WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump and his surrogates and supporters attempted to distance the president from George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser who sought to connect the Trump campaign to Russian officials and then lied to FBI agents about “dirt” he was offered on Hillary Clinton, by belittling the 30-year-old man as a young, low-level staffer who had little access to the president.
The public revelation of Papadopoulos’ guilty plea Monday was a bigger bombshell than the indictment of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and longtime associate Rick Gates. Papadopoulos, who was quietly arrested back in July, admitted in a closed court hearing earlier this month that he lied to the FBI in January about his communications with a professor with close ties to Russia who had offered up information on Trump’s 2016 election opponent.
In a pair of tweets Tuesday, the president attacked the media over the news that three former Trump campaign advisers who are facing charges as part of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe into possible Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. The president said there was “no collusion” and that “few people” knew Papadopoulos, whom Trump characterized as a “young, low level volunteer” who he claimed was “proven to be a liar.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders struck a similar note from the White House podium on Tuesday afternoon. “He was somebody that played a minimal role,” she said. Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser, said on CNN that he had “never heard of” Papadopoulos whom he diminished as “the coffee boy.”
During a segment on his Fox News show, vocal Trump supporter Sean Hannity appeared to downplay the seriousness of Papadopoulos admitting that he lied to the FBI due to the former adviser’s young age at the time that the crime was committed. He also said he “knew everyone” in the Trump campaign and had “never heard of” Papadopoulos until the news of his plea agreement became public.
The attempts at diminishing Papadopoulos doesn’t jibe with Trump’s own description of him from March 2016 when, during an interview with The Washington Post, Trump named Papadopoulos as one of his key advisers, calling him an “excellent guy.” That same month, Trump tweeted out a photo that shows him sitting at a table four seats away from Papadopoulos during a national security team meeting.
That March 31, 2016, meeting comes up in court papers filed along with Papadopoulos’ plea deal. Papadopoulos admitted as part of the plea deal that “he stated in sum and substance, that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin,” according to the statement of offense.
Papadopoulos, who just weeks earlier had met with a professor with close ties to the Russian government, was seated two chairs away from now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the March 31 meeting. An administration official pointed HuffPost to an August story in The Daily Caller, which said Sessions “quashed” and “shut down” Papadopoulos when he brought up the idea of setting up a meeting between Trump and Putin.
If Sessions did try to “shut down” Papadopoulos’ outreach to the Russians, it apparently didn’t take. Weeks later, on April 26, 2016, Papadopoulos met with the professor in London shortly after the professor had returned from Moscow. It was then that the professor told Papadopoulos that the Russians had obtained “thousands of emails” and “dirt” on then-candidate Clinton, according to the statement of offense. That happened before the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee was made public.
Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics who resigned in July, questioned the notion that Papadopoulos was not a key member of the Trump team during a CNN segment on Tuesday, calling it a “rewriting of history.” Shaub added that when he was head of the ethics office, his job was to work closely with the incoming administration; Shaub said he never met with Trump once.
“It’s just unbelievable they are calling a guy a coffee boy who had a whole lot more access to the president than I did,” Shaub said.
Trump and his supporters have often turned to characterizing grown men as misbehaving children in an attempt to defend or diminish the serious nature of allegations made against them.
In defending his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., an adult of 39 years, as to why he met with a Russian lawyer after being offered information meant to “incriminate” then-candidate Clinton, the president focused on his son’s youth.
“Don is, as many of you know, Don, he’s a good boy. He’s a good kid,” Trump said while speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One earlier this year.
While dismissing the 2005 video of Trump bragging about sexual assault as “locker room” talk, first lady Melania Trump said her husband and “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush were simply acting like “teenage boys.”
Making false statements and omissions, Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 1001, is a catch-all charge frequently deployed by the federal government. It’s been used in high-profile cases against businesswoman Martha Stewart, then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and then-vice presidential adviser Scooter Libby. In a way, it’s related to a saying that’s been floating around since Watergate: It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.
Trump ran a law-and-order campaign, and his Justice Department has returned to the policy of always bringing the most serious charge against federal defendants. So it’s interesting that his administration has taken the tactic of undercutting admitted criminal conduct by raising a defendant’s age and status within an enterprise, a benefit his administration would not extend to young or “low-level” defendants in a drug ring, for example.
Moreover, millennials like Papadopoulos make up a very substantial percentage of the federal prison population. If the U.S. no longer incarcerated prisoners who committed their crimes before they hit the big 3-0, the federal prison population would take a serious slashing.
More than 19 percent of current federal prisoners are 30 or younger, and about 36 percent are 35 or younger. The majority of the federal prison population ― 55 percent ― are 40 or younger. Even among the federal prisoners over 30, many of them committed their crimes when they were still in their teens or 20s. The average age of offenders has bumped up in recent years, up to 37 years old in the 2016 fiscal year, and nearly three-quarters of defendants are serving a sentence of more than five years.
There do not appear to be statistics available on the average age of a defendant convicted of lying to the FBI. But there are examples of individuals a lot younger than Papadopoulos spending years in prison for lying to the FBI. A 19-year-old friend of the Boston Marathon bomber was sentenced to three years in federal prison for lying to federal agents about being with two friends who removed a backpack from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s room. The Boston Globe reported that the jury rejected a defense claim that he was too high on marijuana to remember what happened. A federal appeals court upheld his criminal conviction, and the now 24-year-old is currently incarcerated in a federal prison in Pennsylvania.
Additionally, Papadopoulos had a significant advantage over other federal defendants in that he’s highly educated. Nearly half of all federal offenders sentenced in the 2016 fiscal year had not completed high school, and just 6.2 percent had completed college.
Meanwhile, as politicians in D.C. scrambled to deal with the fallout from Papadopoulos’ cooperation, the FBI cooperator appeared to be taking it all in stride, tweeting that he had a “nice meal” of Greek cuisine at Santorini Restaurant in Chicago. He later deleted the tweet. A restaurant employee confirmed to HuffPost that Papadopoulos visited the restaurant on Tuesday afternoon.