George Papadopoulos, the former foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI's Russia probe, may have been wearing a wire for months, several legal experts and former US government attorneys said.
Papadopoulos was arrested on July 27 but his case was kept secret until it was unsealed on Tuesday, the same day campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were also charged as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Manafort and Gates were charged in a 12-count indictment with a series of money laundering, tax evasion and foreign lobbying crimes stemming from work for pro-Russian political leaders in Ukraine. While the crimes alleged began years before Trump's campaign, the indictment asserted that Manafort's scheme to defraud continued through last year until early this year.
Papadopoulos has admitted he spent months last year cultivating contacts in an effort to arrange meetings between Trump's campaign and Russian government officials. He said a London-based professor with extensive Russian contacts introduced him to a woman described as "Putin's niece" and told him the Russians had "dirt" on Clinton based on "thousands of emails" of hers. The offer came months before the hack of Democratic emails became public.
On Tuesday, Trump hit back saying few people knew the "low level volunteer" who has since "proven to be a liar".
However, Harry Litman, a former US attorney and deputy assistant attorney general, wrote in the New York Times that Papadopoulos' guilty plea is far more immediately ominous to the president and his inner circle than the charges against Manafort and Gates.
A paragraph in the plea agreement indicates that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty on October 5 to lying to the FBI about his contact with the professor and the plea was sealed so that he could act as a "proactive cooperator".
"The meaning of that phrase is unclear," Litman wrote. "But one nerve-racking possible implication is that Mr Papadopoulos has recently worn a wire in conversations with other former campaign officials. This will surely have members of Mr Trump's inner circle agonising about the possibility and wondering who else might have been similarly cooperating with the investigation."
Former public defender and professor Seth Abramson explained on Twitter why the term "proactive cooperator" is probably bad news for others in Trump's orbit.
"Prosecutors often require a defendant to perform cooperative services for the government well in advance of his or her formal plea," he tweeted.
"The reason for this is that - via both 'proffer' and sometimes actual performance - a defendant must show they're of value to the government. So there is every reason to think that Papadopoulos was wired for sound not long after his arrest on July 27th, 2017 at Dulles airport.
"For Papadopoulos to get his October 5th plea, one of two things had to be true: (a) the feds had already got good sound from him; or... ..(b) he'd made a sufficient proffer establishing that he could get good sound for them - valuable evidence - shortly after October 5th."
Former US attorney Preet Bharara, who Trump fired earlier this year, told Politico Magazine: "Hard to tell, but the George Papadopoulos guilty plea tells us (a) Mueller is moving fast (b) the Mueller team keeps secrets well (c) more charges should be expected and (d) this team takes obstruction and lying very, very seriously. That should be of concern to some people."
The Toronto Star's Washington reporter Daniel Dale also tweeted that a wire may have been used.
However, NBC's justice correspondent Pete Williams cast doubt on the theory, saying the request to seal the case only came the day after Papadopoulos was arrested.
He said the seal was an indicator of investigators' attempts to get him to cooperate, rather than a description of the kind of cooperation he offered. He believed it was more likely Papadopoulos' cooperation consisted of answering Mueller's questions.
Fairfax Media, Washington Post