WASHINGTON - A once low-profile foreign policy campaign adviser whose offhand remark in a London bar in May 2016 helped trigger an FBI counterintelligence investigation into President Donald Trump's campaign was sentenced to 14 days incarceration Friday by a federal judge in Washington.
George Papadopoulos, 31, pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI about key details of his conversations with a London-based professor who had told him the Russians held dirt, in the form of thousands of emails, on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Papadopoulos tried futilely for months to arrange a meeting between top campaign aides and Russian officials.
In asking the court for leniency, Papadopoulos said he made "a terrible mistake, for which I have paid a terrible price, and am deeply ashamed," and that he was motivated to lie to the FBI try to "create distance between the issue, myself, and the president."
In hindsight, he said in court, he recognizes that was wrong and "might have harmed the investigation."
Papadopoulos' attorney, Thomas Breen, went further, saying "the President of the United States hindered this investigation more than George Papadopoulos ever could," by calling the investigation fake news and a witch hunt.
After an Australian diplomat reported to American counterparts that Papadopoulos had told him over drinks about the "dirt" approach, the FBI opened its investigation, that also was around the time WikiLeaks posted thousands of internal Democratic National Committee emails online.
His sentencing came as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe that has led to the indictments or convictions of 32 people.
Papadopoulos, a young oil and gas consultant, was the first Trump official to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
The sentencing judge, U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss, agreed to allow Papadopoulos to surrender at a future date and to travel between now and then to New York and California, where his lawyer said he is considering relocating.
Trump criticized the investigation and the Justice Department on the day he was inaugurated, Breen told Moss. "The message here is to check your loyalty, tell the truth, and help the good guys, even if you have to pay a price," Breen said.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday ahead of the sentencing, Trump played down his relationship with Papadopoulos.
"I see Papadopoulos today, I don't know Papadopoulos, I don't know. I saw him sitting in one picture at a table with me - that's the only thing I know about him," he said, an apparently reference to a March 31, 2016, campaign meeting that Papadopoulos and Trump attended.
Federal sentencing guidelines under Papadopoulos' plea deal called for a penalty between probation and six months in prison.
Moss said he had planned to give Papadopoulos a 30-day term but was persuaded by his courtroom expression of remorse to reduce the sentence.
But he said incarceration was necessary because Papadopoulos had lied on a matter of grave national interest and the public needed to understand that lying to the FBI is a serious matter.
Moss described Papadopoulos' behavior as a "calculated act of self interest over national interest," and noted it took him six months to correct his statements and he did "in the face of proof he lied."
Asked if he had any comment as he left court, Papadopoulos said, "not yet."
But his mother Kiki Papadopoulos told reporters she believed the sentence was "very fair." She also said that when FBI agents showed up in January 2017 seeking in interview, she advised her son to call a lawyer.
"So everybody said if you only listened to your mother none of this would have happened," she said. "I think about it still. I think he learned his lesson."
Breen, too, said he was pleased with the outcome and said that he believed the FBI has treated Papadopoulos fairly.
Three other campaign officials - chairman Paul Manafort, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and national security adviser Michael Flynn - either have pleaded guilty or been convicted of various crimes but none of the trio has yet been sentenced.
Gates has testified against Manafort who was recently convicted in Virginia on bank and tax fraud charges brought by Mueller's team.
Prosecutors did not recommend a sentence for Papadopoulos, but said up to six months' jail time was appropriate saying he had lied repeatedly to federal investigators and had not provided substantial cooperation to them.
They said Papadopoulos' initial lies hindered investigators' ability to effectively question, challenge or detain Joseph Mifsud, the London professor who had contacted him. Mifsud left the United States and not returned, after the FBI found him in the U.S. on Feb. 11, 2017, about two weeks after Papadopoulos' first interview.
Prosecutor Andrew Goldstein said Friday in court that Papadopoulos "deliberately and repeatedly lied to FBI agents pursuing a highly significant federal investigation," making a calculated decision "to advance his personal interests" to try to land a high-level administration post.
He ultimately cooperated but, Goldstein added, he "didn't come close to the standard of substantial assistance."
Papadopoulos' attorneys had asked for probation for their client and said in court filings that Papadopoulos misled investigators to try to save his professional ambitions and out of a "perhaps misguided loyalty to his master" but not for more sinister reasons.
His lawyers argued their client volunteered information, such as describing a March 31, 2016, meeting in which then-candidate Trump "nodded with approval" when he suggested a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that then-Sen. Jeff Sessions "appeared to also like the idea and stated that the campaign should look into it."
That account conflicts with what Sessions, now attorney general, testified before Congress. A spokeswoman for Sessions declined to comment after Papadopoulos' filing last week.
As part of his sentence, Papadopoulos also will have one year of court supervision, 200 hours of community service and was fined $9,500.
In the 16-page sentencing memo seeking leniency, his attorneys, Breen, Robert Stanley and Todd Pugh, wrote, "to say George was out of his depth would be a gross understatement. Despite being a young energy policy guru, he had no experience in dealing with Russian policy or its officials."
- - -
The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.