The Rise of George Papadopoulos, a Trump Adviser Who May Kill Trump’s Presidency

The former Trump campaign aide was unmemorable in high school and a bad student in college. Now he’s a central figure in the Russia probe.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The most remarkable thing about George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign aide who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians during the course of the 2016 campaign, is that he managed to get to this point at all.

By all accounts, the 30-year-old Papadopoulos was unmemorable in virtually all chapters of his life. High school classmates don’t recall him. College professors say he was a below-average student. Peers in Washington, D.C., describe him as unremarkable, and many senior colleagues on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign thought he was a hanger-on.

And yet Papadopoulos now finds himself squarely in the middle of the most remarkable political scandal of a generation. He is an avatar of the Trump era: someone with scant (if any) connections to established circles who rose to unfathomable heights through self-promotion and opportunistic timing. Only this particular bit character may now bring down a president.

Those who have crossed his path are practically floored by it all.

“That was absolutely shocking,” Richard Farkas, a Russian politics professor at DePaul University, said of discovering that his former student was one of Trump’s few foreign policy advisers. “We knew his expertise was virtually nonexistent. It was thin and embellished. Lots of young people, when they aspire to get close to a campaign, exaggerate their experience. George did that in spades and it was the talk of the department here.”

Papadopoulos grew up outside Chicago, in the heavily Greek community of Lincolnwood.

He attended Niles West High School in Skokie and graduated in 2005, the school confirmed. It was a massive place, with hundreds of students per class, and nearly every 2005 graduate whom The Daily Beast reached (and we reached out to several dozen) said they had no recollection of him.

“I thought I had heard his name before. But there are tons of Greek people in the class,” said David Salmanson, an ’05 grad. “When the news came out, I looked in the yearbook. And he looks different than he does now. But so do a lot of us.”

From Niles West, Papadopoulos went on to DePaul where, once again, few people recall having met him. His academic prowess was unremarkable and even his own professors seem to have taken little note or interest.  

“I’ve been really generally embarrassed by the fact that I don’t have a lot to share,” said Farkas. “My classes were 20 to 25 and he was invisible even in a class that size.”

It was in college that Papadopoulos’ interest in foreign policy and Russia appears to have widened. He took Russian politics classes and pursued a bachelor’s degree in political science. He claimed to have delivered the “keynote address” at a leading American-Greek organization in 2008. But as The Washington Post reported, he “merely participated in a youth panel with other participants.”

Papadopoulos also said, via his LinkedIn page, that he attended University College London to earn a master’s degree in security studies. The research university did not immediately return a request for comment.

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Eventually, he found his way to Washington, D.C., where he engaged in the same kind of networking that many other young, right-leaning, politically minded people in the capital city typically do. He attended DC Young Republicans events, including happy hours, according to multiple sources. And he didn’t hide his politics.

According to one acquaintance, Papadopoulos was very pro-Israel and would complain about the Obama administration’s policies toward the Middle Eastern country—sometimes saying he couldn't believe what President Obama and his team were doing. Papadopoulos presented himself as an aspiring powerhouse-consultant who was interested in oil and natural gas policy. He was vocally pro-fracking.

It was 2012 and 2013, and there was limited upward mobility for those seeking to build a career in conservative foreign policy circles. But within a few years, the presidential election presented a wealth of opportunities, and Papadopoulos appeared eager to take advantage of them. He was 28 at the time but managed to land a gig on Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.

“He’s a hapless wannabe. And he made his way in the door. Gotta give him that!” said one former Carson aide.

After an unremarkable stint with Carson, Papadopoulos found his way into Trump’s orbit by what appears to be a combination of luck and political desperation.

Trump campaign officials tell The Daily Beast that Papadopoulos was never a key player. Mostly they saw him as a grifter, describing him variously as a “wannabe,” “kid,” and “con man.”

But Papadopoulos was still plugged in enough to the campaign’s top brass to be seated near the president and future Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a much ballyhooed national security meeting. More important—with respect to current legal matters—his emails were noticed, and sometimes complimented, by senior staffers such as Paul Manafort and Sam Clovis. Indeed, the only reason Trump was on the record singing Papadopoulos’ praises—in an interview with The Washington Post in March 2016, during which Trump called him an “excellent guy”—is because Clovis handed him a piece of paper with Papadopoulos’ name on it.

According to two knowledgeable Team Trump sources, the insurgent GOP campaign was scrambling to compile a legitimate list of foreign policy advisers to Trump in early 2016, when people in media and political circles kept pressuring the campaign to release one. Clovis, then a top Trump policy adviser, slapped together a roster that Trump could read in an attempt to “at least shut up” the critics, according to one Trump campaign veteran.

That list included Papadopoulos and Carter Page—two names that have come back to haunt the president. During the campaign, Clovis defended the roster he had compiled for Trump, telling The New York Times that “these are people who work for a living” who have “real world” experience, and that “if you’re looking for show ponies, you’re coming to the wrong stable.” But to this day, some senior staffers in the Trump White House blame Clovis for saddling Trump with the Russia crisis by putting Papadopoulos and Page on the radar.

Whether Clovis deserves the blame for Papadopoulos or Trump is perhaps the key to unlocking the Russia probe.

In a court filing this week, the Justice Department disclosed that Papadopoulos privately claimed the campaign had agreed to a sit-down between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Elsewhere, Papadopoulos repeatedly pressed members of the Trump campaign to backchannel with individuals who he believed had high-level Russian government connections—and could supply the campaign with damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Clovis reportedly encouraged it. Manafort entertained it. And yet the White House said on Wednesday that it was unaware of any such arrangement.

Farkas, Papadopoulos’ old professor, suspects that his former student was merely pretending to be in touch with top Russian officials as a way of boosting his status on the campaign. The professor recalled that during the campaign he gave an interview to a paper in Kiev, and Papadopoulos’ name came up.

“I actually said he wasn’t a very good student. But the way it got translated was that he was a ‘terrible student,’” Farkas recalled. Some time after, he saw Papadopoulos on campus. “George came up to me and said he was very disappointed. I responded to say ‘I was a bit disappointed in some of the choices you’ve made and would be careful about the commitments you made.’ And he walked away.”

If nothing else, Papadopoulos certainly seems prone to embellishment. When the FBI first questioned him about his Russia contacts, he lied. His guilty plea came because he was caught lying. Papadopoulos’ lawyers did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Within a day of that plea becoming public, Papadopoulos—the outsider kid turned adviser to a future president—suddenly found himself suffering the most Washingtonian of fates. Every group with whom he had publicly associated rushed to distance itself from him.

Energy industry consultancy U.S. Energy Stream quickly removed him from the agenda for a 2018 oil and gas summit in Cyprus, where Papadopoulos had been slated to speak. Energy Stream also removed his name from the agenda of its March 2017 conference. The company did not respond to a request for comment on his deletion from the conference website.

International Presidential Business Advisory Council, a company associated with Cyprus energy tycoon Efthyvoulos Paraskevaides, had been listed on Papadopoulos’ LinkedIn page as a place for which he consulted. But IPBAC said it had no idea who Papadopoulos was until reporters started asking on Tuesday. “I don’t know the guy, I have NEVER met him in my life, he was NEVER a member of IPBAC and he NEVER participated to any meetings,” said John Georgoulas, a spokesman for the group.

That wasn’t the only group with which Papadopoulos claimed association that said it had never heard of him. He had claimed as a foreign policy qualification that he was a U.S. representative at a Model United Nations contest in Geneva in 2012. But officials at that organization told The Washington Post that they have no record of his participation.

Even high school classmates who did admit to knowing the guy said they didn’t feel comfortable speaking about him.

Papadopoulos tweeted a picture of himself enjoying a filet of fish at a Greek restaurant in Chicago on Tuesday. But he quickly took that down before reporters could figure out the location.

He was, in short, vanishing as rapidly as he had emerged.

—With additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff and Gideon Resnick