What Trump campaign heard about Russian hacking before the rest of us

Papadopoulos pleads guilty to lying to the FBI
Papadopoulos pleads guilty to lying to the FBI

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Papadopoulos pleads guilty to lying to the FBI 01:31

Story highlights

  • Michael Weiss: Trump adviser George Papadopoulos was told the Russians were hacking emails well before it broke as news
  • Trump has either denied or doubted or downplayed Russian involvement in the DNC and Podesta breaches, Weiss notes

Michael Weiss is a national security analyst for CNN and author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror." The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)In a normal political environment, a former campaign chairman and former campaign aide being indicted on 12 federal felony counts including tax fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice would be significant enough. But one would be forgiven for saying that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates' legal misfortunes actually bury the real lead on Monday: Members of the Trump campaign were told the Russian government was in possession of "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, specifically "thousands of emails," a month and a half before the rest of us.

George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty on October 5 to making "a materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statement and representation" to the FBI in January of this year regarding the "timing, extent, and nature of his relationship and interactions with certain foreign nationals whom he understood to have close connections with senior Russian government officials."
Among these was a certain unnamed "Professor" based in London who, Papadopoulos understood, had serious connections with members of Vladimir Putin's government. In a separate affidavit in support of the criminal complaint, FBI Special Agent Robert M. Gibbs further described the Professor as a "citizen of a country in the Mediterranean and an associate of several Russian nationals."
    One of the latter, according to Gibbs, the Professor even introduced to Papadopoulos as a "niece" of Putin. (She isn't related to the Russian president at all, according to a footnote in the complaint.)
    The affidavit further states that the supposed contact of this Mediterranean academic was the Russian ambassador to Britain, who, as Papadopoulos emailed other campaign officials, "also acts as the Deputy Foreign Minister." The ambassador, unnamed in the complaint, is Alexander Yakovenko, who is indeed an extremely influential diplomat because the rezidentura, or foreign spy station, run out of the London Embassy is one of the most important for Moscow and has been ever since the Cold War.
    Gibbs is quite right to stress in his affidavit that using "nongovernmental intermediaries," such as academics and think tankers, is one way Russian intelligence advances the Kremlin's interests overseas. And there's recent precedence for this in London, as I've documented elsewhere.
    The complaint contains a convenient timeline of the Professor's interaction with Papadopoulos. They first met when the latter was traveling in Italy in mid-March 2016, not long after he assumed his role as foreign policy adviser to the campaign, according to the US government complaint.
    The Professor was initially dismissive of the American until Papadopoulos brandished his campaign credentials. The feeling was mutual because Papadopoulos believed that developing a relationship with the Professor would boost his relevance within the campaign, given that a stated foreign policy objective of candidate Trump was improving US-Russian relations.
    The two discussed the prospect of arranging a meeting between the Trump campaign and the Russian leadership, a contingency first indulged by Papadopoulos' "Campaign Supervisor," whose identity in the complaint is not disclosed.
    The Professor then introduced Papadopoulos to another unnamed party in Moscow, cited in the complaint as someone well connected to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shortly thereafter, Papadopoulos emailed a senior policy adviser in the campaign, saying, "The Russian government has an open invitation by Putin for Mr. Trump to meet him when he is ready." That hypothetical encounter was to take place in London, a "neutral" city, where the Russian embassy was "very much aware" of it, according to Gibbs' affidavit.
    In the event, no meeting ever took place. CNN reported in August 2017 that it was in fact Paul Manafort who "immediately dismissed the idea of meeting with top Russian officials and advised Trump to do the same."
    But "[o]n or about" April 26, 2016, Papadopoulous again met with the Professor in a London hotel. The complaint reads that the Professor told him he had "just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials" where he learned that the Russians "have dirt" on Hillary Clinton; "the Russians had emails of Clinton" -- "they have thousands of emails."
    This date is important because The Washington Post only first reported on June 14, 2016, that the hackers working for the Kremlin had penetrated the servers of the Democratic National Committee. And while this correspondence, first published by WikiLeaks in late July, days before the Democratic National Convention, was distinct from Clinton's personal emails and those she turned over to the FBI as part of the investigation into her use of a personal server to conduct government business while she was secretary of state, it nonetheless caused a scandal within the Democratic Party.
    DNC chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned over accusations the committee was favoring Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Moreover, Clinton email chains were contained in the follow-up hacking of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's Gmail account, which US intelligence also concluded was the work of Russian operatives. Podesta's emails were also released by WikiLeaks, beginning in October 2016.
    The Trump campaign had been informed and were therefore cognizant of Moscow's cyberespionage against Clinton long before that operation was public knowledge and before the content of it was used to influence the US presidential election.
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    What makes this especially problematic for the White House is that throughout the campaign and well into his presidency when he had access to classified intelligence, Trump has either denied or doubted or downplayed Russian involvement in the DNC and Podesta breaches. He has, inter alia, wondered if China was the real culprit, or a 400-pound person sitting on their bed, or maybe no one hacked the emails at all.
    In fact, Trump first suggested the DNC hacked itself to distract from the ongoing FBI case into Clinton's personal server use. In late July 2016, he also told a press conference: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing" from Clinton's server, a comment he later described as laced with sarcasm.
    One of his own foreign policy advisers may now go to jail for lying about what the President still publicly wonders ever happened.