Opinion writer

The Post reports that former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI investigators in the Robert S. Mueller III probe. That is a big deal, bigger perhaps than the announced indictments of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, whose alleged crimes did not directly implicate anyone in the campaign, let alone President Trump.

We see for the first time the words “Donald J. Trump” in a federal criminal plea bargain. As detailed in the plea, Papadopoulos was a junior foreign policy adviser to the campaign. According to the plea, he lied to the FBI when he said he knowingly communicated with a Russian “professor” with “substantial connections” to the Kremlin before Papadopoulos joined the campaign. In fact, he did so during his employment by the campaign. The Russian told Papadopoulos that he had “thousands” of Hillary Clinton’s emails and later that he had “dirt” on Clinton.

To repeat: A campaign aide communicated with a Kremlin-connected figure about Clinton’s emails with the understanding that the Russian had “dirt” on Clinton. It may have come to nothing, and the aide may have been junior. However, this is collusion. Remember that collusion is not a crime at all, but it is a descriptive buzzword. A “secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy” is the dictionary definition, which may have been the case with Papadopoulos. Former director of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub tells me: “Collusion is not a legal term. Given the everyday meaning of the word, it sure sounds like it might amount to that.” The timing is critical: In March 2016, the Democratic National Committee emails were hacked; in April, contact began with Papadopoulos; and in July, Trump was encouraging the Kremlin to release Clinton’s emails.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III departs after a closed-door meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about Russian meddling in the election and possible connection to the Trump campaign, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Full stop. Yes, collusion about dirt on Clinton between the campaign and Russians with Kremlin connections occurred. But it apparently was not a secret to others on the campaign.

An unnamed “supervisory campaign official” is said to have been informed of Papadopoulos’s meetings with the “professor” and plans to meet with a female Russian national and the Russian ambassador in London. It also mentions a “senior policy adviser” and a “high-ranking campaign official” who was told of efforts to arrange the meeting. The plea details extensive efforts to set up a meeting between Trump and the Russians, of which the supervisory official, the senior policy adviser and the high-ranking campaign official were aware.

Now the question is who these other campaign officials were, whether they ever misrepresented contacts (under oath or otherwise) with the Kremlin-connected officials, what if anything Trump knew about all this and what became of the contacts. If any of these aides later advised the president to fire former FBI director James B. Comey, who was investigating possible collusion, that is a very big problem.

The White House can no longer claim honestly (if it ever could) that the investigation into Russian collusion is nonexistent. The Post reported:

In back-to-back tweets, Trump tried to distance his campaign from the charges.

“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?????” he wrote.

“….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” he said in a follow-up tweet.

Well, he should take a look at Papadopoulos’s plea and think hard about whom those campaign officials might be. Trump’s lawyers’ apparently have not persuaded Trump to cease tweeting. If he keeps this up, suggesting either that he’d pardon those affected or attempting to intimidate potential witnesses, he’ll have crossed a line that even Republicans may find hard to defend.

To some legal experts, it looks as though Papadopoulos is now cooperating with Mueller. Constitutional law guru Laurence Tribe says to “keep in mind that ‘collusion’ isn’t a term of art in the criminal law lexicon but a concept more pertinent to impeachment.” He adds, “It seems to me that the guilty plea today by ex-Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, evidently cooperating with Mueller on his investigation … is likely to be the sleeper in today’s outpouring of news.” (To the extent that others lied under oath about collusion or obstructed justice to prevent it from coming to light, criminal charges could be involved.) Another legal guru, when asked whether Mueller would accept a plea without cooperation, replied: “No way.”

Read more about this topic:

Trump’s meltdown in anticipation of indictments is telling

Manafort just got indicted. Here’s what Mueller likely wants to ask him now.

Indictments signal the beginning of Mueller’s work, not the end

Now begins the crisis stage of the Trump presidency

A Manafort nothingburger is now on the menu