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Here’s How an Inexperienced Campaign Aide From Illinois Could Impact the Mueller Investigation

Niles West/DePaul graduate George Papadopoulos was the first to plead guilty in the federal investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has announced the first indictments in his investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia—at the center? A young aide from the Chicago suburbs.   Photos: (Mueller) Public Domain / (Trump) STACEY WESCOTT/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

After a weekend of anticipation (or dread, depending on your perspective), special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s influence in the U.S. election started Monday with a bang: the indictment of three former Donald Trump campaign officials.

The least recognizable name of the trio—which includes former Trump campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and his longtime associate, Rick Gates—is George Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old suburban Chicago native who served as a foreign policy adviser in Trump’s campaign.

While Manafort and Gates threw up their defenses and pleaded not guilty on Monday, the public learned, via documents unsealed the same day, that Papadopoulos accepted a plea deal almost a month ago and has been cooperating with federal investigators since July.

In the months between Papadopoulos’s arrest and when he plead guilty to lying to the FBI, he met with [investigators] numerous times “to provide information and answer questions,” according to his charging document. 

“I don’t think there’s any question that he’s flipped,” says Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and legal analyst who is seeking to succeed Lisa Madigan as Illinois attorney general. “Mr. Papadopoulos is a cooperator. What he’s already done is that he’s walked through all those emails with Mueller’s team, explained what they mean, what the context was around those emails, and he’s giving all this other information.”

Put another way: “Whatever information is in Papadopoulos’s brain, it’s now in the hands of Mueller’s investigators,” Mariotti says.

Mariotti says it’s impossible to tell if and to what extent Trump’s campaign team will unravel, but by securing Papadopoulos, federal investigators already have a seemingly firm grip on an important, if unlikely thread.

While Manafort has spent decades in Washington power circles, Papadopoulos’s resume shows him to be a political lightweight with more than a bit of padding on his post-college resume.

He attended Niles West High School in Skokie, graduated from DePaul University and went on to receive a Master’s from the University of London. After that, his work history is thin (he’s been roasted several times by reporters, going back to 2016, for citing his participation in a model U.N. conference as a professional credential on LinkedIn).

The bulk of his experience was with the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington—only their records showed Papadopoulos started as an unpaid intern and was never on salary.

“He provided research assistance on a contractual basis to one of its senior fellows,” the institute told USA Today.

He served a brief stint in Ben Carson’s campaign, before jumping to the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser. Papadopoulos was among the five people Trump touted on his shortlist of foreign policy advisers during his 2016 interview with the Washington Post’s editorial board.

Trump’s defenders, like White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, are downplaying Papadopoulos’s role in the campaign as “extremely limited.”

Despite Sanders’s claim that Papadopoulos was a low-level volunteer, a photo from last year also shows Papadopoulos and 11 other advisers seated with Trump during a campaign national security meeting. The feds later identified it as the same meeting in which he told the group he “had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Putin.”

Regardless of his past, Papadopoulos’s future is somewhat clear: he will only have to answer for the one count of lying to the FBI, thanks to his plea deal, meaning he’s likely to serve between less than six months of jail time, if any.

“To use the prosecutor parlance, he was ‘the first in the door,’" Mariotti explains. “The first person to work with the investigators’ team usually gets the best deal.”

The other part of Papadopoulos’ future is likely to be that of a decoder ring for Mueller’s team.

“When you’re a federal prosecutor, having an insider [like Papadopoulos] explain what’s going on is very important. He’s on the witness stand explaining everything that documents alone can’t,” Mariotti says.

“He’s likely going to spend a lot of time in conference rooms with prosecutors and federal agents,” Mariotti adds. “He’s going to be at the beck and call of the Mueller team for the months—and potentially years—to come.”

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