WASHINGTON – Greek-American George Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents working for special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The White House scrambled to contain the potential fallout, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders contending on Monday that Papadopoulos’ role in the campaign was “extremely limited.” She said that “any actions that he took would have been on his own.”
By the end of March 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump had signed him up as a foreign policy advisor. In an interview with the Washington Post editorial board, Trump listed Papadopoulos third among five foreign policy advisors. “He’s an energy and oil consultant, excellent guy,” Trump told the journalists, describing Papadopoulos.
Listen to the audio excerpt (00.46):
WH Press Secretary Sarah Sanders answering questions about George Papadopoulos
Q Sarah, first I’d like to get the White House reaction to the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates — the agreement with George Papadopoulos. And specifically, you know, we have heard a couple tweets from the President, if you can help me understand. When he says, “why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus,” is the President saying that Special Counsel Mueller should really be investigating Hillary Clinton and the Democrats? And is he going to rule out, once and for all, firing Robert Mueller?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I’ll address the second question first. The President said last week — I believe it was last week — and I’ve said it several times before, there is no intention or plan to make any changes in regards to the special counsel.
But look, today’s announcement has nothing to do with the President, has nothing to do with the President’s campaign or campaign activity. The real collusion scandal, as we’ve said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS, and Russia.
There’s clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding with Russian intelligence to spread disinformation and smear the President to influence the election. We’ve been saying from day one there has been no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and nothing in the indictment today changes that at all.
Q But the George Papadopoulos agreement is about the campaign. It is specifically about the campaign —
MS. SANDERS: It has nothing to do with the activities of the campaign. It has to do with his failure to tell the truth. That doesn’t have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign’s activities.
Q But it is the clearest evidence yet of ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials so —
MS. SANDERS: Again, there are no activities or official capacity in which the Trump Campaign was engaged in any of these activities. Most of them took place well before the campaign ever even existed.
Q Sarah can you just explain what George Papadopoulos’ role with the campaign was?
MS. SANDERS: It was extremely limited; it was a volunteer position. And again, no activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign in that regard.
Q What about the outreach that he was making to campaign officials to try to put together this meeting?
MS. SANDERS: You mean the outreach that was repeatedly denied and pushed away and said —
Q Well, that’s what I meant —
MS. SANDERS: — we’re not going to take any action on that?
Q Can you explain what happened with his outreach?
MS. SANDERS: He reached out and nothing happened beyond that — which, I think, shows, one, his level of importance in the campaign, and, two, shows what little role he had within coordinating anything officially for the campaign.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. I wanted to ask about Mr. Mueller’s investigation. The President, at times, has called it a “hoax” and he’s called it a “witch hunt.” You’ve used similar type of language before, as it relates to his investigation.
Last week, you indicated, Sarah, that you believe that Mr. Mueller is wrapping up his investigation. And I’ve heard similar things coming from other senior administration officials. Do you still believe that Mr. Mueller is in the process of wrapping up his investigation?
MS. SANDERS: We still expect this to conclude soon. Yes.
Q Thank you Sarah. Paul Manafort was high-ranking in the President’s campaign at one time. I’d like to know what the President’s relationship is with him now. Do they still talk? When was the last time they might have had contact?
MS. SANDERS: As far as we can tell, we know they haven’t spoken in several months. The last known conversation was back all the way to February. And as far as anything beyond that, with Paul, I’m not sure of any other contact.
Q And Rick Gates as well?
MS. SANDERS: I know that there was some initial contact after the President was sworn in with him at meetings here at the White House, but nothing directly with the President.
Q Yeah, thank you, Sarah. On March 31, according to the affidavit by Mr. Papadopoulos, he attended a foreign policy meeting; the President was there. He said that he talked about how he — that Russia wanted to talk to the President. What did the President think when he said he wanted to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin? And how did other people in the campaign react to that?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure that the President recalls specific details of the meeting. Again, it was a brief meeting that took place quite some time ago. It was the one time that group ever met. And beyond that, I really don’t have anything to add.
Q Thank you, Sarah. As you mentioned, Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates were named in this for things not having anything to do with the campaign, but with alleged money-laundering regarding other business. Now under those circumstances, would the President consider or rule out pardoning either of them?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had any conversations with him about that. I think we should let the process play through before we start looking at those steps.
Q Papadopoulos, at this time, was working — was reporting to Jeff Sessions at the time, who was overseeing Trump’s foreign policy advisory committee. What does this mean for Jeff Sessions?
MS. SANDERS: Again, somebody on a volunteer committee — I’m not sure how that would impact the Attorney General directly.
Q Can you say — given what we have learned over the last few hours, can you say when the President was first aware that Russia was behind the hacking and was in the possession of emails — what they considered to be damaging emails about the Clinton campaign that they were trying to get to the Trump campaign? When was he first aware of that?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure of the specific date of when that took place. So I’d have to look and get back to you.
Q Sarah, does the President regret having hired Paul Manafort’s to be his campaign manager? And is he and the rest of the White House concerned that this issue will distract from tax reform and the other domestic policy and foreign policy priorities?
MS. SANDERS: We’re not worried about it distracting because it doesn’t have anything to do with us because this is something that is action that took place outside of the campaign or campaign activity.
Q And as far as whether he regrets having hired him to be campaign manager?
MS. SANDERS: I didn’t ask if him that question specifically.
Q Sarah, how can you describe Mr. Papadopoulos’ having a limited role when there’s a photograph of Mr. Papadopoulos sitting at a table with then-candidate Trump at a national security meeting —
MS. SANDERS: The President has thousands of photographs with millions of people so —
Q And he was also cited by then-candidate Trump in a meeting with the Washington Post as to who his top foreign policy advisors are. That seems to fight against what you’re saying.
And also how is it not collusion when George Papadopoulos is in contact with various people who are promising dirt on Hillary Clinton — a series of events that closely mirrors what occurred with the President’s own son? Did he contact Russians —
MS. SANDERS: This individual was on a —
Q — in pursuit of information that was damaging about the Clintons. How is all of that not collusion?
MS. SANDERS: Look, this individual was the member of a volunteer advisory council that met one time over the course of a year, and he was part of a list that was read out in the Washington Post. I’d hardly call that some sort of regular advisor or, as you want to push, that he’s like a senior member of the staff. He was not paid by the campaign, he was a volunteer on a — again, a council that met once.
Q And what about these activities? What about these collusion activities, Sarah? He was pursuing information from the Russians —
MS. SANDERS: Again, he was a volunteer. I think that’s something you need to ask him. I’m not here to speak on behalf of the thousands of people that may have volunteered on the campaign.
Q Believe it or not, I have a question on this but also on tax reform. The President has called on Congress to investigate Hillary Clinton. Is he confident that they will do that?
MS. SANDERS: I think that’s a question you’d have to ask Congress. But I think that there are enough reports and enough information out there that seems to suggest it might not be a bad idea.
Q (Inaudible) any congressional leaders of committees that —
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s had a member of Congress specifically tell him that they’re planning —
Q Okay, my question about tax reform is: Where does the President stand on the idea of phasing in the corporate tax cuts so it would reach 20 percent sometime around 2022?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President has been clear that his priority is to make sure that that’s where we start with the tax plan currently. I think, again, he’s laid out what his principles are. As of right know, that hasn’t changed and don’t anticipate that it will.
Q Sarah, just so we have that terminology straight. When you say George Papadopoulos had no official capacity, what do you mean by that?
MS. SANDERS: I mean he was a volunteer on the campaign and a volunteer member of an advisory council that met one time.
Q So his activities were entirely of his invention? No one asked him to do any of these things? Is that what you’re telling the American public?
MS. SANDERS: I’m telling you that he was a volunteer member of an advisory council that literally met one time.
Q Right. But the reason I ask is now there are two episodes in which people associated with the campaign at rather high level — at least in one instance, and George Papadopoulos is a member of a foreign policy or military advisory committee — sought dirt on Hillary Clinton from people representing themselves as either linked to or associated with the Russian government. Is that just a coincidence?
MS. SANDERS: The only interaction I’m aware of that deals with this individual was him reaching out and being repeatedly denied.
So that’s all I can tell you is he asked to do things, he was basically pushed back or not responded to in any way. So any actions that he took would have been on his own and you would have to ask him about those because I can’t answer —
Q And then what explains later activities that the campaign — to have that similar — that same kind of meeting at Trump Tower?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q What explains the campaign’s later involvement with those associated with the Russian government — or said they were — to get dirt on Hillary Clinton later in the campaign? Are these things — are they coincidental?
MS. SANDERS: We’ve addressed that. They took one meeting. Nothing came of it. No, I don’t believe so.
Q Does that indicate a pattern of trying to obtain that information from that government?
MS. SANDERS: A pattern of getting information about your opponent? No.
Q From a hostile government?
MS. SANDERS: The big difference here is you have a meeting that took place versus millions of dollars being sent to create fake information to actually influence the election. You compare those two, those are apples and oranges.
What the Clinton campaign did, what the DNC did, was actually exchange money. They took a meeting. Those are far different. And one is pretty common practice in any campaign — to take a meeting. The other one is actually paying money for false information. That’s a big deal and a big difference.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I have two questions for you. But first, if I could follow up on your comment there about the GPS Dossier. This is an issue that many senior-level administration officials have pointed to during these questions about the special counsel. Has the White House asked the Department of Justice to look into this issue?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Can I follow up on Mueller? You’ve spoken with the President today?
MS. SANDERS: Yes, I have.
Q Can you give us a little bit about his reaction to the news this morning? Obviously, news that swept the nation’s capital, but what — how did the President respond to this news about two people who did work for his campaign? Was he disappointed that Paul Manafort received this news today — that he was being charged on these 12 counts?
MS. SANDERS: He responded the same way the rest of us in the White House have, and that’s without a lot of reaction because it doesn’t have anything to do with us.
Q Sarah, we are now talking about two of the most senior members of the campaign at a very pivotal time — through and including the RNC last year — who are now under federal indictment for very serious crimes —
MS. SANDERS: For something they did outside of the campaign.
Q — that admittedly they did not allegedly conduct during their work for the campaign. But doesn’t it speak to the President’s judgement that he would choose to have these two individuals in very high positions, having allegedly committed these crimes in the years leading up to their roles?
MS. SANDERS: These were seasoned operatives, not — you make it sound like they were, you know, regular offenders that have been in massive amounts of trouble. These were seasoned operatives that worked on a number of campaigns. Paul Manafort was brought in to lead the delegate process, which he did, and was dismissed not too long after that.
Q But the President has no regrets?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I didn’t ask him that question specifically.
Q Sarah, what leads you to believe that the Mueller investigation will conclude soon? Do you also believe that there could be more indictments? And my third question, on another subject — welfare reform: The President talked about this a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been trying to find out what is the focus. How do you plan to implement welfare reform?
MS. SANDERS: We haven’t made any specific announcements when it comes to welfare reform. Those are ongoing conversations and we’re looking at ways to improve the system. But nothing specific to roll out at this time.
I’m sorry, what was the first part of your question?
Q The first one: What leads you to believe that this will conclude the Mueller investigation? Have you been given a head’s up? What?
MS. SANDERS: Those are the indications that we have at this time. I can’t go any further than that.
Q And also do you believe — indications from who and where? Sarah, indications from where?
MS. SANDERS: As I just said I can’t go any further than that.
Q And also what about — you don’t believe there will be any more indictments at all?
MS. SANDERS: That’s a question you’d have to ask Robert Mueller.
Q But you’re saying that it’s going to be concluded soon?
MS. SANDERS: I still (inaudible) that we believe that it will be concluded soon. But beyond that, I don’t have anything else to add on a specific timeframe.
Q Sarah, in March, the President called — March, 2016 — the President called George Papadopoulos an “excellent guy.” Does he still believe that Papadopoulos is an excellent guy?
MS. SANDERS: Look, he was referring to the council. He was going through the list of names with the Washington Post, and nothing more than that — and complimentary of the people that were volunteering on behalf of the campaign.
Q Papadopoulos told the FBI that a campaign supervisor told him, I would encourage you to make the trip to Russia (inaudible.) How does that not constitute the campaign encouraging him to make contact with Russia?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of that conversation, so I can’t speak to that.
Q Sarah, at the end of the day is there any concern at all from this administration — again, trying to drill down on what was asked earlier — that two people who worked for the President are now under indictment? One has pleaded guilty. And he promised to hire only the best people. Is this an example of the best people to hire?
MS. SANDERS: Look, again, this does back to these were activities that took place outside of the scope of the campaign. I can’t comment on anything they did prior —
Q But are these the best people to hire?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President hired Paul Manafort to handle the delegate process, which he did. And he was dismissed not too long after that.
Q Sarah, last week the administration opposed a federal judge’s decision that allowed an undocumented teen immigrant to have an abortion. Now that that case is over, it’s been decided — she’s had that abortion. What is the White House reaction to that decision? And does it set a dangerous precedent going forward?
MS. SANDERS: I can’t comment on the specifics of that at this point.
Q Was the President aware of this case at all? Did he comment on it?
MS. SANDERS: I didn’t speak directly with him about the case.
Q Sarah, thank you. I’d like to ask you about a different topic. Just breaking before the briefing, a court banned the President from changing military policy on service by transgender people. What’s the reaction from the White House and the plan moving forward with reference to this?
MS. SANDERS: Obviously, this is something just announced. The Department of Justice has it, they’re reviewing, and I’d refer you to them to any specific questions.
Q Congressman Gowdy this weekend had suggested that there should be an investigation into the leaks of the grand jury investigation, or Robert Mueller’s investigation. Do you think there should be an investigation? Are you all asking for an investigation?
MS. SANDERS: We haven’t asked for that investigation to take place.
Q Would you support an investigation?
MS. SANDERS: I think that any time there is leaking of sensitive information it should be looked into. But beyond that, we don’t have any comment.
Q Sarah, thanks. Does the President in any way hold Jared Kushner responsible for hiring Paul Manafort? After all, he was an early supporter of bringing him on board.
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of, no.
Q And, Sarah, to just follow up on the point of hiring the best people, the top, top people, he said. Does this not at the very least raise questions about President Trump’s vetting process and judgement when it comes to bringing on these people?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe so. I think I’ve answered that quite a few times today.
Q Sarah, two quick questions. Does the President — you said back in July that the President believed that the investigation for the special counsel should stay within the confines of Russian election meddling. Given what we learned today, does the President believe Bob Mueller overstepped the boundaries of his investigation?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t spoken with him specifically about that detail.
Q Okay. And my second question, Sarah, would just be on the topic regarding the plea agreement with George Papadopoulos. You’ve indicted the President did not remember that March 31st meeting, the photograph, right?
MS. SANDERS: No, I didn’t say he didn’t remember the meeting. I said he didn’t remember those comments from George Papadopoulos.
Q Did he remember anything about that meeting — his interactions with Papadopoulos — given that he’s talked about his great memory?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe that he went into detail about the meeting itself. He remembers it taking place, but we didn’t go into anything beyond that or into specifics.
Q And specifically did not remember that Russia comments? Did he remember Papadopoulos’s presence? Did they have interaction?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Gallup just came out with a poll giving 33 percent approval, 62 percent disapproval to the President. What’s your reaction? Is the President aware of this? Any plans of changing anything?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re focused aggressively on pushing forward on a very bold agenda specific to tax reform, tax cuts. I think that the economy continuing to grow and strengthen is something that will certainly change those numbers. But at the same time, I think these are some of the same polls that also said this President would never be President, so I don’t have a lot of confidence in them.
I’ll take one last question.
Q Sarah, can you please clarify your answer to Mara — that the stock market is moving downwards on this news that possibly the corporate rate could be phased in over several years? I wasn’t sure if you were trying to make the point that the President would be for a phase-in or against a phase-in.
MS. SANDERS: No, I said that the President laid out his principles and it doesn’t include the phasing in, so we’re still committed to that moving forward. And I don’t have any reason to believe we’d have changes —
Q So the red line of — so the red line of the 20 percent corporate rate stands —
MS. SANDERS: I’m not drawing a red line. I’m just saying those are the principles that we’ve laid out, and we haven’t adjusted or changed our principles since this process started.
Thanks so much, guys. Have a good day.