WASHINGTON — The man whose boozy conversation with a diplomat may have launched the federal government's investigation into Russian election interference was sentenced Friday to 14 days in jail and one year of supervised release for lying to the FBI.
The defendant, George Papadopoulos, a one-time up-and-comer from Chicago who served as a foreign policy adviser on Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, pleaded guilty last October to making a false statement when the FBI interviewed him in January 2017.
"I made a terrible mistake," Papadopoulos, 31, said in a statement to Judge Randolph Moss in the Washington, D.C., courtroom. "I hope to have a second chance to redeem myself."
Moss said he thought Papadopoulos' remorse was genuine.
"I do credit the sense that he does feel remorse," Moss said. However, the judge added, the crime was "a calculated exercise of self-interest over the national interest. He was seeking to assist himself in a way that placed his own personal ambitions above the interests of the United States."
The government recommended a sentence in line with what Alex van der Zwaan, the Dutch attorney who also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, received: 30 days in jail. Papadopoulos, was also ordered to pay a fine of $9,500, is the second person sentenced in Mueller's investigation.
Papadopoulos' lawyers argued for probation in court Friday, making the case that "the president of the United States hindered this investigation more than George Papadopoulos ever could."
That was because, in January 2017, shortly before Papadopoulos was interviewed by — and lied to — the FBI, Trump proclaimed that the Russia investigation was a "witch hunt" and "fake news," one his lawyers, Thomas Breen, told the court. Breen argued that those comments influenced Papadopoulos's decision to lie to the FBI.
At another point, Breen talked about going to the FBI field office in Chicago in February 2017 and seeing a picture of Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the wall. He told the judge Friday that at the time, he mused to himself that he and his client were there to cooperate in an investigation that potentially could implicate those two men.
After the hearing, outside the courthouse, Breen told reporters that he thought the sentence was appropriate.
"We are very satisfied with the sentence. I think the judge took everything into consideration. I think is a very unusual case," Breen said. "I know some people will think the sentence is light, some may think that it’s heavy. But there is no doubt in my mind that the judge issued what he thought was a very fair sentence."
Court documents suggest Mueller's office had hoped to secure Papadopoulos' cooperation, but quickly concluded he could not be trusted when he began meeting with reporters. A scheduled FBI cooperation interview was canceled.
But even without his active help, the court record suggests that Mueller's team learned a lot from his emails and texts, as well as from seizing his phone.
Prosecutors say Papadopoulos was solicited by a professor with ties to Russian intelligence, Joseph Mifsud, who told the young Trump aide that the Russians possessed incriminating information about Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails" — before it was widely and publicly known that Russia had stolen Democratic emails.
Papadopoulos initially lied to the FBI about the timing of his interactions with the professor, suggesting they happened before he started working for Trump, while actually it was afterward.
Prosecutors say Mifsud arranged a meeting in London cafe between Papadopoulos and a young woman he falsely described as Russian President Vladimir Putin's niece.
Papadopoulos related the talk of Democratic emails to an Australian diplomat during what The New York Times described as a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016. The diplomat reported the conversation to his American counterparts, who were seeing other evidence that Russia was making a play to interfere in the 2016 election.
Thus began the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Russia's election interference operation, American officials have confirmed — an investigation that was taken over by Mueller in May 2017.
Papadopoulos has never publicly named those within the Trump campaign he told about the offer of emails from the professor, but he has said he was in regular touch with campaign chairman Paul Manafort, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and other top campaign officials.
He also used his connections to the professor to seek to broker a meeting between Trump and Putin. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who ran the Trump campaign foreign policy operation, has said he quickly rejected that idea when Papadopoulos raised it at a meeting in March 2016.
But in a pre-sentencing filing last week, Papadopoulos's lawyers presented a different account, saying that candidate Trump "nodded with approval and deferred to Mr. Sessions who appeared to like the idea and stated that the campaign should look into it."
Papadopoulos married Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos while awaiting sentencing. She made numerous media appearances during that time. Initially, she suggested that Papadopoulos could be harmful to Trump, likening him to John Dean, the White House counsel who helped bring down Richard Nixon.
More recently, she urged Trump to pardon her husband, said he was treated unfairly and suggested he was considering withdrawing his guilty plea.
Trump reacted to the sentencing in a tweet on Friday in which he appears to contrast the overall cost of the special counsel's investigation to Papadopoulos' 14-day sentence.
"14 days for $28 MILLION - $2 MILLION a day, No Collusion. A great day for America!" he tweeted.
The special counsel's office has issued two spending reports, with one covering May 2017, through September 2017 and the second covering October 2017 through March 2018, that shows the total cost of the federal probe to be roughly $16.8 million.