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Special counsel sets in motion sentencing process for Papadopoulos

Trump officials have tried to cast George Papadopoulos as a low-level figure on the campaign, but documents show extensive contact with top campaign officials. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: -/The Washington Post)

A federal judge agreed Wednesday to begin the process of preparing to sentence George Papadopoulos, a former adviser to President Trump’s 2016 campaign, an initial move toward wrapping up one phase of the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI about Russian contacts during the campaign and has been cooperating with the investigation.

In the filing Wednesday, prosecutors with the special counsel’s office asked the judge to refer Papadapoulous’s case to U.S. probation officials to prepare a pre-sentencing report — the first step to bringing his case to a close. They indicated that they would update the court on that process on June 22.

Prosecutors’ willingness to start the sentencing process for Papadopoulos may be a sign that their need of assistance from the young oil and gas consultant is coming to a close.

Typically, prosecutors try to delay sentencing for witnesses until their cooperation is no longer needed, including any appearances in front of a grand jury or as a witness at a trial.

The pre-sentencing report is an investigation into whether a person’s background may warrant a harsher or more lenient sentence and is a necessary step in the federal system before sentencing. U.S. District Judge Randolph D. Moss ordered the report to be completed by Aug. 1, meaning that both sides at next month’s update could request a sentencing date no sooner than Labor Day, unless the defense waives its right to 35 days’ notice. However, prosecutors are not required to set a sentencing date even after the report is complete.

For ‘low level volunteer,’ Papadopoulos sought high profile as Trump adviser

An attorney for Papadopoulos did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Mueller’s office declined to comment.

Timothy Belevetz, a former federal prosecutor now with the law firm Holland & Knight, said the filing is an important milestone. “I think what we’re seeing is the special counsel trying to show some progress — trying to show that the investigation is moving along and individual components are coming to a conclusion,” he said.

The conclusion of the Papadopoulos chapter would be a significant milestone in the investigation, which was formally opened after Australian officials alerted the FBI to an unusual interaction with the young adviser in London in July 2016.

The Australians said Papadopoulos told one of their diplomats that he had been informed by a London-based professor, Josef Mifsud, that the Russians had damaging material about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

That September, Stefan A. Halper, a retired professor and FBI source, invited Papadopoulos to London, offering him $3,000 to discuss an energy-related research paper. The activities of Halper, which were recently disclosed by The Washington Post and other news organizations, have led Trump and his allies to accuse the FBI of spying on his campaign.

Trump named Papadopoulos to a volunteer national security advisory panel for his campaign in March 2016. Papadopoulos then repeatedly — though unsuccessfully — sought to arrange a meeting between Trump campaign staffers and Russian officials.

Trump has dismissed Papadopoulos as a low-level volunteer, a fringe player whose actions should not reflect on the campaign. But internal campaign emails described to The Post show that Papadopoulos kept top campaign staffers apprised of his activities. He exchanged emails with top officials during the campaign and presidential transition, including former top adviser Stephen K. Bannon and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Trump officials encouraged George Papadopoulos’s foreign outreach, documents show

In a March 31, 2016, meeting of the advisory board attended by Trump and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Papadopoulos announced that he could arrange a meeting for Trump with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

About that time, prosecutors have said, the London-based professor, Mifsud, began showing interest in Papadopoulos. Mifsud told Papadopoulos in April 2016 about the damaging emails, indicating that he had been told about the documents while attending a recent conference in Russia, according to court documents.

Mifsud also introduced Papadopoulos to two Russian contacts — a woman and a man who had connections with the Russian Foreign Ministry, court documents show.

In his guilty plea, Papadopoulos admitted that he had lied to FBI agents during a February 2017 interview and misled them about interactions he had with Mifsud and his Russian contacts.

Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.