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Russia probe ensnares 3 former Trump campaign aides

Report: Iowa's Sam Clovis encouraged adviser to meet with Russians

Iowa native Sam Clovis, center, national co-chair and policy adviser for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, meets June 8, 2016, with Iowa conservatives at an Urbandale restaurant. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)
Iowa native Sam Clovis, center, national co-chair and policy adviser for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, meets June 8, 2016, with Iowa conservatives at an Urbandale restaurant. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

WASHINGTON — The special counsel investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential race announced criminal charges Monday against three former campaign aides to President Donald Trump — including his former campaign manager — marking an explosive new phase in the FBI probe.

One of the three repeatedly sought to arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and senior Russian officials in London or in Moscow, according to court documents. The meeting did not take place, but court documents describe an extensive effort by Russian officials to gain access to Trump’s operation.

Court papers disclosed that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, was arrested months ago and is cooperating with prosecutors led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager, and Richard W. Gates III, who was Manafort’s top deputy and helped run Trump’s inauguration, were separately accused of a total of 12 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering in a financial scheme that ran from 2006 to 2017, allegations that are not directly related to the campaign.

In a court hearing, Manafort and Gates both pleaded not guilty. Manafort was released on $10 million bail and Gates was released on $5 million bail. Both surrendered their passports and were ordered under house arrest.

While the case against Manafort and Gates carries the potential of long years of prison time, the case against Papadopoulos may be more significant for the White House. It marks the first guilty plea related to dealings with Russia by someone connected with the Trump campaign.

Court papers revealed that Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty in a closed-door court hearing Oct. 5 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with people who claimed to have direct connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials.

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In a January interview with the FBI, Papadopoulos told agents a London-based professor had claimed he had “dirt” on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails.”

After a March 2016 meeting with the professor, who was not identified in court records, Papadopoulos emailed a campaign supervisor and other members of the campaign’s foreign policy team. He claimed the professor had introduced him to “Putin’s niece” and the Russian ambassador in London, and the purpose was “to arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump,” court documents say.

The government noted the woman was not really Putin’s niece, and while Papadopoulos expected the professor would introduce him to the Russian ambassador, that never happened.

But in the months that followed, Papadopoulos continued to correspond with the woman and the professor about a meeting between the Trump campaign, possibly including Trump himself, and Russian officials.

At several points during this time, documents show, a “campaign supervisor” praised him for his “good work” and urged him to “make the trip, if feasible.”

Yahoo! News and the Washington Post reported Monday the unnamed supervisor was Sam Clovis, the former Northwest Iowa conservative radio host who served as Trump’s national campaign co-chairman.

Victoria Toensing, an attorney for Clovis, confirmed to the Post that several references in the court filings refer to her client. But she said Clovis, now an agriculture official in the Trump administration, always opposed a trip to Russia by candidate Trump or anyone in the campaign.

She said his responses to Papadopoulos were courtesies by “a polite gentleman from Iowa.”

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Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old former researcher at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 after working for Ben Carson’s failed presidential bid. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders described him Monday as a campaign “volunteer” whose role was “extremely limited.”

But since his secret arrest at Dulles International Airport in July, Papadopoulos has met with Mueller’s team on “numerous occasions” according to records.

Papadopoulos’ meeting with the professor in London is the second documented instance of someone with claimed connections to the Russian government offering damaging information about Clinton to the Trump campaign.

In June 2016, Manafort joined Donald Trump Jr. in a meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer and lobbyist, after Trump Jr. was offered damaging information about Clinton.

The indictment against Manafort and Gates doesn’t reference their work for the Trump campaign, a point Trump noted on Twitter.

“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” Trump wrote.

“ ... Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” he said in another tweet.

According to the indictment, Manafort and Gates used offshore accounts and shell companies in Cyprus, the Seychelles and the Caribbean to hide $75 million for representing a pro-Kremlin political faction in Ukraine but avoid paying U.S. taxes.

“Manafort used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income,” the charges said. The indictment says he laundered more than $18 million.

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Manafort did not report the income to the government and denied to his tax preparer than he held any offshore accounts, the charges say.

Manafort also was charged with filing false reports to conceal that he was acting as an unregistered foreign agent. The charges state Manafort and Gates were agents for former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich and his pro-Russian Party of Regions.

The Washington Post and Tribune Washington Bureau contributed.

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