Trump Campaign’s Foreign-Policy Team Is Under Mueller’s Microscope

Updated on
  • Probe turns on those who dealt with unpaid aide Papadopoulos
  • Russia connections popped up in campaign of ‘chaos’: Sessions

Why Mueller Is Seen as the Perfect Man for the Job

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is continuing his interviews with White House staff this month, where a key topic is the connections emanating from a little-known foreign policy lightweight who served as an unpaid campaign aide -- George Papadopoulos.

Mueller has given the public only glimpses into his probe of alleged connections between President Donald Trump’s associates and Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election. But a court filing by Mueller related to Papadopoulos provides one possible path toward a case showing collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Papadopoulos was among a handful of names that Trump rattled off in March 2016 to introduce a foreign policy team that was hastily assembled in the midst of his insurgent campaign.

“It was a brilliant campaign, I think, in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day from Day One,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was a top Trump campaign adviser, told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The bulk of Papadopoulos’s experience was as an unpaid intern and contract researcher at the Hudson Institute, a Washington research group. During the campaign, Papadopoulos tried to arrange a meeting with Russian officials and potentially a trip for Trump to Russia, according to court filings by Mueller. New details keep emerging about additional campaign conversations and emails related to Russians.

Here are the figures in Papadopoulos’s circle:

Sam Clovis

Sam Clovis

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Clovis, the campaign’s national co-chairman and chief policy adviser, selected Papadopoulos to be among a group of Trump’s foreign policy advisers in March 2016, even though he had little experience. Clovis is referred to as his “supervisor” in court filings related to Papadopoulos’s guilty plea for initially lying to the FBI about the timing of his Russian contacts.

A former Iowa talk radio host and Air Force officer, Clovis was included in at least four emails or conversations in which Papadopoulos discussed setting up a meeting between the campaign and Russian officials, according to the court filings. In one August exchange, Clovis suggests Papadopoulos and an unnamed campaign foreign policy adviser take a trip to Russia “if feasible” in response to a suggestion by Papadopoulos.

Clovis’s lawyer, Victoria Toensing, said in a statement that all of Papadopoulos’s communication with the campaign was “self generated” and that Clovis was against any Russian trip for Trump or staff. She added that if a volunteer made a suggestion, “Dr. Clovis, a polite gentleman from Iowa, would have expressed courtesy and appreciation.”

Since the Papadopoulos guilty plea was unsealed, Clovis has asked for his name to be withdrawn from consideration for undersecretary for research at the Agriculture Department, although he continues to work at the agency. NBC News reported that Clovis has spoken to Mueller. Toensing declined to comment on that, saying only that he is cooperating with the investigation.

Carter Page

Carter Page

Photographer: Stuart Wilson/Getty Images

Like Papadopoulos, Page came from outside the foreign policy establishment and his inclusion as a campaign adviser raised eyebrows. He had worked in Russia for years, including a stint at Merrill Lynch, and had numerous connections in the country.

Based on what is known so far, Page and Papadopoulos had little interaction beyond a few meetings and being copied on campaign-related emails. But the two men’s stories have a number of parallels.

Also like Papadopoulos, Page had Russian contacts during the campaign. Page said he was invited by a Russian university to speak at a commencement and asked the campaign for permission to go. J.D. Gordon, the campaign’s full-time national security adviser, said he told Page it wouldn’t be a good idea to have someone from the campaign traveling to Russia and wouldn’t pass along his request for approval. But Page went around him to then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who ultimately told Page he could go as long as it was for personal business and not related to the campaign, according to Gordon.

Page had told the media that he had no contacts with Russian officials while there for the speech, but in congressional testimony admitted meeting at least one Russian official. After returning from the trip, Page emailed campaign staffers offering to share “incredible insights and outreach I’ve received from a few Russian legislatures and senior members of the presidential administration here.”

J.D. Gordon

A former Pentagon spokesman and the campaign’s national security adviser, Gordon was tasked with overseeing the campaign’s nascent foreign policy team.

Gordon took part in a March 2016 meeting with then-Senator Sessions and Trump, where Papadopoulos offered to broker a meeting with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Gordon said that after Page went around him to secure permission to travel to Russia, he never had a follow-up conversation with him about the trip. He said Papadopoulos also went around him after Gordon shot down his idea in March to do an interview with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos.

Page contacted Gordon and others on the campaign in July 2016 to praise them for a change in the Republican Party platform that softened the party’s support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

Corey Lewandowski

Lewandowski was Trump’s campaign manager until he was fired on June 20, 2016, and replaced by Paul Manafort. Lewandowski has mostly stayed out of headlines surrounding the investigation. But Mueller’s document, as well as Page’s testimony, show Lewandowski was aware of contact between members of the campaign and Russians. 

The accounts say that Lewandowski approved a trip by Page to Moscow on the condition it was personal business and not representing the campaign. The Washington Post reported that Lewandowski also received several emails from Papadopoulos informing him that he was in contact with Russian intermediaries about trying to set up a meeting between the campaign and Russian officials.

Lewandowski said in an interview with Fox News on Nov. 7 that he had initially forgotten about the email from Page about his trip, but that his memory has since been “refreshed.” Lewandowski has also repeatedly said he didn’t know Page though Page testified that Lewandowski interviewed him for his position as a foreign policy adviser. 

Since the campaign, Lewandowski has done political consulting work and is an adviser to a political action committee working to re-elect Trump. Lewandowski has been a frequent visitor to the White House and has talked to Trump regularly throughout his presidency, according to people close to Lewandowski.

Jeff Sessions

The attorney general, who was a GOP senator from Alabama during the campaign, headed the Trump foreign policy team that included Papadopoulos and Page and had two encounters where he was informed about contacts the pair had with Russians. The revelations from Papadopoulos’s statement to Mueller, along with Page’s testimony, have raised questions about whether Sessions was transparent about what he knew about campaign contacts with Russia in sworn testimony to Congress.

At Sessions’s confirmation hearing in January, he said he wasn’t aware of any campaign contacts with Russia. On Tuesday, he told the House Judiciary Committee that he didn’t lie or mislead Congress, saying he simply forgot about the meeting where Papadopoulos touted his Russian connections and pushed for a meeting between Trump and Putin.

“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said during that meeting,” Sessions said. “After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter.”

Separately, Page told congressional investigators that he informed Sessions that he was traveling to Russia as the two were leaving a dinner.

Paul Manafort

Manafort joined the campaign in March around the same time as Papadopoulos and Page. While his initial job was to help with the delegate count, he was named campaign chairman in May and at the end of June replaced Lewandowski as campaign manager.

Based on testimony from Page and court filings related to Papadopoulos, he had little if any contact with the pair. According to Papadopoulos’s statement, Manafort shot down his idea of Trump traveling to Russia. Page said he sent one email to Manafort, who didn’t respond.

On the same day Papadopoulos’s guilty plea was unsealed, Manafort was indicted by Mueller on charges of laundering millions of dollars. He is also accused of hiding work for the pro-Russian former leader of Ukraine and concealing foreign accounts.

Other Players

Keith Kellogg -- Now chief of staff for Trump’s National Security Council, Kellogg was named as a foreign policy adviser, along with Page and Papadopoulos, and attended several meetings of the group with them. Kellogg was interviewed by Mueller in early October, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Stephen Miller -- According to a New York Times report, Miller was in contact with Papadopoulos throughout the campaign. Papadopoulos told Miller that Trump had an “open invitation” from Putin to visit Russia and told him he had some “interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip when the time is right,” the New York Times reported. CNN reported that Miller, who’s now a senior adviser to President Trump, has been interviewed by Mueller’s team of investigators.

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