“He's an energy and oil consultant, excellent guy,” Trump said of Papadopoulos.
Now that Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to making a false statement to FBI investigators, however, Trump's team is casting him not as “excellent” but as practically nonexistent.
“The only thing I know about George Papadopoulos, frankly, is what's in the actual indictment,” Trump's personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, told CNN on Monday afternoon. “I don't know George Papadopoulos.”
Briefing reporters a short time later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders described Papadopoulos's role in the campaign: “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.”
She added this: “He was a volunteer on the campaign and a volunteer member of an advisory council that met one time.”
And this: “I'm telling you that he was a volunteer member of an advisory council that literally met one time.”
Note the “literally” for emphasis.
According to court filings, Papadopoulos gave several Trump campaign officials updates about his efforts to broker meetings between the campaign and the Russian government, forwarding information to unnamed people described as “high-ranking campaign officials” and “campaign supervisor.”Papadopoulos’s emails began days after he was named to Trump’s campaign team and continued for months. At one point, he offered to set up a meeting directly between Trump and Putin.In response, one high-ranking campaign official emailed another official Papadopoulos’s offer, adding, “We need someone to communicate that [Trump] is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”The documents show Papadopoulos lied to federal agents about his interactions with the professor, saying their conversations predated his involvement with the campaign and indicating he believed the professor had low-level contacts in Russia. In fact, he knew that the professor had ties to senior levels of the Russian government, according to court papers.
Sanders stressed that the meetings Papadopoulos tried to broker did not happen.
“He reached out, and nothing happened beyond that, which, I think, shows 1) his level of importance in the campaign and 2) shows what little role he had within coordinating anything officially for the campaign,” she said.
“The only interaction I'm aware of that deals with this individual was him reaching out and being repeatedly denied,” Sanders added later in the briefing. “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'd have to ask him about those.”
The White House previously tried to distance Trump from Paul Manafort, whose indictment on financial charges was unsealed Monday.
In March, the president's spokesman at the time, Sean Spicer, claimed in a media briefing that Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
It was an outlandish claim, given that Manafort had been campaign chairman.
On Monday, Sanders renewed the effort to suggest that Trump and Manafort are not close, but she stayed within the realm of plausibility.
“As far as we can tell, they — we know that they haven't spoken in several months,” she said. “The last known conversation was back all the way to February.”