The belief that George Papadopoulos, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort would turn over evidence of collusion with Russia got ahead of reality.
The anonymous government official who revealed a “resistance” inside the White House has heightened the sense of doom hanging over Donald Trump’s presidency. A stream of disparaging claims from other White House insiders, the multiple criminal cases enveloping Trump’s inner circle, and the ongoing special-counsel investigation into possible collusion with the Russian government have all also added to anticipation of Trump’s imminent downfall. But the widespread perception that “the walls are closing in”; on a “ “teetering” Trump presidency is getting ahead of reality. While figures eyed as central to the suspected Trump-Russia conspiracy—campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos, longtime fixer Michael Cohen, and campaign manager Paul Manafort—have been convicted of criminal activity, their cases have not bolstered the case for collusion as many liberals had hoped.
Last week, Papadopoulos was sentenced to 14 days in prison for lying to the FBI about the timing of his contacts with a Maltese professor, Joseph Mifsud. According to Papadopoulos, Mifsud claimed to have connections to Russia and information that the Kremlin had obtained Hillary Clinton’s stolen e-mails. In May 2016, Papadopoulos relayed vague details about his conversation with Mifsud to Australian diplomat Alexander Downer. According to press accounts, a tip from Downer about his encounter with Papadopoulos sparked the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation into alleged Trump-Russia ties.
Because Papadopoulos may have purportedly heard about stolen e-mails before their public release, he has been widely scouted as “Exhibit A” for a Trump-Kremlin conspiracy, part of a “secret channel through which the Russian government was able to communicate with the Trump campaign as it stole Democratic emails and weaponized them to help Trump win the presidency,” according to James Risen of The Intercept. In the end, Papadopoulos did not fill that role. According to special counsel Robert Mueller’s sentencing memo, Papadopoulos “did not provide ‘substantial assistance’” during his interviews in August and September of 2017. But in remarks made after his sentencing, Papadopoulos says that “I did my best…and offered what I knew.” It is not a surprise that he did not have much to offer. Not only did the Trump campaign rebuff Papadopoulos’s proposals to set up meetings with Russian officials, Papadopoulos now says that “I never met with a single Russian official in my life.”
Mueller’s sentencing memo also confirms that after FBI agents interviewed Papadopoulos in January 2017, they interviewed Mifsud just weeks later in Washington, DC. Despite his being the figure whose comments ostensibly led to the opening of the Trump-Russia investigation—making him a suspected Kremlin cutout—Mifsud was not detained then, nor has he been charged since.
Mueller appears to blame Papadopoulos for this. Papadopoulos, Mueller claims, “substantially hindered investigators’ ability to effectively question” Mifsud when they spoke to him just a few weeks later. Papadopoulos’s lies, they allege, “undermined investigators’ ability to challenge the Professor or potentially detain or arrest him while he was still in the United States.… 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.”
The claim is puzzling. In his sentencing memo, Mueller acknowledges that Papadopoulos “identified” Mifsud to FBI agents voluntarily, though “only after only after being prompted by a series of specific questions.” That is why Papadopoulos has not pleaded guilty to lying about Mifsud, but only about the timing of his contacts with them: He falsely told agents that he was not yet a member of the Trump campaign when he and Mifsud spoke. In that same interview, Papadopoulos told agents that Mifsud informed him that the Russians “have dirt on [Clinton]” in the form of “thousands of emails.” Given that Papadopoulos not only informed FBI agents of Mifsud’s identity but also of the “dirt” he floated, how could Papadopoulos have “hindered” their ability to find out what Mifsud knows?
As Papadopoulos appears to exit the collusion bracket, longtime Trump fixer Michael Cohen has recently emerged front and center. On July 26, CNN reported that Cohen is prepared to tell Mueller that Trump had advance knowledge of the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with Russian nationals. The incident has been the subject of intense focus because Donald Trump Jr. was promised compromising information about Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Veteran Clinton operative turned Cohen spokesperson Lanny Davis fanned the flames. Hours after Cohen’s indictment on August 21, Davis told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Cohen “is more than happy to tell the special counsel all that he knows,” including about “the obvious possibility of a conspiracy to collude.… in the 2016 election” and even “whether or not Mr. Trump knew ahead of time” about Russian e-mail hacking “and even cheered it on.”
Davis’ qualified language (“obvious possibility,” “whether or not”) was easily overlooked, but the specter of perjury could not be. The co-chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr and Mark Warner, noted that Cohen had testified to them last fall that that he has no knowledge of any Trump-Russia collusion and that he didn’t even find out about the Trump Tower meeting until it was publicly reported in June 2017—one year after it took place. Burr and Warner also revealed that in response to CNN’s story, Cohen’s attorneys informed them that he is not changing his testimony.
Davis quickly dropped the innuendo. Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper on August 22 if Cohen has information that Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting in advance, Davis replied, “ No, he does not.” Davis also abandoned his suggestion, made just 24 hours earlier to Maddow, that Cohen can tie Trump to advance knowledge of Russian e-mail hacking. Davis told Cooper that he was “more tentative on that” and that he only meant that he believes Cohen “may or not be useful” to Mueller, even though “it’s not a certainty the way [Cohen] recalls it.” Davis was, he clarified in the same CNN interview, just relying on his own “intuition.”
Yet this clarification proved to be more consequential than perhaps Davis intended. The Washington Post and the New York Post revealed that they had used Davis as an anonymous source for their own stories “confirming” the initial July 26 CNN report. “I should have been more clear—including with you—that I could not independently confirm what happened,” Davis told The Washington Post, adding his regrets. Davis also continued to back off of his hacking claims, explaining that he was merely “giving an instinct that [Cohen] might have something to say of interest,” though, yet again, “I am just not sure.”
But Davis was not done; he then revealed that he had also been used as anonymous source for CNN’s initial story. This did not just raise a sourcing issue for CNN but a potential scandal: In its initial report, CNN had falsely claimed that Davis had declined to comment. This meant that CNN had not just relied on a source who no longer stood by his story, but mislead readers into believing that he was not a source. To date, CNN has yet to offer an explanation for the gaffe—which, along with the failure to explain it—is not a first.
In his dizzying retraction tour, Davis also raised doubts about another story that had been circulating for months. In April, McClatchy reported that Mueller’s team has information about Cohen that could corroborate a key claim in the Steele dossier, the DNC-funded report alleging a high-level conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The dossier claims that Cohen visited Prague in August or September 2016 to meet with Russian officials as part of his key role “in a cover up and damage limitation operation” over the hacking of Democratic Party emails. Citing two sources, McClatchy claimed that Mueller “has evidence” that Cohen secretly visited Prague during the period in question. Davis now says that that claim is false. Cohen, Davis told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, was “never, ever in Prague.”
The only story Cohen has affirmed is the one he shared in court: that Trump, in order to influence the election outcome, directed him to make a hush-money payment to cover up for an extramarital affair. That allegation may or may not prove to be sufficient grounds for impeachment, but they decidedly do not fall under Robert Mueller’s purview.
Cohen’s indictment coincided with Paul Manafort’s conviction on tax-evasion and bank-fraud charges related to his political consulting work in Ukraine. It is often speculated that Manafort’s Ukraine stint is relevant to a Trump-Russia conspiracy plot because, the theory goes, he served Kremlin interests during his time there. The opposite is the case, as Manafort’s former partner-turned-prosecution-witness, Rick Gates, reaffirmed during trial. Gates testified that Manafort pushed his client, then–Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, to align with the European Union and away from Russia. According to Gates, Manafort was paid lucratively to craft a policy known as “Engage Ukraine,” which “became the strategy for helping Ukraine enter the European Union.” Given that the tug-of-war between Russia and the EU (with US backing) over Ukraine sparked a full-blown international crisis and a new Cold War, Manafort’s strategy would be an odd one for a supposed Kremlin stooge.
Putting aside Manafort’s record in Ukraine, there have been attempts to tie him to a potential Russia conspiracy via his financial debts to Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska. During the campaign, Manafort wrote to an associate about leveraging his position in the Trump camp in order to “get whole” with Deripaska, even suggesting that he offer “private briefings.” Could this have been, pundits suggest, where a collusion plot was hatched?
Deripaska denies ever having been offered private briefings by Manafort. Another impediment to tying Deripaska to a Trump-Russia collusion plot is that Deripaska has connections to the figure arguably most responsible for the allegations of collusion. Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent whose DNC-funded “dossier” alleged a longstanding Trump-Kremlin conspiracy, has served as an intermediary for contacts between Deripaska and US officials. Deripaska even has a link to Mueller and the federal agency he once headed. In 2009, when Mueller was in charge of the FBI, Deripaska ponied up millions of dollars for a secret effort to rescue a captured CIA operative, Robert Levinson, in Iran. In return, the FBI—with the encouragement of Steele—helped secure a visa for Deripaska, who had been banned from the United States for alleged ties to Russian organized crime. In short, Deripaska’s various contacts make plain that Manafort’s financial ties to him, illicit or not, do not necessarily lead to a Kremlin conspiracy.
Most critically, Mueller has yet to allege one. Prosecutors openly acknowledged before Manafort’s first trial that the case had nothing to do with “evidence or argument concerning collusion with the Russian government,” while the judge in Manafort’s upcoming second trial notes that the collusion investigation is “wholly irrelevant to the charges in this case.”
The same could be said for all of the other charges in the Mueller investigation to date. Mueller has uncovered criminal activity, but not as of yet a conspiracy with a foreign power. Should that trend continue, it need not be a defeat for the resistance. The Russiagate fixation has diverted attention from many of Trump’s damaging policies and turned vast segments of the public into spectators of an endless drama. A political opposition mobilized around a range of issues that materially impact Americans—and no longer counting on Mueller’s investigation—may be the strongest threat that Trump could face.