“I tried to get away, but they wouldn’t let me off the hook.”
George Papadopoulos, the Russiagate instigator turned right-wing cause célèbre, is not referring to the 12 days he served in the federal correctional institution in Oxford, Wisconsin, after pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Instead, Papadopoulos, a year and four days after he walked out of prison, is explaining why he is 25 minutes late for our dinner meeting at La Poubelle in Los Angeles’s Franklin Village. “The host just kept me on the phone,” the 32-year-old former Trump campaign adviser says. “It was only radio. I’m on Fox News tomorrow—Martha MacCallum.” Papadopoulos ushers in his wife, Simona Mangiante, who like him is dressed for a night on the town: fitted jeans, high-heeled boots, leather jacket, and boxy fur hat. He’s in a navy suit and white dress shirt, no tie, but an extra splash of Acqua di Parma. As much as they look out of place in the bistro full of casually rumpled hipsters, the pair are right at home.
A year and a half since they moved to L.A., Papadopoulos and Mangiante have made the most of California’s promise of reinvention. Living in Beachwood Canyon, just below the Hollywood Sign, they began an improbable climb toward a strain of stardom built on the recognition that being notorious is the purest form of notoriety. He, the erstwhile Trump “coffee boy,” has recast himself as a force in right-wing media; she, a shadowy Italian lawyer, as a bikini designer and aspiring actress. Both are stars of their own docu-reality series. Papadopoulos arrived in L.A. broke and broken, a pariah whose only sure prospect was prison time. Now, with their lives subsidized in part by the show’s production budget, Papadopoulos earns a healthy living off the Conservative Industrial Complex. And, as he announced on Fox News two weeks earlier, he’s also a candidate for office. It’s less than three months away from a special election that could put him in Congress representing California’s 25th District, taking the seat left vacant by Katie Hill, and a primary that could put him on the ballot for a full two-year term in November. The nation may have moved on, but Papadopoulos is busy rewriting his slender history and pitching it to anyone who will listen. Some see it as tragedy and some as farce. This makes Papadopoulos and Mangiante either marketing savants or oblivious opportunists. Regardless, they’re intent on enjoying the moment.
Papadopoulos and Mangiante settle in and sit side by side, often touching each other’s hands or shoulders as they speak. They say they like the restaurant because, among other things, it offers celebrity sightings, though they fail to notice, or perhaps recognize, seven-time Grammy winner Beck wearing a kaffiyeh at the table next to us. “L.A. represents a lot of the things we love: multiculturalism, being socially liberal,” Papadopoulos says. “We both are very socially liberal, but at the end of the day, we’re also conservative, too.” They order the filet mignon, declaring that they’re in the mood to celebrate. “It’s been a great last day and a half,” Papadopoulos says, turning back to me. “You’ve seen it, right?”
“It” is the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General’s report on the Russia investigation, which Papadopoulos greets like an early Christmas present. The so-called IG report, in which Papadopoulos is mentioned by name 385 times, details “serious errors” by the FBI but found no bias. Even more, it concludes the investigation was properly predicated, which is to say the bureau had solid reasons for initiating the investigation—namely, Papadopoulos’s liquor-loosened lips. Over drinks at a London bar in May 2016, Papadopoulos, then an unpaid foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign working at the London Center of International Law Practice, told an Australian diplomat that Russia had “thousands of emails” and “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos had gleaned that information from the mysterious Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, then a board adviser at the LCILP, whom federal prosecutors and U.S. intelligence agencies labeled a Russian agent. (Papadopoulos himself recognized Mifsud as having connections to Russia, though he now maintains that Mifsud was in the employ of a Western intelligence agency and working with the deep state and Obama administration to entrap him.) Two months later, the hacked emails were released online, and the Aussie diplomat reported Papadopoulos’s remarks to U.S. officials. Russiagate was off and running.
Most people would rather not risk reminding the rabid MAGA masses that they are responsible for the cloud of collusion and election interference that engulfed Trump’s presidency, but Papadopoulos is not most people. He’s often hard to take seriously yet impossible to dismiss; candid but prone to obfuscation. Papadopoulos has propelled himself from persona non grata in Trumpworld to a frequent guest and favorite font of conspiracy theories on Fox News. He married Mangiante, who worked in the European Parliament and alongside Mifsud at the LCILP and is suspected by many (including Papadopoulos’s now-estranged family) of being a Russian asset. A Chicago-area native, Papadopoulos relocated with her to the beating heart of the Resistance, where they struck up an improbable friendship with fierce Trump antagonist Tom Arnold. After months of plotting a return to the political arena, providence and pornographic photos of Hill prompted Papadopoulos’s run for office. His chances of winning Hill’s old seat appear as slight as the effort with which he’s campaigning. And yet, deluded, disingenuous, or both, he insists he is poised for victory. This is not out of character, according to some who know him well. “George, I’m pretty sure he has narcissistic personality disorder and perhaps some kind of delusional psychosis,” Arnold says. “He can’t tie his own shoes. But, by God, he’s confident. This guy is like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to run for office.’ He knows nothing, but I’ll tell you what, he’s going to do it.”
“George, I’m pretty sure he has narcissistic personality disorder and perhaps some kind of delusional psychosis. He can’t tie his own shoes. But, by God, he’s confident.” —Tom Arnold
Papadopoulos had considered throwing his hat in the ring for any of several seats in Orange County, but in October freshman Representative Hill, a rising star in the Democratic Party and California’s first openly bisexual member of Congress, resigned amid allegations of an improper relationship with a staffer and the release of nude photos via right-wing media. Her district—which encompasses Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Lancaster, Palmdale, and the northern fringe of the San Fernando Valley—is increasingly blue. Yet Papadopoulos is running as a deep-red Republican, betting heavily on his Fox News fan base and his association with Trump.
“I’ve had a lot of people say that California’s a lost cause, and we can’t win this at all. This was a district that was held by the Republicans for 26 years, OK?” Papadopoulos says. “If I just wanted to go on notoriety, I’d run against Adam Schiff in Hollywood. I guarantee you I’d be in the news every day. I would’ve raised millions of dollars, and I would’ve lost in a landslide. That’s not what I’m running for. I’m not running to be a joke. I’m actually running to win.”
When I point out that Roll Call recently listed the district as solidly Democratic, Papadopoulos shakes his head. “Every person I’ve spoken to, do you know what they say? ‘We like you because you’re going to support Trump’s agenda.’ ” When I mention to him that Trump lost the district in 2016 (Clinton carried it by seven points), he seems stunned. “Really? I have to check the numbers. I haven’t checked them.” A moment later he adds, “It’s not really running on Trump, OK?”
The Republican field includes Steve Knight, who held the seat before losing to Hill and was recruited to run again by GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy, and Mike Garcia, an Iraq war veteran. On the Democratic side, there is Santa Clarita Assemblywoman Christy Smith, running with Hill’s endorsement, and, to Smith’s left flank, Cenk Uygur, cohost of the progressive news show The Young Turks. If Papadopoulos wins or finishes in the top two in the jungle primary—as he claims he will despite having done no polling, possessing no knowledge of the district’s voting patterns, living outside its boundaries, and rarely campaigning there—he is counting on Trump’s endorsement.
“I expect it,” Papadopoulos says, “for the simple reason that my narrative is helping his presidency.”
“Much more than you working on the campaign,” Mangiante interjects.
“Much more than anybody in his entire administration, if you actually think about it,” he adds, nodding.
Earlier that day, Papadopoulos’s campaign sent out an email blast with the subject line: “Breaking: IG Exposes Democrat Corruption.” The fundraising appeal is a concise summation of his rebranding effort: “As Trump’s foreign policy advisor, I bore the brunt of the Deep State’s attack on our President during and after he won election in 2016. The political establishment did everything they could to railroad me.” And it synthesizes Papadopoulos’s strident pushback: “Through it all, I did not give up. I fought back. … I was able to expose the worst spy scandal in American history.” Papadopoulos points to the criminal probe into the roots of the Russia investigation opened by Attorney General William Barr and overseen by federal prosecutor John Durham as vindication, claiming it will affirm that he was the victim of a coordinated effort among deep state actors and foreign intelligence services. Papadopoulos unspools the full-length version of this story in his book, Deep State Target: How I Got Caught in the Crosshairs of the Plot to Bring Down President Trump, published in early 2019. He delivers highlights of his narrative during paid personal appearances, drawing cheers from die-hard Trump supporters. In early December he launched the podcast Punching Back, which shot to No. 12 in iTunes’ news category after just three episodes. In addition to the docu-reality series, a feature-length documentary about his ordeal is in the works. His business is personal and political revisionism, and business is very good.
Papadopoulos likes to suggest he was a bystander caught up in a conspiracy of epic proportions, like Frank Wills, the guard who stumbled upon the Watergate break-in. But he has no intention of being a footnote to history or dying destitute as Wills did. Papadopoulos is following the trail blazed by the likes of G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate ringleader who went on the lecture circuit and landed his own talk show; and Iran-contra affair architect Oliver North, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 (unsuccessfully) before launching his national radio show.
Papadopoulos believes this is his time. “You know what I believe in?” he asks. “‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ I think Rahm Emanuel said that.” As wielded by Papadopoulos, the expression takes on an air of self-affirmation. “That means if you know you’re in the right, and you’ve gone through a crisis—I mean, you can’t be a scumbag and expect to get out of it, OK?—you’re going to recover and use that situation to become a stronger individual and go back on top.” Even as Papadopoulus is explicating Frederick Neitzche’s aphorism “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” he unwittingly evokes two of the philosopher’s lesser-known pronouncements: “There are no facts, only interpretations” and “Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders.”
That isn’t to say Papadopoulos doesn’t wish he could have done things differently during those fateful months in 2016. “The biggest mistake I did was not going on TV,” he says. “The campaign was begging me to go on TV as an official surrogate, and I was shying away from it because I didn’t know what was going to happen—if Trump was going to win or lose.” Recognizability and a bully pulpit, he posits, would have made him both harder to take down and be cast aside. “It would’ve saved a lot of headaches because TV is power, right?” This lesson, if no other, has sunk in and now informs everything Papadopoulos is doing. “Optics matter. That’s the summary. That’s what it’s about.”
“It’s not a bong—it’s a hookah.”
Papadopoulos is referring to the tall water pipe we see as we enter the compact cottage he has shared with Mangiante since mid-2018. From the front gate one has unobstructed views of the nearby Hollywood Sign. Inside, in addition to the pipe he uses exclusively for tobacco (he tried weed once—not his thing), the living room contains a series of devotional shrines. One to God: a gilded Eastern Orthodox print of the Virgin Mary and child. One to country: an American flag hanging on the wall. And many more to Papadopoulos and Mangiante: display copies of a Rolling Stone article (“From the Russia Investigation with Love”) and The Washington Post Magazine with the couple on the cover. Copies of Deep State Target are fanned out on the coffee table, alongside them a box of Uni-ball pens
Papadopoulos uses to sign the books; VIPs get inscriptions via a Mont Blanc pen.
Papadopoulos changes out of his John Galliano sneakers into slippers. Mangiante wears fuzzy pink leopard-print slides, camo leggings, and a midriff tank that reveals her belly-button bling. It is late January, and Papadopoulos is recounting what he has done in the six weeks since our first meeting: He went to New York, where he appeared on Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo. Between media and fundraising events, he and Mangiante cheekily dined at the Russian Tea Room (she tweeted a selfie with the caption: “Celebrating the IG REPORT and the end of the Russia delusion with amazing Russian food”). He finally retrieved his passport, which authorities seized upon his arrest, and traveled to Italy with Mangiante for the holidays.
Here’s what he has not done in the intervening period: visited the 25th District; held a campaign event; opened his long-promised campaign office; conducted polling. Nor did he file the paperwork necessary to run in the special election—the January deadline came and went after Papadopoulos stayed in Italy with Mangiante to look after her father, who was hospitalized. “It cost me the special election,” Papadopoulos says, “but family is first, OK?
Papadopoulos’s first extended visit with his wife’s relatives had a profound effect on him. “I kept saying to her, ‘I finally feel like our marriage has been fulfilled now,’” he says, “because when you get married alone, and the families aren’t there, willfully or not, it’s difficult.” Technically, Papadopoulos and Mangiante weren’t alone when they wed at Chicago City Hall in March 2018—their witnesses were two journalists working for ABC News, producer Rhonda Schwartz and correspondent Brian Ross, who later aired a piece on the couple’s nuptials. “We’ve had a very problematic relationship with my family. It’s not a secret,” Papadopoulos says. “That’s been very sad.”
Papadopoulos grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, shuttling between his parents, who divorced when he was seven. He attended DePaul University; earned a master’s in security studies from University College London; and went to work in Washington as a researcher at the Hudson Institute, a right-leaning think tank. It was a respectable enough career path, but his family pressured him to return to Chicago and go into real estate, as many other family members had. After Papadopoulos’s arrest, his parents stood by him, and his father paid his legal bills. There was no single cause of the split between Papadopoulos and his family, but his relationship to Mangiante was a significant factor. In the days before he reported to prison, Papadopoulos says that his family was “treating us like shit.” Mangiante gets more specific. A week before he began serving his sentence, she says, “his family tried to report me to immigration to say I’m a Russian agent.” She shakes her head: “The hurt and harm, you know?”
Plenty of others have made that accusation, including Louise Mensch, the British blogger known for promoting conspiracy theories. The Twitter hordes have joined in. “They attacked me to portray me as this shady monster, liar, Russian agent, whatever, you know, all the fantasies,” Mangiante says. Her detractors have seized on the fact that Mangiante, who is 38, doctored a photo of her passport that she provided to ABC News, changing her birth date to make her three years younger. “Coco Chanel said a woman that is truthful about her age is capable of everything—don’t trust her,” says Mangiante, shrugging. “So I wanted my acting age to be 35.” Although her ability to work has been limited by her visa status (she’s still awaiting her Green Card), Mangiante says she has filmed a small role in a big-budget Warner Bros. movie she’s not permitted to name; designed a line of bikinis called Agape; modeled for Versace Vintage; and booked a part in an upcoming sci-fi flick called Gliese. “You know my dream is to play a Russian spy,” she says with a laugh.
“George’s family tried to report me to immigration to say I’m a Russian agent. The hurt and harm, you know?” —Simona Mangiante
Each time Mangiante raises the outlandish suggestion that she’s involved in espionage, whether to joke about it, complain about it, or engage in a Twitter spat over it, she gives the charge more oxygen. None of the supposed evidence—inconsistencies in her LinkedIn profile, the altered passport photo, and having known Mifsud socially and worked with him—is particularly compelling. In the context of Mangiante’s new Hollywood life, a Kremlin agent marrying a Russiagate figure might be a cliché suited to a B-movie Bond knockoff, but her sly winks at it might prove to be an inspired promotional campaign.
The choice that Papadopoulos and Mangiante face is: convince the world you are nobodies inadvertently caught up in events or let it see you as a man and woman of international mystery and thus great importance. In our conversations Papadopoulos is intent on conveying his stature, even encouraging me to check the Mueller Report—which he’s derided as a hoax—for proof that he was indeed in line for a job in the Trump administration. He has reason to protest: After his arrest President Trump tweeted: “Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar.” Also at that time Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo, speaking on CNN, dubbed Papadopoulos “the coffee boy.” Mangiante launched the couple’s counteroffensive with an appearance on ABC News, telling George Stephanopoulos her then-fiancé was a patriot and definitely not a coffee boy. “First of all, I would love George to learn how to make a coffee because it’s absolutely out of his skills,” she joked to Stephanopoulos. She also declared that Papadopoulos was in constant contact with high-level campaign officials, including Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn. Her assertions earned her a request to appear before the House Intelligence Committee, to which she acceded (she also testified in the Mueller investigation). Mangiante shows me the letter, signed by Adam Schiff, flourishing it as a sort of badge of honor. She has no regrets about standing up for Papadopoulos. “I saw a lion in a cage,” Mangiante says.
“Simona’s a fighter,” says Stephanie Frederic, who is producing both the documentary film and reality series on Papadopoulos and Mangiante. Frederic, an Emmy winner who produced the docuseries Who Killed Tupac?, is well aware of the rumors surrounding Mangiante. “She does speak five different languages. She is very intelligent. She’s gorgeous, and I have people all the time asking me, why is she with George?” Frederic says. “They both are extremely ambitious and will stop at nothing to get there.”
Frederic and Arnold have played the part of parents, older siblings, and therapists to Papadopoulos and Mangiante. Both met the couple near their nadir: broke, new to Los Angeles, isolated, and objects of ridicule. “I have to say that they have an indomitable spirit, these two,” says Arnold. “They’re pretty resilient.” He has seen them at their best and their worst over the last year—as has Frederic, whose production kept cameras wired in the couple’s home. They both paint a picture of the couple as smitten and impossible, two pieces of work—selfish, capricious, vain, and tempestuous. For some time Arnold worried that Papadopoulos was being exploited by the right-wing media. He now sees it as a cynical symbiosis, with each using the other. “He’s their loudspeaker,” Arnold says. “George is conspiracy—he is that brand now.” Arnold was with Papadopoulos when the first copies of Deep State Target arrived. “He goes, ‘It’s so exciting, Tom.’ I go, ‘Have you read it?’ and he’s like, ‘No … I will, though.’ ” (Papadopoulos disputes Arnold’s recollection and claims he knew the book’s contents.)
The book was born with a partisan pedigree, packaged and shopped to publishers by the same agent who sold far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’s later-canceled Dangerous to Simon & Schuster and who cowrote a memoir with transgender nightlife legend Amanda Lepore. Eventually picked up by the independent house Diversion Books, Deep State Target mirrors the outlandish claims of the president’s most zealous defenders and helped pave the way for Papadopoulos’s return to favor in Trumpworld. A turning point came last July when the president fired off a tweet—“Good luck with the book George, should do well!”—that is still pinned to the profile on Papadopoulos’s Twitter account, which has nearly 260,000 followers. The book built Papadopoulos up in other ways. He was not the low-level campaign volunteer so easily thrown under the bus—he is a central figure in a vast international plot. Once Papadopoulos had immersed himself in his new narrative, according to Arnold, “he kept saying, ‘It turns out I was the epicenter of this whole thing. I had no idea, Tom.’ First of all, if you didn’t know this, look at who told you.” When I ask Arnold if he thinks Papadopoulos has faith in the larger conspiracies he espouses, the comedian laughs out loud. “I’m not sure if George believes in anything,” Arnold says, “but that makes it so much better.”
“It’s not the money, and it’s not anything else. I feel like it’s my moral duty.”
Papadopoulos sips on his fourth espresso—all prepared by Mangiante—and tries to explain why he feels compelled to run for Congress. After his experience with the intelligence services, he says, he wants to bring about significant change and oversight to the deep state. “It’s not about fame. It’s not about brand. It’s about reform and accountability,” he says. “And if I don’t do it now, when will I ever do it?” Papadopoulos is aware of the skepticism about his motives but insists, “Running for Congress has always been an objective of mine from being a young analyst in D.C. Actually, I wanted to work in the administration for no more than a year and then run for Congress after that.” The IG Report quotes Papadopoulos as telling sources (whom he said were campaign staffers) his real feelings about Congress and his ultimate motivations:
Papadopoulos also said that he was introduced to “Putin’s niece” and the Russian ambassador in London. He did not elaborate but added that he needed to figure out how I’m going monetize it, but I have to be an idiot not to monetize it, get it? Even if [Trump] loses. If anything, I feel like if he loses probably could be better for my personal business because if he wins I’m going to be in some bureaucracy I can’t do jack. …
Papadopoulos said that once the election was over, he is going to sit down and systematically write who I know, what they want, and how I can leverage that because … there’s not one person I know who has those connections that isn’t making … money. He observed that what he had to “sell is access” and “[t]hat’s what people pay millions of dollars for every year. It’s the cleanest job.”
Papadopoulos winces slightly as I remind him of his words. He claims he’s a different man now. “I’ve matured a lot since those days,” he says, “and maybe when I look back on my life I’ll see this horrendous ordeal as the moment that I really matured because, yeah, those were stupid things to be saying.”
Putting down his espresso, Papadopoulos lays out a plan to take him through what he hopes and expects will be the second term of the Trump administration. “I definitely want to serve at least two terms in Congress,” he continues. “I want to be able to govern properly. I want to be a congressman who makes a real impact. Because I’m not going to lie, a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, he’s just an opportunist—whatever.’ But that’s not actually what is going on here at all. If I lose this congressional seat, it takes away a lot from what I’ve worked on, repairing my name for the last year and a half. It’s about winning.”
The objective facts indicate victory is not likely. Papadopoulos’s campaign consultant and de facto campaign manager, Emanuel Patrascu, says he is hopeful that the campaign has the resources to stay afloat until the March primaries. “Overall the number of contributions is phenomenal,” he says. “It’s very grassroots.” The campaign took in more than $100,000 in two months, all from individuals. He also indicates the long-promised polling would begin by the middle of January, though it did not. Political observers see an uphill battle for any Republican candidate and point to the fact that it is 2020. “You have a presidential election, always the biggest game in town,” says Brian Stryker of ALG Research, a Washington, D.C.-based pollster who works extensively on California congressional races. “So you’re going to have a big turnout on the Democratic side, where the presidential nomination is hotly contested, and very little turnout on the Republican side, which is not.” In a state and district where GOP influence has been in decline and Trump is political kryptonite, Papadopoulos’s best political asset is of middling assistance. “There are some parts of the country where it could work to hitch your star to Trump but not here,” says Jim Newton of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, a veteran political journalist. “An affiliation with Trump is just not enough to put you over the line. It may be enough to boost book sales and drive some name recognition.” Regardless of the outcome of the race, Frederic expects Papadopoulos to focus on raising his profile. “I think throughout this election that you’re going to see George giving commentary, and then who knows how far he wants to take it from there.”
With less than six weeks until ballots are cast, Papadopoulos insists he is focused on his campaign, or will be very soon. “We’re going to Florida for some big fundraisers at the end of this month. Then we’re going to be very active in the district,” Papadopoulos says. “I can go on Fox News tomorrow if I want. That’s not the same as me meeting people at their home, at the diners, in the churches, the synagogues, the mosques, whatever it is, in the temples. That’s the approach I’m taking moving forward.” Nearly a dozen requests to Papadopoulos or Patrascu to join the candidate on a visit to the district went unfulfilled. In total, Papadopoulos estimates he’s visited the district on 14 days.“It’s not enough at all,” he says. “Fundraising takes a lot of time.”
Without prompting, he shares another political goal—or perhaps delusion. “There’s going to have to be a new face of this party,” Papadopoulos says. “Trump is not going to last. Even if he’s reelected, what comes after Trump? In my situation, if things go the way I think they will, I could be a new face. I’m just going to say it bluntly like that.” He nods solemnly, as if I’ve coaxed a profound confession from him. “I have to win this race.” Ultimately, regardless of whether he’s elected or anointed the new face of the GOP, Papadopoulos is too ambitious and determined not to make himself a fixture in the media and on the political periphery.
“If I lose, of course, it would break my heart,” he says, “but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. … You just have to keep going. Certainly we want to be here in California.” He takes another espresso from Mangiante and smiles. “And you never know. Maybe I’ll just run again in two years.”
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