Earlier in the week, the Daily Caller reported that George Papadopoulos’s wife, an Italian lawyer named Simona Mangiante, said her husband had pleaded guilty in July to lying to the FBI to avoid charges by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team that he was an agent of the Israeli government. Her husband’s lawyers tried to throw cold water on her intervention with a statement explaining: “The most accurate account of Mr. Papadopoulos’ plea agreement and plea of guilty is contained in the publicly filed court records and the transcript of Mr. Papadopoulos’ guilty plea.”
However, an article in the Washington Post on Mangiante’s claim suggests that the 29-year-old former Trump adviser’s ostensible ties to Israel have become a subject of general interest, albeit thinly sourced. The Post reports that Papadapoulos wrote for Israeli publications, including Haaretz, and struck up an acquaintance with a Netanyahu aide, Eli Groner.
Needless to say, the mention of Israel was catnip for Russiagate conspiracy theorists—even though Israel is not Russia, and Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu would appear to have some strong differences in, among other places, Syria. “Israeli espionage against the United States is a perennially touchy subject in Washington,” former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler writes this week in the Observer, once owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Schindler quotes a colleague from the US intelligence community who wonders, “What if the real secret of the Trump campaign isn’t that it’s a Kremlin operation, rather an Israeli operation masquerading as a Russian one?” While President Trump’s policies haven’t exactly favored Vladimir Putin, Schindler admits, Israel is another story. “Trump has gone whole-hog for the Israeli right-wing,” writes the former American spy. “The recent move of our embassy to Jerusalem, long desired by the Israeli Right, is merely the most prominent of Trump’s gifts to his pal Bibi and his ruling Likud party.”
Amassing further evidence of the Trump administration’s support for a key US ally, Schindler concludes: “It’s no wonder that Mueller and his investigators are trying to get to the bottom of what certain Israelis were doing in 2016 in secret to boost the Trump campaign. That answer may eventually prove just as important as Mueller’s inquiry into the Kremlin and its clandestine attack on our democracy two years ago.” Reached for comment, Schindler admitted that concrete facts in this case were in short supply. “There is as yet no sign that these individuals were tied to the Israeli government,” he said, “though the past connection of some of those individuals to Israeli intelligence raises obvious questions.”
In other words, if the Russiagate conspiracy theory doesn’t pan out, maybe Israelgate will explain why.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth asking the question: Is George Papadopoulos actually not a Russian agent of influence, but an Israeli spy?
According to the December 30, 2017 New York Times story that first laid out the genesis of the investigation, the FBI started its probe with a tip from Alexander Downer, Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, who met with Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos in London in May 2016. Papadopoulos informed Downer that he had been told by a “Kremlin-linked” professor that Russia had potentially damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
In an April, 2018 article in The Australian, Downer explained that he had reached out to Papadopoulos through an “Israeli contact.” According to a story from the Daily Caller, the Israeli contact is Christian Cantor, an official at the Israeli embassy in London, who introduced Papadopoulos to “Erika Thompson, a counselor to Downer who serves in Australia’s London embassy.” Downer had wanted to speak to Papadopoulos after he made disparaging comments about UK Prime Minister David Cameron in the British press, and told Thompson to reach out to the Trump adviser.
Now, according to senior US officials reached by Tablet, the Australians are saying it was the other way around. “The Australians are telling reporters that the Israelis put Papadopoulos in front of them,” one told me this week.
The Australian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The Israeli embassy in Washington did not respond to similar requests, nor did spokespersons in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
It’s not hard to see why the Canberra government would be eager to get out of the spotlight. An article in the Wall Street Journal last week shows that Downer went through unusual channels to report his tip. Rather than reporting his conversation to the Australian government, according to whom Downer broke protocol and instead contacted a diplomat at the US embassy in London, Elizabeth Dibble. Somehow the information made its way up the chain at the State Department, which relayed the tip to federal law enforcement. Congressional investigators on the Republican side believe that Downer—who was instrumental in securing $25 million from his government to help the Clinton Global Initiative fight AIDS—may have been participating in a sting operation against a US presidential campaign.
It’s unlikely Australia intended any lasting harm in seeking to swap responsibility for the Papadopoulos meeting with Israel. The problem is that this is all emerging in the midst of other Israel-related matters in the Russiagate scandal.
Some conservative journalists have argued that Mueller appears to have a problem with Israel. In particular, they note the 2004 sting operation designed to root out Israeli spies that the FBI conducted when Mueller was director—an operation which has some notable similarities with the FBI’s July 2016 Trump campaign investigation, in which the bureau reportedly ran an informant, Stefan Halper, a former US official, who met with at least three members of the Trump campaign.
For the Israeli spy ring probe, Mueller’s FBI employed similar tactics, using Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin as a informant and convincing him to wear a wire when he met with Israeli officials and AIPAC analyst Keith Weissman, after convincing him that Weissman and AIPAC colleague Steven Rosen were, as Franklin’s words, “bad people.” According to a 2009 Washington Post article by Gary Wasserman, the two AIPAC officials “were targets of a bizarre sting in which they were fed false information suggesting that the lives of U.S. and Israeli operatives in Iraq were at risk and that American officials were refusing to take steps to protect them.” When Rosen and Weissman passed that information on to Israeli officials and to the Washington Post, and tried to reach George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff, they were arrested. In 2009, charges against the two men were dropped.
According to the 2009 Post article, “Franklin was apparently sent out by his FBI handlers to tempt Jews. He tried Adam Ciralsky at CBS News, who had once sued the CIA for anti-Semitism, and Richard Perle, who was on his way to vacation in France, as well as Pentagon employees who had done nothing more than work with Franklin. All turned down the offer of information.”
Hints of a Jewish conspiracy that was part of or behind the Trump-Russia collusion theory have long circulated among the conspiracy-mongers and in the press. In his November 14, 2017 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson said that the Jewish diaspora “appears to be a very interesting route for the Russians.” The Steele dossier, which was marketed by Simpson’s company, elaborates on that claim. The FSB, claims one of Steele’s ostensible sources, was approaching “U.S. citizens of Russian (Jewish) origin on business trips to Russia” as potential foreign agents.
In April 2017, Politico picked up on the theme with a story about the alleged ties between Trump, Putin, Jared Kushner, and a “happy-go-lucky Jewish group” called Chabad, “the most sprawling Jewish institution in the world.” Tablet reported that Fusion GPS was believed to be the source for the Politico story. The ostensible Trump-Putin-Chabad link appeared in the press again, including on the BBC, with the arrest of Michael Cohen, and was also quickly disproved.
That the collusion spotlight has now focused more intensely on Israel and the Jews in a story that’s ostensibly about Russia and Donald Trump makes a weird kind of sense. As a conspiracy theory becomes larger, incorporates more actors and institutions, points to more events, more connections, it shows more gaps in its logic. As the conspiracy theorists struggle to explain or reconcile contradictions in their accounts, the pull towards the deus ex machina of all conspiracy theories—the powerful, wealthy, rootless, cosmopolitan wanderers of the earth—only gets stronger.
Seen this way, shifting the spotlight in Russiagate to Israel and the Jews would seem to portend a weakening of the collusion narrative. It’s difficult to imagine that many of the prominent figures on the left and the Never Trump right who have seen the Russiagate conspiracy as a useful instrument to weaken or corral Trump will be eager to push a narrative about clandestine Jewish control of American politics. Perhaps Russiagate believers will break into two separate camps, Trump-Russia and Trump-Israel. In the meantime, there’s not much for the rest of us to do but watch.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).