The former Trump campaign aide, convicted for his role in the Russia saga, is hoping to capitalize on the intense cynicism seen in many Republican voters.
To a certain type of Republican, George Papadopoulos is a martyr — a young man whose ambition exceeded his experience and led to his railroading at the hands of an intelligence community that would stop at nothing to destroy President Trump’s 2016 campaign. Or at least, that’s the view of the Russia saga that Papadopoulos wants to sell voters as he runs for the California House seat recently vacated by Democrat Katie Hill.
Papadopoulos, a 32-year-old with no political experience to speak of, is betting that he can capitalize on the current historic levels of distrust in America’s most storied institutions to reclaim a seat that was held by Republicans for two decades until their defeat at the hands of Hill, herself a 32-year-old freshman who was recently forced to resign after nude photos of her posing with a young female staffer were published online. In an age when some not-inconsequential portion of the populace believes that the intelligence community orchestrated a coup to overturn the results of a presidential election, could Papadopoulos be right?
As a political novice and newcomer to California, Papadopoulos is at a huge disadvantage relative to Republican Steve Knight, who held the seat for two terms until 2018, when he was bested by Hill and her unprecedented $6 million war chest. Papadopoulos’s conviction in connection with the Russia investigation and his reputation as a political climber with a penchant for self-sabotage and braggadocio should, by rights, hurt him when compared with Knight’s record of military service and staid political career. And even if he gets past Knight, he’ll still be a candidate with a lot of baggage running in a district where Democrats enjoy a significant voter-registration advantage. (The race is rated as leaning Democratic by the Cook Political Report.)
And yet . . . these are not conventional times. Papadopoulos, in spite or maybe because of his many faults as a candidate on paper, has some potential to appeal to the kind of ticked-off Republican voter dying to stick a middle finger in the eye of the establishment.
Papadopoulos believes that U.S. attorney John Durham’s ongoing investigation into the origins of the Russia probe will build on the wrongdoings exposed by Department of Justice inspector general Michael Horowitz and, ultimately, vindicate him. “Horowitz was the prelude and Durham will be the main act,” he says in a lengthy phone interview. He cites Durham’s recent trip to Italy with Attorney General William Barr, saying he believes that the Connecticut prosecutor is currently working to determine exactly who dispatched Maltese academic Joseph Mifsud to meet with him and why. (It was Mifsud who provided the tip about Russian dirt on Clinton, subsequently shared with Australian diplomat Alexander Downer by Papadopoulos, which touched off the Russia probe in 2016).
“John Durham has actually been conducting interviews with individuals like Alexander Downer, this Australian who met with me, Joseph Mifsud’s lawyer, the head of Italian intelligence services, all with the purpose to understand why on earth these individuals were making contact with me and trying to learn about me before even the Washington Post knew I had joined the campaign in March of 2016,” Papadopoulos says. “So these are questions that Horowitz was unable to address. He simply did not have the ability to convene a grand jury and subpoena witnesses. He couldn’t interview even Jim Comey or State Department officials.”
It is still much too early to say whether the hotly anticipated report Durham is producing will offer the vindication that Papadopoulos craves. But Durham does indeed have a broader mandate than Horowitz, whose investigation was limited to the FBI’s interactions with the FISA court. In addition, Durham’s willingness to publicly contradict Horowitz’s conclusions about the FBI’s proper predication for opening the probe, which longtime colleagues claim is out of character for the career prosecutor, suggests that Papadopoulos’s predictions might be in the right ballpark. But for now, the existence of the Durham investigation — which has been upgraded from an administrative review to a criminal probe — might provide sufficient fodder for Papadopoulos to argue to voters that he will ultimately emerge as the victim of a sweeping conspiracy to derail the Trump campaign.
That message is tailor-made for the kind of disaffected Southern California Republican Papadopoulos is hoping to rally to his cause. His plan is to rely on his name ID and friendly interviews on Fox News, where he announced his candidacy, to sell himself as a candidate who will go to Washington with a singular focus: reforming the institutions that have betrayed Americans such as him, and punishing the self-righteous former intel officials who are beamed into American living rooms night after night to opine on the Trump scandal du jour. He says he wants to clean the “black stain” off of the FBI and the broader federal law-enforcement and intelligence communities.
“The message that I get from people is, ‘We want people to be held accountable, George,’” he says. He claims that the people he talks with in California’s 25th district are first and foremost concerned with the state of the nation’s law-enforcement institutions, and that their concerns about issues such as immigration and the economy pale in comparison to this foundational worry. “We understand there’s not too much we can do with immigration. The wall is going up, and the laws are getting more strict. The U.S. military is strong again. But one thing we do have worries about is accountability and the trust that we as citizens hold in the institutions that we hoped would protect us,” he says voters have told him. The idea that such voters might be reluctant to send to Washington, as their avenging angel, a man who spilled secrets over drinks seems not to cross his mind, and it is true that his narrative is mighty convenient for a man in his position.
But there’s at least a slight possibility that he could still be on to something: Republicans’ confidence in the FBI has fallen 22 percentage points since 2017 while Democrats’ opinion of the bureau has remained steady, according to an October Fox News poll. Confidence in the CIA fell by 10 percent among Democrats and Republicans alike during the same period. For years after 9/11, Republicans defended the intelligence community against civil libertarians and intervention-skeptical Democrats, attacking critics of the FBI and CIA as unpatriotic ingrates. Now, the roles are reversed. CNN viewers are inundated with “analysis” from James Clapper, John Brennan, and countless other former FBI and CIA officials, many of whom are called on to analyze news stories that directly involve their work under President Obama. Establishment Democrats scold Republican critics of the intelligence community as unpatriotic stooges of President Trump. In a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans, Papadopoulos must hope that some of the cynicism and distrust now evident on the right has reached the mainstream media, infecting Democrats and independents.
“Even CNN and some of the other mainstream media, they’re pissed about what happened, and they feel duped. I was watching Jake Tapper a week ago, and he basically called out the FBI and intel agencies,” he says.
No one, including Papadopoulos himself, knows for sure what the Durham report will say. But whether he will ultimately be vindicated, embarrassed, or neither is ultimately beside the point when assessing the efficacy of his sales pitch to voters. He has some name recognition, he has Fox News, and he has an “establishment” to rail against to a Republican electorate that has never been more wary of political insiders. That probably won’t be enough. But there’s a chance that it could be.