Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office filed a sentencing memorandum Friday in its pending criminal case against George Papadopoulos, the former Donald Trump campaign advisor who pled guilty in October 2017 to making false statements to the FBI. Papadopoulos is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Mueller’s team provided the court a detailed background of Papadopoulos’ criminal offense in the sentencing memorandum and suggested Papadopoulos’ lies justified a sentence of 0 to 6 months of incarceration. While much of the ten-page memorandum merely rehashes facts previously known, one passage includes a significant new admission that proves the FBI is either incompetent, or incompetent at lying.
Let’s Run Through the Context First
Before we get to why, a quick refresher. In early March 2016, Papadopoulos learned he would serve as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump presidential campaign. Later that month, Papadopoulos met a professor while traveling in Italy, Joseph Mifsud.
According to court filings, Mifsud seemed uninterested in him until after Papadopoulos told the professor he was joining Trump’s campaign team, at which point Mifsud took a great interest in Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos stated in the same filing that in late April, Mifsud, after purportedly returning from a trip to Moscow, told him the Russians had obtained “dirt” on then-candidate Clinton.
Papadopoulos reportedly repeated that claim to an Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, in May over drinks in a London bar. Then, following the WikiLeaks release of the hacked Democratic National Committee emails, the FBI launched Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, 2016, to investigate any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
From text messages between former FBI agent Peter Strzok and his mistress, former FBI attorney Lisa Page, we know one of the first things the FBI did after officially launching the probe into the Trump campaign was send Strzok and another trusted agent to London. Strzok’s texts reveal he arrived in London on August 1 and flew back to the District of Columbia on August 3, following at least one meeting and several interviews, bringing with him a slew of documents.
Two-plus months later, the DOJ filed its first of four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications for a court order to wiretap a different Trump campaign advisor — Carter Page. (The DOJ recently released heavily redacted copies of the applications.) The FISA court issued its first surveillance order in October 2016, with renewals approved in early January, early April, and late June.
Amid All This, the FBI Interviewed Papadopoulos
The FBI first interviewed Papadopoulos on January 27, 2017. Papadopoulos told FBI agents in that interview that Mifsud had told him the Russians had “dirt” on then-candidate Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” Papadopoulos, however, also told the agents that at the time Mifsud shared this information, “I wasn’t even on the Trump team.”
But as noted above, Papadopoulos had joined the campaign as an advisor in March and Mifsud had relayed details about Russia the following month. Papadopoulos also told the FBI that Mifsud was “a nothing,” and that he thought Mifsud was “just a guy talk[ing] up connections or something,” while in fact, Papadopoulos thought Mifsud had high-level Russian connections. These two lies would eventually form the basis of the criminal charges Mueller filed against Papadopoulos and for which he now awaits sentencing.
Approximately two weeks later, the FBI interviewed Mifsud when, as the special counsel put it, “the FBI located him in Washington, D.C.” That shouldn’t have proven too difficult, given that Mifsud had flown to the United States to present at a conference sponsored by the State Department! Yet the FBI did not detain or arrest Mifsud, and the special counsel’s filing from last week represents the first public acknowledgment of the FBI’s February 2017 interview of Mifsud.
But in acknowledging that the FBI had interviewed Mifsud and released him, in the sentencing memorandum the special counsel implies that it was Papadopoulos’ lies that allowed Mifsud to leave the U.S. unscathed:
The defendant’s lies to the FBI in January 2017 impeded the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Most immediately, those statements substantially hindered investigators’ ability to effectively question the Professor when the FBI located him in Washington, D.C. approximately two weeks after the defendant’s January 27, 2017 interview. The defendant’s lies undermined investigators’ ability to challenge the Professor or potentially detain or arrest him while he was still in the United States. The government understands that the Professor left the United States on February 11, 2017 and he has not returned to the United States since then. The defendant’s lies also hindered the government’s ability to discover who else may have known or been told about the Russians possessing ‘dirt’ on Clinton.
Had the defendant told the FBI the truth when he was interviewed in January 2017, the FBI could have quickly taken numerous investigative steps to help determine, for example, how and where the Professor obtained the information, why the Professor provided the information to the defendant, and what the defendant did with the information after receiving it.
This Also Isn’t True
Mueller’s assertions, however, cannot be squared with the facts. First: in his January 2017 interview, Papadopoulos claimed that he was not part of the Trump campaign when Mifsud told him the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary. The FBI knew that statement was false, as demonstrated by the FISA application submitted in October 2016.
According to Rep. Adam Schiff’s memo, in the FISA application the DOJ informed the “court that the FBI initiated its counterintelligence investigation on July 31, 2016, after receiving information” concerning Papadopoulos. While Schiff’s memo redacted what Papadopoulos revealed, it expressly stated that the “individuals linked to Russia” informed Papadopoulos in late April 2016 of those details and that they “took interest in Papadopoulos as a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser.”
Also, as the government stated in its court filings, the Trump campaign publicly named Papadopoulos a foreign policy advisor on March 21, 2016. Under these circumstances, Papadopoulos’ first misstatement — that he was not yet working with the Trump campaign — could not possibly have “substantially hindered investigators’ ability to effectively question Mifsud.”
Similarly, Papadopoulos’ efforts to downplay Mifsud as a nobody during the January 2017 interview shouldn’t have affected the FBI’s questioning of Mifsud. Again, the FISA application filed in October 2016 shows that the FBI knew that Mifsud was “linked to Russia.”
A simple Google search would have shown the level of connections Mifsud had, such as a July 2016 Russian Embassy photograph and caption stating that Mifsud had spoken with Russian counsellor Ernest Chernukhin about “Russian-British cooperation in the sphere of higher education.” A 2014 press release from the Russian Embassy in London announced that Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko had received Mifsud at the embassy, noting that Mifsud had spoken the previous month at the Global University Summit in Moscow. Mother Jones dug up even more connections between Mifsud and Russia.
Of course, it now appears that Mifsud had equal, if not greater, connections to Western intelligence organizations, but the FBI should have known of all these facts by the time it interviewed Mifsud in February 2017. After all, the FBI justified launching a criminal investigation into the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign in July 2016 because of the supposed troubling revelation that a Russia agent had told Papadopoulos the Russians had dirt on Hillary.
Also, as noted above, immediately upon launching operation Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI sent Strzok and another trusted agent to London, where they interviewed several individuals. The investigation also spurred the Department of Justice to seek a FISA warrant on Page in October 2016.
Under these circumstances, it is sheer nonsense for Mueller to claim that if Papadopoulos had admitted he worked for Trump when Mifsud revealed the Russians had dirt on Clinton, and acknowledged Mifsud had high-level Russian connections, “the FBI could have quickly taken numerous investigative steps to help determine, for example, how and where the Professor obtained the information, why the Professor provided the information to the defendant, and what the defendant did with the information after receiving it.”
The FBI knew these facts since October, if not earlier. Did the FBI not quickly take those investigative steps then? If the FBI had been so concerned about “quickly” investigating what Papadopoulos did with the information after receiving it, why did the FBI wait nearly six months to question Papadopoulos?
There’s Other Shady Stuff Here
Further, nothing Papadopoulos said “undermined investigators’ ability to challenge the Professor or potentially detain or arrest him while he was still in the United States.” Papadopoulos told the agents that Mifsud claimed the Russians had dirt on Clinton and thousands of emails, and the FBI had another source (or sources) that pegged that conversation in late April 2016.
The FBI also ought to have had the six months of information it culled on Mifsud about his connections with Russia before the agents interviewed him. To say that Papadopoulos’ lies (or inaccurate memory of the events, as his wife puts it) prevented the FBI from questioning, detaining, or arresting Mifsud is unbelievable.
What, then, did Mifsud say to the FBI in response to the agents’ questioning? Did Mifsud deny telling Papadopoulos about the “dirt” and “emails?” If so, did the FBI confront him with Papadopoulos’ statements? And did the DOJ update the FISA applications to inform the court on Mifsud’s statements? It appears not.
Papadopoulos’ attorneys will surely want to know these details to counter Mueller’s argument that a 0- to 6-month prison sentence is appropriate because of the supposed effects of Papadopoulos’s lies on the FBI’s ability to question, detain, or arrest Mifsud. The 302 Form summarizing the FBI’s interview of Mifsud should provide some insight.
It is unclear whether the FBI also video-recorded its interview of Mifsud, but given that Mueller’s team stated in the sentencing memo that it had provided Papadopoulos a video of his January interview, it would be surprising if the FBI agents had not also recorded their interview with Mifsud — the supposed Russia connection that purportedly prompted the FBI to launch the investigation into the Trump campaign.
Then again, it is surprising to see Mueller’s team claim that Mifsud got away because Papadopoulos fed the FBI some lines that the agents knew at the time were false — or would have known, had they undertaken even a cursory investigation of Papadopoulos and Mifsud.