How young Trump aide became key player in Russia probe – The Hill

Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonTime cover shows Trump Cabinet as wrecking balls ‘dismantling government as we know it’ Overnight Finance: Trump, GOP open to 401(k) changes | White House eyes gas tax hike for infrastructure | Republicans flex power over consumer agency | Cohn reportedly out of running for Fed chief The Hill’s 12:30 Report MORE’s campaign manager, Barry Bennett, was desperate to add to his list of foreign policy advisers in November 2015.

More than 100 people had just been killed in the Paris terrorist attack, and Carson’s campaign was in a tailspin after one of his foreign policy advisers described the candidate as clueless on national security to The New York Times.

As Bennet scanned resumes, one name jumped out to him: George Papadopoulos.

Papadopoulos’s resume was thin. He listed his participation in a model United Nations class exercise on his LinkedIn profile.

But Bennett was only looking for a short-term rental — a gun for hire whose name could go on a list of advisers to make it look like they were taking one of Carson’s shortcomings seriously.

Papadopoulos claimed to have worked as a research assistant at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, for five years. Bennett says he called Ken Weinstein, the president and CEO of the Hudson Institute, and received a positive reference.

“All of the foreign policy establishment, the A-listers were working for Jeb [Bush] or Marco [Rubio],” Bennett said. “So here’s this 28-year-old kid who is not terribly sophisticated, but he solved my problem of needing to put a bunch of names on a list. I’m sure he wrote some things for us, but I don’t know that we used any of it.”

As it turns out, Papadopoulos was exaggerating even the meager experience listed on his resume.

A representative for the Hudson Institute told The Hill that he signed on as an unpaid intern in 2011 and only did research on a contractual basis between 2013 and 2014.

“Mr. Papadopoulos was never a salaried employee of Hudson Institute, and the Institute has had no relationship with him since 2014,” the representative said.

Papadopoulos is now becoming a household name. He pleaded guilty in early October to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russians, according to court documents unsealed on Monday by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The young Trump campaign aide has been described as a “proactive cooperator” by investigators, a sign he’s being used by Mueller’s team to form a case against other aides — including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was indicted on Monday. 

President Trump and the White House have sought to minimize Papadopoulos’s involvement with the campaign, casting him as little more than an errand boy.

“Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar,” the president tweeted Tuesday morning.

Yet it is clear from his guilty plea that Papadopoulos conversed with a Russia-linked professor who cited “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBlumenthal: Trump-tied data firm reaching out to WikiLeaks ‘significant’ Tillerson eliminates key State Department sanctions office: report Intel Dem: What’s in dossier more important than who paid for it MORE and that other emails showed him discussing potential meetings with Russian officials with older, more experienced campaign aides.

Papadopoulos first surfaced as part of Trump’s campaign in March 2016.

Bennett says he did not introduce Papadopoulos to the Trump campaign. He suspects that Sam Clovis, a policy adviser to the Trump campaign, was in a similar position of needing to show that Trump had a list of foreign policy advisers and that Papadopoulos likely played the role of adviser in name only.

“My guess is that Trump pulled out a list that Sam Clovis had typed up and read off the names and that’s how his name popped up,” said Bennett, who advised Trump’s transition team.

Several media outlets have pegged Clovis as the campaign supervisor that Papadopoulos emailed with about his Russian contacts. Clovis allegedly told Papadopoulos he was doing “great work” and encouraged him to set up a meeting with the Russians.

Clovis is now Trump’s nominee to be a science adviser to the Department of Agriculture. He faces a Senate confirmation hearing in November.

NBC News reported Tuesday that Clovis met with Mueller and his team of investigators last week, but the White House is sticking by him, at least for now.

“I’m not aware that any change would be necessary at this point,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday when asked whether Clovis’s nomination might be withdrawn.

Bennett downplayed the idea that Papadopoulos could be the man to bring the Trump presidency down.

“Not to be disrespectful to him, but he is a nobody,” he said. “This idea that he was wearing a wire — I don’t think he knew anyone else in the campaign. If he’s the smoking gun then they don’t have anything.”

Papadopoulos was one of five foreign affairs advisers named by Trump during a meeting with The Washington Post’s editorial board, a group that also included Lt. Gen. Keith Kellog, now chief of staff in Trump’s National Security Council, and Carter Page, who has also emerged as a key figure in the Russia probe.

At the time, Trump cheered Papadopoulos as an “excellent guy.” Papadopoulos was also photographed alongside Trump and others at a purported national security meeting in Washington publicized by the campaign last April.

For months, Papadopoulos engaged with a foreign professor and a Russian woman whom he initially believed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s niece, according to the indictment unsealed Monday, in hopes of brokering a meeting between the campaign and Moscow. The professor also told Papadopoulos in late April 2016 that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”

While investigators say the meeting Papadopoulos sought never materialized, his efforts are likely to be the focus of Mueller’s investigation, and legal experts believe that Papadopoulos may have had several months to gather intelligence for the special counsel before it became public that he had pleaded guilty and possibly become a state witness.

Papadopoulos has largely remained out of the media spotlight until now, meaning individuals in Trump’s orbit wouldn’t necessarily have their guard up around him during the period he was cooperating.

“[This] means that he was out in the world for three months presumably while he was cooperating,” observed Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “We obviously don’t know the scope or the nature of the cooperation, but one suspects it was more than nothing.”

“It’s pretty clear that yesterday was the opening act of what by all accounts is a very well orchestrated production,” Vladeck added.

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