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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

False Statements on Russia

George Papadopoulos, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, has pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents. He admits he lied about repeated contacts during the campaign with people he believed had ties to the Russian government.

Papadopoulos is the first to plead guilty in the federal investigation into the Russian government’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump’s campaign associates were involved in those efforts.

Of course, it’s a crime to intentionally mislead federal prosecutors.

It’s not a crime, however, to give inaccurate information to the media and the public — intentionally or unintentionally. And there have been instances in which Trump administration and campaign officials have made public statements about issues concerning Russia that turned out not to be true.

Here we recap some of those instances.

No Campaign Contacts with Russian Officials or Representatives?

A few days after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, told Interfax news agency that the Russian government maintained contact with Trump’s “immediate entourage” during the campaign.

“There were contacts,” Ryabkov told the news agency, as reported by the New York Times on Nov. 10, 2016. “We continue to do this and have been doing this work during the campaign.”

“I don’t say that all of them, but a whole array of them supported contacts with Russian representatives,” Ryabkov said of Trump campaign officials, as reported by the Associated Press.

Hope Hicks, who was Trump’s campaign spokeswoman and now serves as the White House communications director, denied that there were contacts with “any foreign entity during the campaign.”

“We are not aware of any campaign representatives that were in touch with any foreign entities before yesterday, when Mr. Trump spoke with many world leaders. Those discussions were congratulatory and forward looking,” Hicks was quoted as saying in the Times.

In the Associated Press article, Hicks was quoted as saying, “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”

As for the president-elect, Trump tweeted on the day of the Times report: “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCHHUNT.”

Months later, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Jan. 15 if there was “any contact in any way between Trump or his associates and the Kremlim or cutouts they had.” Pence answered, “Of course, not. Why would there be any contacts between the campaign?”

But we now know several Trump campaign officials were in contact with Russian government officials or representatives, or with people they believed were Russian government representatives, who offered government “dirt” on Clinton.

Papadopoulos and the Professor

Papadopoulos, who became a campaign adviser in March 2016, met on April 26, 2016, in London with a professor who he “understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials,” according to a statement from the Justice Department stipulating the facts of Papadopoulos’ guilty plea.

The professor, whose name has been withheld by the Justice Department, told Papadopoulos “that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials” who told him that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton “in the form of ‘thousands of emails,'” the Justice Department said.

Papadopoulos remained in contact with the professor, who also introduced Papadopoulos to two others: a “Female Russian National,” who Papadopoulos believed had “connections to Russian government officials,” and “an individual in Moscow … who told defendant Papadopoulos he had connections to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” according to the Justice Department statement.

In his initial interview with the FBI on Jan. 27, Papadopoulos lied about his contacts with the Russians. He claimed that he was told about the damaging emails before he joined the campaign and that his contacts with the professor and the female Russian national were inconsequential. Although asked about whether he met any other Russians, Papadopoulos failed to disclose that he also had contacts with the individual who purported to be with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is not clear from the Justice Department statement how long these contacts continued and what became of them. The so-called “Statement of the Offense” does not “constitute all of the facts known to the parties concerning the charged offense,” but rather just “selected events” to demonstrate that “sufficient facts exist” to prove the defendant is guilty, the Justice Department said.

Similarly, Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., had contact with Russians during the campaign with the understanding that the Russian government had damaging information about Clinton that could help the Trump campaign.

Donald Trump Jr. Denies Meeting Russians

In a March 2017 interview with the New York Times, Donald Trump Jr. denied that he had ever “set up” any meetings with Russians and “certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.” Trump also denied that he ever discussed government policies related to Russia with any Russians.

Although this denial was unpublished at the time, the paper included it in a July 8 story revealing that Trump Jr. met with a Russian attorney linked to the Kremlin on June 9, 2016: “Did I meet with people that were Russian? I’m sure, I’m sure I did,” he said in that March interview. “But none that were set up. None that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”

As we wrote on July 13, none of that turned out to be true.

In response to the Times’ July reporting, Trump Jr. initially issued a statement that misleadingly claimed the meeting was “primarily” to discuss “a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government.”

The emails and a subsequent statement released by Trump Jr., however, revealed that the meeting was explicitly about promised dirt on the soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee from a purported “Russian government attorney.” Furthermore, Trump Jr. was told in an email that it was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Trump Jr. responded by saying, “[I]f it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

Not only did Trump Jr. represent the campaign at that June 9, 2016, meeting, but he requested that the president’s son-in-law and now senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, then-campaign convention manager, attend the meeting with him.

President Trump and the Misleading White House Statement 

When first confronted by the New York Times about the meeting, Trump Jr. issued a statement that was, at best, misleading by omission.

“It was a short introductory meeting,” Trump Jr.’s statement read. “I asked Jared [Kushner] and Paul [Manafort] to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.”

As we described above, there was more to the meeting than that statement let on.

On July 12, Jay Sekulow, an attorney on the president’s legal team, distanced the president from that statement, saying on “Good Morning America”: “The president didn’t sign off on anything. He was coming back from the G-20. The statement that was released on Saturday was released by Donald Trump Jr., I’m sure in consultation with his lawyers. The president wasn’t involved in that.” Told that the New York Times reported that the president was involved, Sekulow said, “That’s incorrect.”

On July 16, Sekulow said on “Meet the Press”: “I do want to be clear — that the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement. It came from Donald Trump Jr.”

Those statements were later contradicted by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Aug. 1.

“The president weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information that he had,” Sander said at a press briefing. “He certainly didn’t dictate, but like I said, he weighed in, offered suggestion like any father would do.”

Sessions’ Meeting with Kislyak Revealed

On Jan. 10, the Senate judiciary committee held a hearing on Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat, asked Sessions: “[I]f there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?” Sessions replied, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians.”

That turned out to be false. Sessions did have communications with the Russians.

At a March 2 press conference, Sessions acknowledged that he had at least two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., during the campaign — including a Sept. 8, 2016, meeting in the senator’s office. The attorney general said none of his meetings with Kislyak were related to the campaign, but he admitted he should have disclosed them.

“In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times. That would be the ambassador,’” Sessions said at the press conference, which was held a day after the Washington Post broke the story of Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak during the campaign.

At the press conference, Sessions also announced that he would recuse himself from any matters involving the 2016 campaign, including the Justice Department’s investigation of Russia and the Trump campaign.

Secure Communications with Russia During Transition

In May, the Washington Post reported that Kushner met during the transition in December 2016 with Kislyak and “discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin.”

Trump administration officials denied the report.

At a May 30 press briefing, then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the Post report as “not substantiated by anything but anonymous sources.”

Earlier that day, Trump retweeted a “Fox & Friends” tweet that said, “Jared Kushner didn’t suggest Russian communications channel in meeting, source says.”

However, Kushner would later confirm that he did suggest setting up a secure communications channel using Russian equipment.

In a statement to congressional investigators on July 24, Kushner said Kislyak “wanted to convey information from what he called his ‘generals’” about “U.S. policy in Syria.” Kushner said the exchange of information did not occur during the transition because neither party could arrange a secure line of communication.

“I asked if they had an existing communications channel at his embassy we could use where they would be comfortable transmitting the information they wanted to relay to General [Michael] Flynn [Trump’s national security adviser]. The Ambassador said that would not be possible and so we all agreed that we would receive this information after the Inauguration. Nothing else occurred,” Kushner’s statement reads.

Flynn Denies Discussing Sanctions with Russia

On Jan. 12, eight days before Trump’s inauguration, the Washington Post reported that Flynn spoke with Kislyak on Dec. 29, 2016. That was the same day that President Barack Obama announced sanctions against Russia in response to the country’s cyber operations aimed at interfering in the U.S. election. Trump administration officials denied that Flynn’s phone conversation was about the sanctions. But about a month later, the administration acknowledged the two men did talk about the sanctions.

The day of the Post story, Spicer said: “The call centered on the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in. … That was it, plain and simple.”

On Jan. 15, Pence said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that Flynn and Kislyak “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.” The timing of the call, Pence said, was “strictly coincidental.”

On Feb. 9, however, the Post reported, citing anonymous current and former government officials, that Flynn had “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia” with Kislyak in December. Flynn, the Post reported, initially on Feb. 8 denied that he had discussed sanctions, but then backed away from that denial the following day.

A spokesman for Flynn told the newspaper on Feb. 9 that Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Flynn resigned on Feb. 13, saying in a letter that “I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador.” The next day, Spicer confirmed at his daily press briefing that Flynn and Kislyak spoke about the sanctions.

Spicer also told reporters in that briefing that the White House had known “for a few weeks” that the two men had talked about the sanctions. But on Feb. 10, President Trump said he “didn’t know about it,” when asked about news reports on the matter by the Post and other outlets.

Comey Firing Had ‘Zero to Do’ with Russia?

Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9. The White House issued a statement that day saying that Trump acted “based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

Rosenstein had written a two-and-a-half page memo that cited Comey’s “handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary [Hillary] Clinton’s emails,” as a reason for Comey’s firing.

On CNN on May 9, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said the firing “had zero to do” with Russia and “everything to do with … Mr. Rosenstein.” The next morning, Conway again said on CNN: “The president took the advice of the deputy attorney general who oversees the director of the FBI, brought those concerns to the attorney general who brought them to the president. And they made a decision to remove him.”

On MSNBC the same day, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated that Trump “took the recommendation [by Rosenstein] seriously. And he made a decision based on that.”

But Trump himself contradicted the official White House statements. On May 11, the president said he thought about “this Russia thing” when he decided to fire Comey. He told NBC’s Lester Holt that “regardless of [Rosenstein’s] recommendation I was going to fire Comey.”

Rosenstein later would tell Congress that he knew Trump was going to fire Comey before he wrote his memo. “On May 8, I learned that President Trump intended to remove Director Comey and sought my advice and input. Notwithstanding my personal affection for Director Comey, I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader,” he said. Rosenstein then set out to write a memo outlining his concerns about Comey’s leadership.

Editor’s Note: Please see “Timeline of Russia Investigation” for more information on key events in the investigation.