Not-So-Useful Idiot: The George Papadopoulos Story
How the blundering of an ambitious, oblivious twentysomething damaged both Trump AND Russia.
|Greg Olear||Mar 16||55||8|
Periodically, PREVAIL will highlight the activities of key individuals chronicled in Volume 5 of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 Election (“The Committee,” “Volume 5”). Today, we look at the “coffee boy,” George Demetrios Papadoupolos.
THE LOGLINE of the George Papadopoulos story goes like this: A youthful arriviste is so eager for political power and fame that, through sheer, blinding incompetence, he winds up fucking over both Trump and Russia. This is not the stuff of John le Carré novels, but of Coen Brothers movies—less political thriller, more absurdist farce.
Our tale begins in 2015, with an ambitious young man on the make. After several fruitless attempts to impress Team Trump with his foreign policy credentials—which amounted to a few visits to the Acropolis, a thorough skimming of the works of Henry Kissinger, and a short stint in Britain, working for the London Center of International Law Practice (LCILP)—the 27-year-old Chicago native takes the ultimate dead-end job: paid Ben Carson campaign staffer.
Here is the official story, as related by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in Volume 5 of its Report:
Papadopoulos first reached out to the Trump Campaign in the summer of 2015, and was referred to Michael Glassner, the National Political Director for the Trump Campaign, by Corey Lewandowski, the Trump Campaign manager at the time….In September 2015, Glassner told Papadopoulos that the Trump Campaign was not hiring policy advisors.
From late 2015 until February 2016, Papadopoulos held a paid position with the Ben Carson campaign. After leaving, Papadopoulos reached out to a contact at the LCILP to ask if LCILP was hiring, noting that he had finished his role with the Carson campaign. By early February 2016, he agreed to join LCILP and began working in London.
Around the same time, Papadopoulos sent messages to Lewandowski and Glassner, again expressing interest in joining the Trump Campaign. On March 2, 2016, Papadopoulos sent Glassner another email message, reiterating his interest. The same day, a representative from the Trump Campaign responded to Papadopoulos with the subject line, “follow up from Michael Glassner,” to confirm that Papadopoulos would like to be introduced to Sam Clovis, who was the National Co-Chair and Chief Policy Adviser for the Trump Campaign and was at that time charged with forming a foreign policy team for the Trump Campaign. Papadopoulos said yes.
Twenty-nine days after sending that email to Glassner, George Papadopoulos found himself sitting in the middle of the table at the one and only Trump foreign policy advisor meeting, on the last day of March 2016—a moment immortalized on Team Trump’s Instagram page:
It was the equivalent of some rando in a tux Talented-Mr.-Ripleying his way into a black tie event at Lincoln Center.
Sam Clovis had never met Papadopoulos before the day that photograph was taken. As soon as young George opened his mouth, Clovis knew he’d fucked up. “That’s where I really got the sense, at that meeting, that he was there for himself and not for the campaign, and I felt like it was a mistake that we had included him,” Clovis told the Committee. “I just thought he was very self-serving, very much on the make. I just never—I never trusted him after that. Everything he did, he did on his own, and we always had to go back and correct him afterwards. It got to the point, really, it got bad quickly, so we essentially cut him loose quickly in my view. I never trusted him with anything.”
In other words, the first and only time George Papadopoulos got a seat at the table, he was immediately pegged as a fraud and a joke.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. By the time of the March 31 meeting, Papadopoulos had been working for the LCILP in London for almost two months—and had already been approached by a hostile foreign intelligence service. Indeed, the interval between “joined U.S. foreign advisory group” and “wooed by Russian spy” probably set some sort of espionage world record.
Here’s what went down: In his initial conversation with the foreign policy group, in the first days of March 2016, Papadopoulos believed he had a green light from Clovis, campaign chair Corey Lewandowski, and others in the Trump campaign to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin—even though, like, why would a presidential candidate want that, or do that? He considered this his prime directive. So young George took it upon himself to chat up Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic living in London, whom he’d briefly met in Rome through his connections with the LCILP. He was led to believe that Mifsud knew some Russians—and did he ever!
Mifsud was arrogant, kind of a dick. He immediately identified Papadopoulos as a cipher, not worth his time, and treated him accordingly. Only when young George revealed that he was an advisor to the Trump campaign did the professor change tack. The candidate himself had vouched for Papadopoulos—on the record. Per Volume 5: “On March 21, 2016, Trump announced some of the foreign policy team during a meeting with the editorial board of the The Washington Post. During this meeting, Trump characterized Papadopoulos as, ‘an energy and oil consultant, excellent guy’”—which high praise only intensified Mifsud’s interest.
This idiot, he thought, may yet prove useful.
It is the conclusion of the Committee that Mifsud was a Russian spy. Or, rather, that he “exhibited behavior consistent with intelligence tradecraft” and had “significant ties to Russian government and business circles,” as they diplomatically phrased it. Another of the professor’s acquaintances, a young attorney named Simona Mangiante, an Italian national who’d worked in London, concurred with the Committee’s assessment. “He was representing himself as an academic, [but] my impression of him has never been as an academic,” she would later tell the House Intelligence Committee. “He looks to me [like] somebody who tried to build connection in political circles. And I don’t know for which purpose, but definitely not a transparent person, not somebody definitely could be qualified as an academic.” Basically, the professor could not have been more obvious if he had the word “шпион” branded on his forehead.
For his part, Mifsud must have been licking his chops. Here some green kid, as ambitious as he was oblivious—and an advisor to Trump to boot—contacted him! So the professor went to work, boasting of his extensive ties to foreign governments, dropping names left and right—“talking about many things and nothing,” as Mangiante elegantly put it. He issued Papadopoulos an urgent invitation to return to London. “There is someone I’d like you to meet,” he said.
That someone turned out to be Olga Polonskaya, a fetching young Russian national. She spoke barely a word of English, but after meeting Papadopoulos in London on March 24, magically demonstrated linguistic fluency in their subsequent WhatsApp exchanges.
Was young Olga intended as a honeypot for young George? It certainly seems that way—and if this were all some bingey Netflix series, even the most casual viewer would believe so the minute she appeared on screen in a slinky cocktail dress and too much lipstick.
Not Papadopoulos, though. The Committee was shocked to discover that “Papadopoulos did not seem to consider himself a target for foreign intelligence services, despite being associated with a presidential campaign and his ongoing interactions with foreign government officials.” Furthermore, the blundering George seems to have believed Mifsud’s easy-disprovable claim that Polonskaya was niece to Vladimir Putin, as evidenced by the braggadocious email he sent to Sam Clovis and the rest of the foreign advisor team later that same day:
I just finished a very productive lunch with a good friend of mine, Joseph Mifsud, the director of the London Academy of Diplomacy—who introduced me to both Putin’s niece and the Russian Ambassador in London—who also acts as the Deputy Foreign Minister.
The topic of the lunch was to arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss US-Russia ties under President Trump. They are keen to host us in a “neutral” city, or directly in Moscow. They said the leadership, including Putin, is ready to meet with us and Mr. Trump should there be interest. Waiting for everyone’s thoughts on moving forward with this very important issue.
Furthermore, Mifsud is good friends with the soon to be next prime minister of Vietnam. He asked for me to join him on a trip there to meet with the next leader—perhaps this is of interest to the rest of the campaign team as well?
Clovis wrote back immediately—in a missive that is, in hindsight, refreshingly pro-NATO—complimenting George’s initiative, but shutting down the proposal.
Papadopoulos got the email, but he didn’t get the memo. He didn’t stop. He spent the month of April coordinating meetings with various Russian nationals, usually at the behest of Mifsud or Polonskaya. He believed he was doing what the campaign wanted, establishing relationships with important Russians. And we should give him his due. If he was a “coffee boy,” as former Putin employee and Trump shill Michael Caputo famously remarked, the lattes and cappuccinos he was tasked with procuring were Russian contacts—and for a Chicago kid with few known resources beyond a supercharged LinkedIn page, George did that job remarkably well.
But if he was good at making connections, Papadopoulos was lousy with foreign policy analysis. Because, again: why on earth would it behoove a U.S. political candidate to meet with Vladimir Putin? And why would Trump, a creature of the criminal underworld with plenty of better avenues to Moscow, need some neophyte to arrange it?
On April 26, less than two months after joining the campaign, Papadopoulos had breakfast with a “giddy” Mifsud at the Andaz Hotel in London. Mifsud had just returned from Moscow, where, he said, a high-level Russian official disclosed that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton—hacked emails that, once leaked, would take down her campaign.
Young George was stoked to be in possession of such singular intelligence. But he soon demonstrated two glaring flaws detrimental to diplomatic work. First, he can’t keep his mouth shut. Second, he can’t hold his liquor.
We don’t know if Papadopoulos met Sir Alexander Downer, Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, at the upscale Kensington Wine Rooms or at the less stuffy Waterway Pub. And we don’t know if young George had one gin cocktail (as he claimed in his Congressional testimony) or three (as he told the FBI). What we do know is that he spilled the tea to the Australian diplomat about the Russians having the Hillary Clinton emails—and that Downer was so concerned by what he heard, he cabled Canberra. When WikiLeaks began leaking DNC emails two months later, Australian officials notified American officials, and the FBI opened its counterintelligence investigation into Trump/Russia.
Thus the face that launched the thousand ships of Crossfire Hurricane was the self-important, booze-flushed puss of George Papadopoulos.
It’s hard to overstate what a blunder this was. Young George would not realize it for many months, but on that one tipsy night out, the self-styled foreign policy expert fucked not only the Trump campaign he was supposed to be helping, but also his liaison to the Russians, Professor Mifsud.
All through the spring and summer of 2016, the relentless Papadopoulos kept at it:
He continued to canoodle with Mifsud, not suspecting that the professor was basically his GRU handler.
He cultivated a relationship with the Belorussian-born American businessman Sergei Millian—another man the Committee says “exhibited behavior consistent with intelligence tradecraft” and had “significant ties to Russian government and business circles.” According to Simona Mangiante, Millian offered to pay young George $30k a month for his services (although we’re not sure what those services would have entailed). Papadopoulos turned the offer down.
In Athens, he met with a Greek government official right before that same official met with Putin, who was visiting the country at the same time that George was there. That official, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, was known to be chummy with Putin. Later, Kammeros would fly to Washington for Trump’s inauguration, where he attended a soiree with Papadopoulos, incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and key Trump advisor Steve Bannon, among others.
During transition, young George claims to have facilitated a meeting between Trump and President al-Sisi of Egypt—which is notable, as it was an Egyptian state-owned bank that allegedly injected $10 million into Trump’s broke-ass campaign.
The chronicle of young George’s suspicious activities at this time comprises many pages of Volume 5. Suffice it to say, for the duration of his few months with the campaign, Papadopoulos was constantly hustling to establish ties with as many important Russians as he could. The Trump people, many of whom were just as assiduously courting important Russians, rewarded young George by…cutting him out. The treacherous likes of Paul Manafort and Steve Bannon were all for cozying up to Russia, but they were smart enough to recognize the potential danger of having this loose-lipped lightweight operating on their behalf.
Thus ended George Papadopoulos’s involvement with Donald John Trump.
Or so he thought.
In October of 2017, not long after his 30th birthday, Papadopoulos was indicted by the Office of the Special Counsel, as part of the Mueller investigation. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and served 12 days in prison—one of precious few collaborators who actually went to the hoosegow. He would later receive a presidential pardon by Trump, who wound up meeting with Putin plenty of times during his four years in office.
But George Papadopoulos got what he wanted—mostly. He is now infamous, which is only two letters away from famous. And he was, for a brief shining moment, consequential enough to initiate a massive FBI counterintelligence investigation, which altered the path of history. He wrote a memoir about his experiences, Deep State Target: How I Got Caught in the Crosshairs of the Plot to Bring Down President Trump, published by the impossible-to-be-more-perfectly named Diversion Books. (In this cute piece of revisionist history, George presents himself as an innocent victim of the eponymous “Deep State,” rather than an unwitting pawn of venal Trump sycophants and the Russian intelligence services.) He produced a short-lived podcast (“Punching Back, with George Papadopoulos,” which featured interviews with the heavyweight likes of John Solomon), and occasionally appears on Newsmax. He remains a proud MAGA boy, and maintains an active Twitter presence.
While he seems to have successfully monetized his experiences, however, his popularity has its limits. He ran in the March 2020 special election for the House seat vacated by Katie Hill, in California’s winnable 25th District, but only captured 2.9 percent of the vote.
And he found true love—not with Olga Polonskaya, as Mifsud might have intended, but with another young beauty with a connection to the professor. Per Volume 5:
Simona Mangiante, an Italian attorney who worked for the European Parliament until 2016, first interacted with Papadopoulos in approximately September 2016, when he sent her a Linkedln message, noting that he had previously worked for the organization that Mangiante had just joined, the London Center of International Law Practice (LCILP). Mangiante and Papadopoulos initially communicated via Skype or WhatsApp, until Papadopoulos met Mangiante in person at the airport in New York in the spring of 2017. Mangiante married Papadopoulos on March 2, 2018.
For years there have been rumors swirling on social media that Simona Mangiante was Russian, not Italian, and was, unbeknownst to young George, Papadopoulos’s GRU/FSB handler. I am assured that Mangiante speaks Italian like the native she claims to be, without an accent of any kind. And while she is certainly much smarter than her husband, there is no indication I can find that she is a foreign operative, for Moscow or anyone else. Certainly the Committee did not think so. In the event, and to her credit, she stood by her man throughout his ordeal, and the two remain married—happily, if Instagram is to be believed.
Joseph Mifsud was not so lucky. The professor-cum-spy reeled in what he thought was a big fish, worked him beautifully, and was even angling for a major diplomatic role in the incoming administration. What a coup that would have been for his Kremlin overlords! But it all came crashing down. The Trump people ghosted young George. The FBI began its counterintelligence investigation. God knows what the Russians did, but it’s not like their enthusiasm for polonium-spiked tea would have gone unnoticed by the sharp-eyed academic. After flying to Washington in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to meet with Papadopoulos, Mifsud left the country for good on February 11, 2017. A year later, a filing in the U.S. courts listed him as “missing and may be deceased.” His wallet and passport were found on the Portuguese island of Madeira, but Mifsud was not. He was last seen on November 6, 2017, in Rome. He is either dead or “gone to ground.”
The professor pegged George Papadopoulos as a useful idiot. Unfortunately for Mifsud, he was wrong about the first part.