WASHINGTON -- Beware the low-level volunteer.
Virtually unheard of before Monday, when the FBI indicted two of President Donald Trump's campaign staffers, George Papadopoulos is either the key to Russian collusion with the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election -- or a lying "low level volunteer," as the president tweeted early Tuesday morning.
But contrary to Trump's dismissive, never-heard-of-him shrug, Papadopoulos was also known within the campaign as Trump's foreign affairs adviser. It was within the latter capacity that Papadopoulos tried, unsuccessfully, to arrange meetings between the Trump campaign and Russians close to the Kremlin, ostensibly to learn dirt on Hillary Clinton.
He may be the key to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation that led to Monday's indictments of the president's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his longtime business associate Rick Gates on charges of money laundering, tax evasion and crimes against the United States. Papadopoulos himself was offered a pre-indictment plea bargain on charges that he had lied to the FBI during an earlier point in the investigation.
In response to the indictments, Trump has done everything but burn an effigy of Hillary Clinton -- as distraction or, well, what? In the swamp, one is never sure whether movements beneath the surface are gators or mere shadows. Trump's history has taught us, however, that when he's under attack, Clinton will feel it. Like the Ghost of Election Past, she haunts Trump's dreamscape.
"But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?" he tweeted Monday soon after the news broke.
Indeed, on Capitol Hill, some Republicans, who've been scurrying away from the indictment news as fast as their little mice feet can carry them, have moved to open an investigation into the Obama-era sale of Canada-based Uranium One, which had licenses to mine U.S. uranium, to a subsidiary of a Russian state-owned energy corporation. A committee composed of representatives from several U.S. government agencies, including the State Department -- at the time led by Clinton -- had to approve the sale, which transpired after the Clinton Foundation received $145 million in donations from Uranium One investors.
This would probably be a good time to grab a sheet of graph paper and a pencil. You're going to need them to chart the many possible overlaps in this Venn diagram of Russian propaganda/possible collusion/corruption/sleaze/lies/more lies -- and wires. As of yet, we have seen no videotape, though it's possible that Papadopoulos has been wearing a wire in recent months.
Also, keep your eraser handy. People have people, you know, and others get fired. Or pardoned. But speculation that Trump would pardon Manafort and Gates is probably irrelevant. Manafort and Gates's alleged federal crimes almost certainly could not have happened without committing state crimes. State attorneys general could build cases off of Mueller's investigation and effectively neuter Trump's power. A president can only pardon federal crimes.
The question now is: Who's next? And what bigger fish could Manafort or Gates offer up in a plea that would spare them potentially up to 80 years and 70 years, respectively, in prison? Former national security adviser Michael Flynn's name keeps coming up.
None of this affirms or even bolsters a case that Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election, especially given that many of Manafort's relevant business dealings preceded his association with the campaign. All we know for certain is that Russia did influence the election, thanks to astounding testimony by social media leaders Tuesday.
Twitter identified 36,746 accounts associated with Russia that generated election-related content; Google found about 43 hours of election content in about 1,100 videos suspected to be of Russian origin; Facebook estimates that about 126 million people were exposed to Russian-produced stories leading up to the election.
If Trump benefited from these virtual incursions, there's no proof that he knew about it. Then again, we've likely only seen the tip of the iceberg, which must loom large to swamp-dwellers. Plus remember, Chicago crime boss Al Capone was brought down not on murder or racketeering, but on tax evasion.