President Donald Trump’s personal attorney spoke to show host Wolf Blitzer on CNN to answer questions about the indictments released on Monday against Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates. Attorney Jay Sekulow also discussed the plea of George Papadopoulos -- a Trump campaign adviser -- who was convicted of misleading the FBI about conversations he had with an unnamed professor who allegedly acted as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials. A former senior adviser to the Trump campaign told CNN on Monday that Papadopoulos was a “zero” as far as his influence on the campaign was concerned.

Sekulow told Blitzer on Monday that there was nothing illegal about the conversations Papadopoulos held. His error, he said, was in lying to the FBI. Unlike lying to local police officials, defendants who lie to the FBI can incur federal criminal charges. Making false statements is the common name for the federal crime laid out in the United States Code, which generally prohibits knowingly and willfully making false or fraudulent statements in "any matter within the jurisdiction" of the federal government of the United States. Among those convicted in the past under the statute are Martha Stewart, Rod Blagojevich, Scooter Libby, and Bernard Madoff. Sekulow, however, said he was “not concerned” about Papadopoulos because the charge “was about a false statement about a timing about when he talked to somebody about Russian activities.”


Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to federal charges. The October 5 plea was unsealed on Monday. The “Offense Statement” filed in a Washington D.C. federal court noted that Papadopoulos served as a “foreign policy advisor for the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump (the "Campaign")” and made “material false statements and material omissions during an interview with the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI'.) that took place on January 27, 2017.” The document noted that the FBI was investigating “the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the Campaign and Russia's efforts. The FBI opened and coordinated the investigation in Washington, D.C.”

According to the document, Papadopoulos claimed to have had “substantial connections to Russian government officials” before he became an adviser to the Trump campaign. “Defendant PAPADOPOULOS acknowledged that the professor had told him about the Russians possessing ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of ‘thousands of emails,’ but stated multiple times that he learned that information prior to joining the Campaign.” But in reality, Papadopoulos actually met the professor around March 14, 2016, and who told Papadopoulos about the emails around April 26, 2016. By that time, Papadopoulos “had been a foreign policy adviser to the Campaign for over a month.” Papadopoulos had earlier said that the professor was a "nothing."

Sekulow claimed in the CNN interview that the conversation between Papadopoulos and the professor wasn’t “illegal or inappropriate.” Trump’s lawyer said, “A conversation that someone would have, regarding a foreign government, whether it was Great Britain, Russia, or anybody else… that’s not an inappropriate activity.”

Media speculation has focused on whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials who may have had access to emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and exposed by the WikiLeaks transparency organization in the midst of the 2016 presidential election. In analysis of the latest revelations, CNN’s Stephen Collinson wrote in “Dread hangs over Washington as Mueller probe moves ahead,” that:

“For one thing, the Papadopoulos affair contradicts Trump's own assertion that it is now ‘commonly agreed’ that there was no collusion between his campaign and Moscow.

Mueller's pursuit of Papadopoulos shows that the special counsel remains deeply interested in the question -- and could send a chill through other Trump associates and family members embroiled in the Russia drama.

“The case against the former foreign policy adviser also stands as the most comprehensive evidence yet put forward by Mueller of an attempt by Russian operatives to insinuate themselves with the Trump campaign.”

Where is the collusion?

However, there is no clear-cut definition of “collusion” in legal terms. In an article that appeared on POLITICO in July, famed constitutional law professor Alan Dershowitz was asked to define ‘collusion’ and whether it is a crime. Dershowitz said:

“Which criminal statutes, if any, would be violated by collusion between a campaign and a foreign government, if collusion were to be proved? Unless there is a clear violation of an existing criminal statute, there would be no crime. Obviously, if anyone conspired in advance with another to commit a crime, such as hacking the Democratic National Committee, that would be criminal. But merely seeking to obtain the work product of a prior hack would be no more criminal than a newspaper publishing the work products of thefts such as the Pentagon Papers…” Dershowitz added that the probe should have been openly investigated by an independent nonpartisan commission, “rather than by a prosecutor behind the closed doors of a grand jury.”

Another legal expert consulted by POLITICO was Saikrishna Prakash of the University of Virginia, who labeled supposed ‘collusion’ on the part of Donald J. Trump Jr. with a Russian lawyer early during the campaign a “A nothing burger with some secret sauce.” The distinguished law professor told POLITICO, “But I don’t think this really amounts to much, at least as a legal matter. “Collusion” is not a cognizable federal offense. Politicians seek dirt on other candidates—the dirtier the better. That is what ‘opposition research’ is all about.”

On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to a question about Papadopoulos, referring to him as a "volunteer" on Trump's campaign. Speaking to reporters at a press conference, Sanders said, "He was a volunteer member of an advisory council that met one time." 



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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