Conservatives say Papadopoulos testimony reinforces belief of no collusion
House Republicans say George Papadopoulos’s closed-door testimony before lawmakers on Thursday has reinforced their views that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race.
Two GOP lawmakers on the House Judiciary and House Oversight committees — panels that are leading a joint investigation into FBI and Justice Department decision-making during the race — described Papadopoulos as a clueless former campaign aide who somehow got swept up in the high-profile federal investigation, arguing that they have seen no evidence of collusion.
They took shots at the ongoing Russia investigation, expressing dismay that federal officials would launch their probe based off of their information on Papadopoulos, who had been with the campaign for only a short period of time after moving over from Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.
“It really stretches credibility to figure out why the FBI opened this high profile investigation into potential collusion between a presidential campaign and the Russian government that centers around a person who has to this day never been to Russia and who to this day has never knowingly talked to anyone with the Russian government,” Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) told reporters amid the interview.
“What we are finding is we have George Papadopoulos, the person who was supposedly the whole reason why we have this Russia collusion investigation going on, and yet he’s never knowingly met with a Russian government official, he’s never traveled to Russia,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump ally who is one of the DOJ and FBI’s fiercest critics.
Papadopoulos had the opportunity to tell lawmakers his version of events about his time as Trump campaign aide during the 2016 presidential election, stating that he “answered as truthfully as I possibly could” after the nearly six-hour interview concluded.
“I’m glad both sides were able to ask me any questions that they had,” Papadopoulos told reporters, shortly before one of his lawyers tapped him on the shoulder to say enough.
Meadows also told reporters after the interview concluded that he has asked the committee to make some referrals to the DOJ, stating that certain information that Papadopoulos gave them should be examined further.
“The facts are astounding that we would allow this type of investigation to be embarked upon without any real solid foundation of collusion,” Meadows added, describing Papadopoulos as having very “limited” involvement with the Trump campaign.
Meadows in particular expressed “concern” after Papapopoulos offered two new names of officials tied to the U.S. government or other foreign governments who interacted with him during the election.
“Two new names came up today,” Meadows said in part. “Their connections to the U.S. government or foreign governments is of key concern to a number of us that are asking questions.”
Ratcliffe also said that Papadopoulos’ interview has reinforced his view — one that is held by a group of House Republicans — that federal officials abused federal surveillance powers out of what they claim is spite towards Trump.
“I think there are material facts in classified documents that I’ve seen that were not disclosed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). There’s an obligation that the government has to disclose all material facts. Some of those material facts related to George Papadopoulos,” Ratcliffe told reporters.
Democrats, on the other hand, have described this investigation as an attempt to shield the White House by distracting or undermining special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which is examining ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
“I see this whole thing as a footnote to a side-show of a wild goose chase,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the only Democrat out of a handful of lawmakers to attend the interview during the recess break. “Generally, there is a right-wing echo chamber that traffics in rumors and lies and fake news — and they all send it back to each other.”
Without providing evidence, Papadopoulos has made a series of claims that the United Kingdom and Australia targeted him as part of an effort to “sabotage” Trump’s campaign, alleging that these two U.S. allies colluded with the Obama administration to “fabricate collusion and crimes.”
When asked whether he provided evidence to back up his assertions, GOP lawmakers replied that Papadopoulos was speaking towards his view of events and declined to get into interview specifics. They said his claims should be verified, but that he also showed himself to be a willing witness including offering to turn over records and emails to help their investigation.
Raskin, on the other hand, pointed out how Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to one count of lying to federal investigators last year about his Russia contacts, resulting in him being sentenced to 14 days in federal prison in September.
“He’s been convicted of lying to the FBI so you have got to take his testimony for what it is worth,” Raskin said.
Papadopoulos did not respond to press questions about whether he can provide evidence to support such claims.
Papadopoulos emerged as a key figure in the federal counterintelligence investigation into Russian election interference after he told a top Australian diplomat during the 2016 race that the Russians had dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the form of thousands of emails — a statement he made before WikiLeaks began releasing hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.
He’d learned the information from Joseph Misfud, a Kremlin-linked professor who took an interest in the young foreign policy adviser. Papadopoulos has claimed that Misfud is an British intelligence official rather than a Russian one — a claim he has made without offering concrete evidence.
The FBI, after receiving a tip from the Australians, opened what is now the high-profile investigation into Russia’s election interference.
While Papadopoulos cooperated with investigators, Mueller’s team has indicated that the former aide did it begrudgingly and that he offered little substantial information for their ongoing investigation. He is the first person known to be cooperating with Mueller’s probe.
It’s unclear whether Papadopoulos told other members of the Trump campaign about knowing of such damaging information — a factor that could add fodder to Mueller’s investigation probing whether the Trump campaign conspired with Moscow during the 2016 presidential race.
Following his sentencing, Papadopoulos told CNN that he has “no recollection” of sharing information about emails possessed by the Russians to other members of the Trump campaign, but couldn’t “guarantee” it.
Trump and his advisers have repeatedly denied any collusion between Russia and his campaign.
Meadows on Thursday also indicated that he believes the joint investigation should begin to wrap up soon, stating that they have a handful more witnesses that the committee needs to interview before they can bring the probe to an end.