Ex-Trump campaign aide Papadopoulos says applied for pardon

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, the first person charged in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, said on Tuesday his lawyers have applied for a pardon and that he may withdraw his guilty plea.

“My lawyers have applied for a pardon from the president for me,” Papadopoulos said in an interview with Reuters, adding that the request was made a few days ago. “If I’m offered one I would love to accept it, of course.”

Papadopoulos, who was plucked out of obscurity to work as a foreign policy adviser for Donald Trump’s presidential run, pleaded guilty in October 2017 to lying to the FBI about his communications with two Russian nationals and a Maltese professor with Russian ties while working on the campaign.

His disclosure of the pardon pitch came on the same day that he released a book in which he disavowed his guilty plea, claiming he did not lie to the FBI and was unfairly pressured by Mueller’s prosecutors into cutting a deal.

Papadopoulos says Mueller’s team threatened that if he did not agree to the plea deal, he would be charged with the more serious crime of not registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for his Israel-related work.

Papadopoulos said he believed there were grounds to withdraw his guilty plea. Among other factors, he cited advice from his previous legal team in early 2017 that it was acceptable to deactivate his Facebook account, a move that led to an obstruction charge.

Legal experts said success was highly unlikely, noting that he admitted his guilt under oath to a judge who asked him whether he had been coerced or pressured in cutting the deal.

Slideshow ( 15 images )

“I think he is stuck with his plea,” said former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade.

His claims could nevertheless gain traction after Attorney General William Barr said on Sunday that Mueller did not find evidence that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.

Once dismissed by Trump’s allies as a convicted liar, Papadopoulos said he now saw himself as part of a movement by Republicans to turn the tables on perceived enemies in the Obama administration and proponents of the Mueller probe.

“I went from a pariah within that world to now a potential linchpin to uncovering potential surveillance abuse and other illicit behavior by the previous administration,” Papadopoulos said in the interview.

In his book, “Deep State Target: How I Got Caught in the Crosshairs of the Plot to Bring Down President Trump”, Papadopoulos claims he was duped into pleading guilty and says his admitted lies were memory lapses and unintentional.

Slideshow ( 15 images )

Under his plea deal, Papadopoulos acknowledged that Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic, told him in April 2016 that Russia had “dirt” on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, three months before hacked emails started appearing online and doing damage to the Clinton campaign.

Papadopoulos told Australian diplomat Alexander Downer over drinks in May 2016 that Russia had political dirt on Clinton. Australian officials passed that information to their U.S. counterparts two months later, helping trigger the FBI’s probe into Russian attempts to influence the Trump campaign.

While Papadopoulos said he didn’t regret joining the Trump campaign, he said he wished he had gone to the FBI right away after Mifsud told him the Russians had thousands of emails on Clinton.

“It would have probably been better if I had told somebody immediately when I learned that information,” he said.

Reporting by Nathan Layne; editing by Leslie Adler, Dan Grebler and James Dalgleish