller’s revelation on Monday of charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, another campaign aide, including money laundering and other crimes related to the pair’s relationship with pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.
Trump on Tuesday morning cast the Manafort charges as a vindication, of sorts, for the campaign. He also belittled Papadopoulos, despite having called him “an excellent guy” to The Washington Post editorial board in March 2016.
“The Fake News is working overtime. As Paul Manaforts [sic] lawyer said, there was ‘no collusion’ and events mentioned took place long before he came to the campaign,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!”
Trump continued trying to redirect the heat toward Democrats.
“The biggest story yesterday, the one that has the Dems in a dither, is Podesta running from his firm. What he know [sic] about Crooked Dems is earth shattering,” Trump wrote on Twitter later Tuesday, alluding to the departure of Tony Podesta, the brother of former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, from his eponymously named lobbying firm. “He and his brother could Drain The Swamp, which would be yet another campaign promise fulfilled. Fake News weak!”
Shortly after Trump tweeted, John Podesta, whose emails were taken by suspected Kremlin-backed hackers and released by WikiLeaks, responded online to the president.
“Not bad enough that I was the victim of a massive cyber crime directed by the Russian President, now I’m the victim of a big lie campaign by the American President,” Podesta tweeted Tuesday.
Former Trump campaign officials and other allies also worked the morning TV news shows to downplay Papadopoulos’ role on the campaign and draw a line between the crimes allegedly committed by Manafort and Gates and their work on the campaign.
Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide, told CNN’s “New Day” that he was unaware of Manafort’s alleged crimes and did not know Papadopoulos at all.
“The leaders of the Washington office of the campaign didn’t even know who he was until his name appeared in the press,” Caputo said. “I mean, you might’ve called him a foreign policy analyst, but, in fact, you know, if he was going to wear a wire, all we’d know now is whether he prefers a caramel macchiato over a regular American coffee in conversations with his barista. He had nothing to do with the campaign.”
In an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said he did not know whether he was the “high-ranking campaign official” whom Papadopoulos said he emailed regarding his interactions with Russia-linked contacts.
Lewandowski told NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie that in his role as campaign manager, he received thousands of emails per day and could not recall whether he had been included on the emails Papadopoulos sent.
Still, Lewandowski dismissed Papadopoulos as a “low-level volunteer” who was “never a person who was interacting with the senior management on a regular basis.”
And Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, noted Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that Papadopoulos never traveled for the meeting with his Russia-connected contacts that he had emailed others in the campaign about. He said that nothing about Manafort’s or Gates’ charges was related to the Trump 2016 campaign and that Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, not to anything involving his interactions with individuals tied to Russia.
“Remember this: Collusion, in and of itself — there’s no crime of collusion,” Sekulow told ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos. “What is a violation of law here, I go back to that, for George Papadopoulos, the violation of the law, George, was that he lied to FBI agents, which is clearly not condoned by the administration.”
Democrats were not eager to let Trump and his aides off the hook, especially when it comes to the central question of whether the campaign colluded with Russian officials trying to tip the election Trump’s way.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, hit back at Trump’s Tuesday morning tweet that there was “no collusion.”
“With respect, Mr. President, not sure we can rely on Mr. Manafort’s lawyer to tell us whether there was collusion, as unbiased as he may be,” Schiff tweeted.