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Team Trump’s clumsy efforts to distance themselves from George Papadopoulos

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On Tuesday morning, President Trump downplayed his connection with a former adviser who pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts as nothing more than a “young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar.”

Trump’s tweets represented an effort to distance himself from George Papadopoulos, who served as a Trump campaign national security adviser. Though Trump now makes it sounds like he barely knew Papadopoulos, in March 2016 he plugged him as an “excellent guy” during an interview with the Washington Post. That same month, Trump tweeted a photo of himself sitting at a table with Papadopoulos during a national security team meeting.

But on Monday, we learned that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations he had with a professor who claimed to have “substantial connections with Russian government officials” about “thousands of emails” the Russian government stole from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Papadopoulos initially told investigators his communications with the professor happened before he prior to and independently of his association with the Trump campaign, but has now admitted he was lying and is cooperating with prosecutors.

On Monday, federal prosecutors said Papadopoulos in fact had the Trump campaign’s blessing in his efforts to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

So Trump’s tune about Papadopoulos has now changed. He’s not alone. In interviews conducted since news of Papadopoulos’ guilty plea emerged, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo have both downplayed Papadopoulos’ role in the campaign, with Lewandowski describing him as “a low-level volunteer who might have attended a meeting of the foreign advisory team, the one meeting who took place” and Caputo saying he was nothing more than a “coffee boy.”

During his Monday evening show on Fox News, Trump loyalist Sean Hannity downplayed Papadopoulos’ guilty plea and status as an adult, saying of the 30-year-old, “He admitted, okay, he lied to the FBI. I think he is 29 years old.”

Hannity’s comments were reminiscent of what President Trump said about his son, Donald Jr., after he released emails indicating the Trump campaign was at the very least eager to collude with Russian operatives, and arranged a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer toward that end.

“He’s a good boy,” President Trump said of his 39-year-old son. “He’s a good kid. And he had a meeting. Nothing happened.”

During an interview on CNN on Monday night, another member of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team, Carter Page, tried to downplay his contacts with Papadopoulos, saying “there were tons of emails happening on a lot of different things.” But Page did admit that Russia “may have come up” in emails he exchanged with Papadopoulos.

Team Trump’s effort to distance from Papadopoulos comes while they’re simultaneously trying to distance themselves from former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was indicted on 12 counts on Monday — including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, and false statements — and faces decades in prison. Though Manafort acted as campaign manager for months, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed his role during a news briefing on Monday, saying, “the president hired Paul Manafort to handle the delegate process, which he did and he was dismissed not too long after that.”

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