By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A former senior adviser on President Donald Trump’s campaign team, Sam Clovis, sought to distance himself on Tuesday from George Papadopoulos, an ex-campaign aide who has pleaded guilty in the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents about his dealings with Russians, including an April 2016 meeting in which he was told the Russians had “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton that entailed “thousands of emails.”
Prosecutors on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team said in court records that Papadopoulos had conversations and email exchanges with an unnamed “campaign supervisor” about efforts to improve U.S.-Russia relations by setting up meetings between senior campaign and Russian officials.
According to those records, the campaign supervisor conveyed to Papadopoulos in a March 6, 2016, discussion that “a principal foreign policy focus of the campaign was an improved U.S. relationship with Russia.”
A source familiar with the investigation said Clovis was the campaign supervisor referenced in the court records.
Victoria Toensing, a lawyer for Clovis, did not dispute that but added that her client never said improving U.S.-Russia relations was a “principal foreign policy focus” because that was not his view of Trump’s priorities.
Mueller is leading a probe into alleged Russian efforts to tilt the election in Trump’s favor and into potential collusion by Trump aides.
Russia denies the allegations and Trump denies any collusion.
‘OPPOSED ANY RUSSIA TRIP’
Prosecutors said in the court records that Papadopoulos emailed the supervisor and several others to tell them he had met with a professor who had in turn introduced him to a Russian woman and the Russian ambassador in London, and that they discussed setting up meetings to talk about U.S.-Russia ties in a Trump presidency.
The supervisor replied that he would “work it through the campaign” and not to make a commitment at that point. “Great work,” the supervisor added in the email.
In August 2016, the supervisor wrote to Papadopoulos in reference to a possible “off the record” meeting with Russian officials, saying: “I would encourage you” and another foreign policy adviser “to make the trip.”
In her response, Toensing said: “Dr. Clovis always vigorously opposed any Russian trip for Donald Trump or staff. However, if a volunteer made suggestions on any foreign policy matter, Dr. Clovis, a polite gentleman from Iowa, would have expressed courtesy and appreciation.”
Clovis has since been nominated by Trump to a top post as chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Debbie Stabenow, the ranking member of the Senate panel that will vet the nomination, told Reuters she was concerned.
“The emerging information about his role in the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia raises serious concerns,” she said in a statement.
NBC News reported on Tuesday that Clovis had been questioned by Mueller’s team and testified before the grand jury.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Tuesday that Trump’s campaign team provided the special counsel with emails involving Papadopoulos, and described it as a case of an individual doing the “wrong thing” while the campaign did the “right thing.”
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney)