The guilty plea signed by George Papadopoulos, the foreign policy adviser during Trump’s 2016 campaign, is the main event that signals a heating-up of the Russian investigation. Mueller filed a statement of offenses for Papadopoulos on Oct. 5, 2017.
Earlier in the year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about the nature of his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, an act that resulted in Sessions recusing himself from the entire investigation.
Former acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein deemed it necessary to appoint a special prosecutor, and chose Robert Mueller in May of 2017.
In March 2016, Papadopoulos began having contact with a London professor about possible contacts with high-ranking Russian officials who could give the campaign information about Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In his testament to the FBI in January 2017, Papadopoulos claimed the interactions occurred before he knew he would be joining the Trump campaign. In fact, the correspondence began on March 14, 2016, and he found out he would be joining the team in early March.
The statement of offense said the campaign was actually interested in Papadopoulos because of his Russian contacts.
The professor introduced Papadopoulos to an unnamed Russian female national who claimed to have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos then spoke with other campaign officials about setting up a meeting between the campaign and Russian officials.
Throughout the summer of 2016, Papadopoulus worked with his Russian contacts to set up an off-the-record trip to meet with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Other campaign officials were aware of these efforts, but no meeting ever occurred.
He was arrested six months after his testimony on one count of lying to the FBI.
Timothy McKeown, a UNC political science professor, said he expects Mueller will continue to file indictments.
“It would not be surprising if he behaved in the way other prosecutors do and continued to move up the food chain,” he said.
The next question facing the Trump administration is whether or not to fire Mueller. Congress has not provided additional protection for the special counsel.
McKeown said this is likely because Republican congresspeople are worried about their careers. He said it would be perceived as anti-Trump — which would cause problems for people who want to run in 2018.
In a press briefing on Oct. 30, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there is no plan to make any changes to the special counsel.
She said the indictments and guilty plea have no connection to the Trump campaign. Papadopoulos had a very limited role in the campaign, and his efforts to set up a meeting between the campaign and Russia were rejected by other members of the campaign, she said.
“The fact that this is going on is certainly not the first time that it’s happened, but there are some features that make it particularly dangerous,” McKeown said.
There are no instances of other presidential campaigns being so willing to engage with foreign help and, with social media, the ability of outside groups to affect the attitudes of campaigns is unparalleled. These combined make the situation novel and dangerous, he said.
Sanders said the White House expects Mueller will conclude his investigation soon.