Right before the New Year, the New York Times breathlessly reported that the drunken revelations of a former Trump campaign foreign policy aide to an Australian diplomat in May 2016 prompted the FBI to open an investigation into the campaign’s Russia ties.
The Times story has already been exposed as full of holes and contradictions. It is the latest indication that the mainstream media routinely hypes any bad news, real or imagined, for President Trump in the Russia probe.
Just as disturbing, those who disseminate and explain the news continue to lack a basic understanding of the context and nature of Trump’s unconventional political campaign and often assume that the chaos, lack of organization, and opportunism that existed is synonymous with nefariousness, conspiracy, or broader illegality.
As the country awaits the final verdict of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, other common misperceptions deserve closer examination.
A nonpolitician’s campaign
Even before the Times story, the Trump foreign policy adviser in question, George Papadopoulos, had already become a marquee name in Mueller’s investigation. Last October, he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI regarding the “timing, extent and nature” of his contacts with foreign nationals connected to the Russian government.
Many have wondered how the under-qualified, unknown Papadopoulos made his way to the Trump campaign in the first place. Most have concluded that he was hired because the Republican foreign policy establishment shunned the Trump candidacy, and the campaign, desperate to show off a roster of advisers, signed Papadopoulos on despite his flimsy qualifications.
That sounds reasonable enough, but that is not the full story. In 2016, the foreign policy establishment was not just hostile to Trump, it was generally averse to risk, unable to think outside the box, and unenthusiastic about the promise of a completely re-envisioned Washington offered by an outsider candidate.
The reality was that most so-called experts (not just in foreign policy but in policy and politics in general) failed to recognize the 2016 electorate’s deep hunger for an authentic, nonpolitician candidate or the explosive ramifications of the Trump political revolution. In many ways, that failure continues today, as the media blows out of proportion stories about advisers like Papadopoulos.
Chaos and entrepreneurialism
Though President Trump has labeled Papadopoulos a low-level staffer, the media prefers to attribute to him greater authority and suggests that his contacts with the Russians were more than the errant efforts of a mere volunteer.
For instance, the New York Times claims that Papadopoulos “stayed influential throughout the campaign” and marvels at Papadopoulos’s refusal to stand down after then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., chairman of the Trump campaign’s national security advisory committee, rejected the young man’s proposal to arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Anyone who has ever attempted to turn an idea into reality in a campaign, a bureaucracy, or an organization knows that such efforts often require multiple attempts.
Volunteers and staffers who take the risk to sign on with an outsider’s campaign, especially the volatile Trump operation, are also likely to be more entrepreneurial, more persistent, and even more opportunistic in chasing after their goals. If Papadopoulos fit that mold and continued trying to make himself relevant, it is not a surprise, except perhaps to the New York Times.
Obviously, more details will emerge from the Mueller investigation in due time. Yet thus far, there is no evidence that Papadopoulos’s entrepreneurialism landed him as a key influencer in the campaign or that the campaign directed him to conspire with the Russians against the Hillary Clinton.
It is worth remembering that, in 2016, the political environment was unique. Most observers, including foreign governments, were caught off guard by Trump’s emergence as the GOP’s standard-bearer in late April. Embassies in Washington and foreign ministries overseas realized that they knew precious little about the candidate and had few or no direct lines of communication to his campaign.
So they latched on to anyone who could offer insight. I saw a tiny glimpse of the frenzied outreach myself. During the general election, I served as the deputy director of a pro-Trump super PAC. One Washington-based diplomat of a friendly democratic government used to call, text, and email me constantly, weekends and evenings included, trying to persuade me to reveal and introduce to him people in the Trump camp. His approach was at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive, but the zeal of foreign governments to get to know the Trump camp was unmistakable.
As such, Trump’s named advisers, like Papadopoulos, were no doubt inundated with calls, requests, and inquiries. Wild assumptions in the press notwithstanding, it is not inherently illegal for a campaign staffer to talk to foreigners. In fact, plenty of other presidential campaigns have exchanged views with foreign governments about the candidates’ positions and policy agenda. Recall that as presidential candidates former President Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney embarked on foreign trips in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Certainly, they could not have avoided talking to foreigners then.
It is not even illegal for a campaign to collude with the Russians, some legal scholars argue. Regardless, although Moscow’s efforts to connect with people in the Trump orbit have now been shown to be ill-intentioned, the public has seen no evidence thus far that the campaign directed Papadopoulos, or anyone else, to do anything criminal.
Before everyone joins the Times and other anti-Trump media sources in their excitement about the Russia probe, perhaps some sanity should be in order.
The Trump revolution
In 2017, the Russia investigation became a convenient storyline to discredit Trump’s electoral victory. The public has no idea what findings Mueller will ultimately reveal, but the involvement of Papadopoulos in many ways offers a window into Trump’s chaotic, unlikely, and historic political triumph as an outsider in 2016. Too bad the press is not spending more time studying that.
Ying Ma (@GZtoGhetto) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is the former deputy director of the Committee for American Sovereignty, a pro-Trump super PAC, and the former deputy policy director of the Ben Carson presidential campaign. She is the author of Chinese Girl in the Ghetto.
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