RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The big question is, what is next in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election? Yesterday, three people with ties to the Trump campaign were charged with multiple crimes, including conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to launder money. The most high-profile is former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, along with his business associate Rick Gates.
But the accusations against a lesser-known Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, may be the most significant, indicating direct efforts by the Trump campaign to make back channel contacts with the Russian government. The White House describes Papadopoulos as a minor figure on the Trump campaign. But in March 2016, then-candidate Trump singled Papadopoulos out when asked about his foreign advisory team in an interview with The Washington Post.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: George Papadopoulos - he's an oil and energy consultant - excellent guy.
MARTIN: For more on this, we're joined by Benjamin Wittes. He's the editor in chief of the Lawfare blog. We should note, he also happens to be a personal friend of fired FBI director James Comey.
Mr. Wittes, thanks for being back on the show.
BENJAMIN WITTES: Thanks for having me. Happy Halloween.
MARTIN: Happy Halloween, indeed. So of the three men named by the Mueller investigation yesterday, only George Papadopoulos pled guilty. He pled guilty to lying to the FBI. He was actually detained back in the summer. What is most significant to you about that?
WITTES: Well, so I think there's two highly significant things. One is that Paul Manafort, who was, of course, the campaign manager or the campaign chairman of the Trump campaign for several months and is therefore a, you know, quite senior figure, was charged with really very serious criminality, including criminal activity, alleged money laundering taking place during the period of the campaign.
The second thing, which, you know, was the big surprise of the day, was that George Papadopoulos admitted to a set of activities during the campaign that begins to look a lot like the sort of collusion that President Trump has so emphatically denied ever having taken place between his campaign and the Russian government.
MARTIN: So Papadopoulos is now being described as a proactive cooperator in yesterday's court filing. Does - what does that mean? Does that mean he's just volunteering up information on his own accord?
WITTES: Well, so George Papadopoulos pled guilty to a single charge and is a cooperating witness, at this point, with Mueller's investigation. And that means that, you know, there was a plea agreement between his lawyers are - and him and the prosecutors in which, you know, they have presumably not charged him with as much criminal conduct as they could have. And in exchange, he is cooperating and presumably providing information about what he knows.
MARTIN: And presumably, he could help them. He could steer the direction of the investigation, getting closer into the president's circle.
WITTES: Well, that, of course, assumes that there is conduct closer to the president's circle - inner circle that he - you know, that would be criminal that Mueller could get to. But yes, if you're conducting the investigation, one of the things that you want to do at this stage is flip witnesses who are in a position to know about the set of things that you're concerned about to find out, you know, is there a problem, and how serious a problem is there in the president's inner circle? And yesterday, the announcement of the Papadopoulos agreement was a sort of dramatic show of strength in that direction.
MARTIN: But you still believe the Manafort indictment to be at least equally important. I mean, the White House is now adamant that the allegations against Manafort and Gates had nothing to do with the Trump campaign. It was, after all, about their work as lobbyists doing work - political consultancy work abroad in Ukraine.
WITTES: Yeah, so first of all, the White House is wrong on that point. Yes, the...
MARTIN: Wrong how?
WITTES: Well, the allegation that Paul Manafort was a unregistered agent of a foreign power is limited to the period before 2014 when Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine for whom Manafort and Gates worked, was ousted. However...
MARTIN: So that was before, yeah.
WITTES: So that was before the campaign. However, the allegations that Manafort was engaged in money laundering with the proceeds of that representation - up to, you know, $75 million is alleged by Mueller to have flowed through his offshore accounts - that those allegations continued through the period of the campaign.
WITTES: And so the allegation that Mueller is making is really that while he was campaign director, Manafort was still laundering money that he had obtained by being a unregistered foreign agent of one of Vladimir Putin's puppets.
MARTIN: Very briefly, do you expect more indictments?
WITTES: Oh, I think it's impossible to predict at this stage where this is going. Yesterday's events show that this investigation is very advanced, very serious.
MARTIN: And ongoing...
WITTES: And it's capable - ongoing and capable of great operational security.
MARTIN: Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare - thank you.
WITTES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.