George Papadopoulos was sitting four chairs away from Donald Trump in March 2016 when he made his pitch: He had high-level Russian government connections who could arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After debating the offer for 10 minutes, Trump and his top foreign policy advisors declined, said a former campaign aide who attended the meeting at Trump International Hotel in Washington.
“They shut it down,” the aide said.
But Papadopoulos didn’t give up. For weeks, he continued to try to set himself up as a go-between with Moscow. A virtual unknown in foreign policy circles, he seemed determined to make himself a significant player.
On Monday, Papadopoulos’ quest for significance succeeded, although almost certainly not the way he originally envisioned. Federal prosecutors unsealed an Oct. 5 guilty plea by Papadopoulos to charges that, in January, he had lied to FBI agents investigating Russian efforts to influence the 2016 campaign.
The agreement disclosed that this summer, Papadopoulos had become a cooperating witness for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. For months, he has been what the agreement referred to as a “proactive cooperator,” phrasing that suggested to legal experts that he has done more than simply answer questions.
The chronology laid out in his plea agreement provided some of the clearest public evidence to date that Russians — including some with close ties to the government — had tried to reach out to the Trump campaign during the 2016 campaign and that at least some campaign officials had been strongly interested in reaching back.
Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old Chicago native, is an unlikely candidate to have emerged as a key figure in the Russia probe. He had almost no foreign policy experience before being named by the Trump campaign in March 2016 as a foreign policy advisor. In particular, he had no apparent expertise in U.S.-Russia relations.
But Papadopoulos, whose lawyer declined to comment on his guilty plea, was in some ways a perfect candidate for Russian efforts to contact the campaign.
A decade after graduating from college, he had worked briefly for a conservative Washington think tank, spent a month advising Ben Carson’s presidential campaign, then moved to London to work in the energy sector.
When the Trump campaign was scrambling to assemble a foreign policy team in spring 2016, Sam Clovis, the campaign’s co-chairman and a former talk show host from Iowa, recommended Papadopoulos, according to the former senior campaign aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a subject that is under criminal investigation.
Trump publicly named Papadopoulos a few weeks later, in a March meeting at the Washington Post, as one of five foreign policy advisors.
Barry Bennett, a former campaign aide to both Trump and Carson, now the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said in an interview that Papadopoulos had been let go after working briefly for Carson.
He “didn’t have the chops,” Bennett said, adding, “I was surprised when I read he was at the Trump campaign.”
After being named to Trump’s campaign, Papadopoulos suddenly found himself befriended by multiple people claiming ties to the Russian government, according to prosecution documents.
In one of the strangest examples, Papadopoulos told investigators he met a college professor from London while traveling in Italy on March 14, 2016. Although initially uninterested in talking to him, the professor took “great interest” after Papadopoulos told him he was joining the Trump campaign, according to court filings.
“The professor claimed to have substantial connections with Russian government officials,” which Papadopoulos “thought could increase his importance as a policy adviser to the campaign,” the documents said.
The prosecution documents, which did not name the professor, identified him as a citizen of a Mediterranean country. The Washington Post reported that the professor appeared to be Joseph Mifsud, the director of the London Academy of Diplomacy. According to his online profile, Mifsud is a citizen of Malta. Mifsud put out a statement denying anything but academic contacts with Russian officials.
Papadopoulos and the professor met again 10 days later in London. This time the professor brought along a Russian woman, whom he introduced as Putin’s niece, although she turned out not to be. Later that day, Papadopoulos emailed Trump campaign aides, telling them they had discussed setting up a possible meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
The meeting between Trump and his foreign policy team at his hotel in Washington came a week later. Despite being rebuffed at that event by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s top foreign policy advisor who is now attorney general, Papadopoulos persisted.
In April, he held another meeting with the professor, who told Papadopoulos he had just returned from Moscow and “that the Russians had ‘dirt’ on [Hillary] Clinton, including ‘thousands of emails,’” according to the court documents. That meeting came less than a month after hackers, later identified as having links to Russian intelligence, stole thousands of emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. That email hack did not become public until months later. It’s unknown, however, if the emails the professor allegedly referred to were Podesta’s.
It is unclear from the prosecution documents whether Papadopoulos reported this information to the campaign, but he kept pushing for a Trump-Putin meeting and looking for ways to advance his cause despite skepticism from Sessions and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman. Among other moves, he made contact with another Russian claiming to have contacts with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow.
In a last-ditch attempt to carve out a role for himself, Papadopoulos offered to travel to Moscow himself and got approval to do so from a senior campaign official, the court papers show. The former campaign aide identified that person as Clovis, who is now Trump’s nominee for a senior position in the Department of Agriculture. The trip never took place.
Failing to land a job in the Trump administration, Papadopoulos moved home to Chicago after the election, where he has been living in a large, remodeled brick bungalow on a secluded block of stately homes in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, according to state records and a neighbor who lives across the street.
He is frequently seen walking his "small, curly-haired yappy" dog, but otherwise mostly keeps to himself, said Kim Zimmerman, a neighbor.
In January, he was visited by FBI agents working on the Russia investigation. According to his guilty plea, he lied repeatedly when asked about his Russia contacts, telling the agents his conversations with the Russians had been innocuous and occurred before he joined the campaign. He also deleted a Facebook account that he used to send private message to his Russian contacts.
On July 27, he was returning to the U.S. from a trip to Europe. When he stepped off a plane at Washington’s Dulles International Airport, FBI agents arrested him and charged him with lying. He began cooperating with investigators soon afterward.
Chicago Tribune staff writer Patrick O’Connell contributed to this article from Chicago.