We are now hearing various versions of who knew what and who said what about the idea of George Papadopoulos arranging a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. All these points notwithstanding, let’s remember that the idea that a presidential candidate would hold a summit with a foreign head of state – especially Vladimir Putin – is completely crazy, even if you have a maximal take on the Trump/Russia scandal. In many ways, it’s crazy especially if you have a maximal take on the Trump/Russia scandal.
This is one of many oddities about the Papadopoulos chapter of the Russia story. This is a thirty year old guy who as best I can tell never once held what could properly be called a job in foreign policy work by really any definition. He was nonetheless for a time one of five official foreign policy advisors for the man who was already the de facto nominee of the GOP (already by March that fact was pretty clear, though not final). On taking the assignment he is, according to the plea agreement, told that a rapprochement with Russia is a top policy priority of candidate Trump. He immediately begins making contacts with people tied to the Russian government in a way that is at a minimum highly irregular and embarrassing.
But in the process of that he’s discussing a potential meeting with Putin. Needless to say, it’s going to be highly, highly difficult to arrange such a meeting without anyone knowing about it. So it’s got to be public – unless they have some cockamamie idea of meeting in a safe house or something. (Can we totally rule that out? Honestly, not sure.) What is most striking to me about this is that this is not only totally crazy. It would not even further some kind of secret understanding to collaborate on help in the election in exchange for policy accommodations post-election. So how does this fit together? Because at a minimum Papadopoulos was looking for and discussing getting dirt on Hillary Clinton while trying to negotiate or discuss some policy accommodations. What he was trying to do was effectively collusion. And we don’t even know all the details yet.
Maybe candidate Trump didn’t rule such a meeting out. But it seems quite clear that Manafort and likely Sessions too – whatever their broader plans – could see quite clearly that that was a totally ridiculous idea. Trump’s an idiot, if savantish in key ways; Papadopoulos is a complete fool. Manafort and Sessions are not fools at all.
How to reconcile all of this? The only one I can see that addresses all the facts is that Papadopoulos is an idiot. But the Russians found him a useful one. The idea of a meeting with Putin must have been discussed either because he brought it up and his interlocutors humored him while trying to figure out how he could be suborned into their plans or they brought up it wanting to test the limits of what he and his supervisors in the campaign would consider. In other words, toying with him.
As I wrote a few days ago, intelligence operatives trying compromise or penetrate a foreign government or organization look for people who are crooked or desperate. Stupid doesn’t hurt either. With Papadopoulos it sounds like they had at least two of the three.