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Cash-hungry Ukraine embraces China

By Anton Troianovski
Cash-hungry Ukraine embraces China
Workers in the engine assembly shop at the Motor Sich factory in Zaporizhia, Ukraine. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Oksana Parafeniuk for The Washington Post.

ZAPORIZHIA, Ukraine - The president of a top Ukrainian aerospace company says its new Chinese investors often ask the staff for "little conversations."

They want to know about record-keeping and planning, the setup of production lines and the interplay between workshops.

"They'll talk for three hours, and the next day, a totally different group of people will come," said Vyacheslav Boguslayev, whose sprawling Soviet-era company, Motor Sich, is one of the most advanced military aircraft engine manufacturers in the world.

"They'll ask all the same questions as yesterday, and this continues for a week," he said.

Racing to upgrade its military, China has been turning to Ukraine. And Ukraine - with its economy scrambled by hostilities with Russia - has been willing to accept China's embrace.

"If they ban us from working with China," Boguslayev said, "then the first thing I'll do is fire 10,000 people."

Motor Sich, dubbed the "Czar of Engines" in the Chinese media, has what Beijing wants: It can supply warplane engines and the know-how to one day possibly make a Chinese-built version.

The Chinese, in turn, have what Motor Sich wants: reliable buyers.

The company lost its biggest market - supplying engines for military helicopters and other aircraft in Russia - after war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Now it sells mainly to China.

China's under-the-radar push into Ukraine illustrates Beijing's hunger for technology imports and its ability to access them even though Western countries have limited military-related exports to China.

It comes as Ukraine struggles to reorient its economy away from Russia. And it puts Washington in a quandary as U.S. rhetoric supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia collides with the Trump administration's widening competition with Beijing.

"Local people here are calm, well educated and inexpensive," Liu Tsiun, the trade and economic adviser at the Chinese Embassy in Kiev, said in an interview, speaking fluent Russian at the embassy's walled villa in the Ukrainian capital. "I always think of Ukraine as having great potential in technology and science."

Ukraine's factories once churned out tanks, battleships and intercontinental ballistic missiles for the Red Army. They became key to the Russian defense industry's supply chain.

In 2014, Ukraine's pro-Western revolution and the outbreak of hostilities with Moscow-backed separatists spurred Kiev to seek markets beyond Russia - its biggest neighbor and trading partner.

But European and American investors were nervous about dealing with a country reeling from war, with crumbling infrastructure and widespread corruption. China, on the other hand, saw an opportunity. Ukrainian companies such as Motor Sich, based in the city of Zaporizhia, about 100 miles from the front line in eastern Ukraine, grew desperate as sales to Russia dried up.

"What we care about right now is the following: Is America ready to buy our goods? No. Period," said Gennadiy Chyzhykov, president of the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "China does buy our goods."

China is on pace to surpass Russia by next year as Ukraine's biggest single-country trading partner. In 2018, Ukraine traded $9.8 billion in goods with China - a 51% increase over two years and more than double the $4 billion in trade with the United States.

In the past year, China has garnered positive coverage in the Ukrainian news media by making a series of gifts: 50 ambulances, 50 search-and-rescue vehicles, and $137 million for medical equipment for regional hospitals. In April, the Ukrainian government announced $340 million in Chinese financing for a new bridge across the Dnieper River.

"If someone comes with money, they'll take it," Andreas Umland, a Kiev-based political analyst, said of Ukraine. "They don't have the luxury to think very strategically here many years ahead."

At the time of the 2014 revolution, China already had an economic and defense-industry relationship with Ukraine. It bought an unfinished Soviet-era aircraft carrier from Ukraine in 1998 and ordered four huge military hovercraft in 2009. Western countries, by contrast, had little use for Ukraine's Soviet-legacy defense production.

"One way or another, Ukraine will have to choose," said one Western diplomat in Kiev who is examining Ukraine's links with China and who wasn't authorized to comment publicly. "They cannot eternally integrate with China while moving toward the West."

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry declined to comment for this article. Ukraine-China relations are a delicate issue, officials in Kiev said, given Ukraine's desire for close ties with the United States on the one hand and China's expanding partnership with Russia on the other. But Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who took office Monday, met with the Chinese ambassador in Kiev early this month and offered a vote of confidence.

"China's experience and investments are important to Ukraine," he said.

China has been aggressive in expanding its influence across the former Soviet Union. In Belarus, China is co-financing a massive new industrial park to house more than 100,000 workers. On the Black Sea, Georgia is emerging as a key hub for Chinese trade with Europe.

But Ukraine offers unique resources for China in helping fill knowledge gaps as Beijing looks to build a world-class military, Western diplomats and analysts say.

Motor Sich's Boguslayev said the only engines his company is building for China are for aircraft that don't carry weapons, such as the L-15 training jet. But Reuben Johnson, an American defense industry analyst based in Kiev, said a tighter relationship with Motor Sich could allow China to mass-produce its own fighter jets.

"The Chinese - for all of the resources they have poured into the endeavor - have not been able to develop reliable fighter-jet engines that are producible in large numbers and run for enough hours between overhauls to be practical," Johnson said. "Acquiring the brainpower and the expertise of Motor Sich could allow them to jump over that very big hurdle."

A Chinese firm, Beijing Skyrizon Aviation Industry Investment, tried to buy a controlling stake in Motor Sich in 2017. Ukrainian authorities froze the deal on national security grounds. But Boguslayev said that $100 million of Beijing Skyrizon's promised $250 million did come through and that the Chinese company now owns a stake of at least 25% in Motor Sich.

A spokesman for Motor Sich said 35% of the company's $450 million in sales last year went to China, making the country the company's biggest destination for its aircraft engines. No sales went to Russia, the spokesman said. Six years ago, by contrast, one-third of the company's $1.1 billion in total sales went to Russia.

"Russia is gone. So I have to be in China now," Boguslayev said.

He said he hears frequently from Ukrainian government officials that the United States is unhappy with his dealings with China. His response: "Then how about the State Department gives us work?"

Asked for comment about Motor Sich, a State Department spokeswoman said the United States doesn't "oppose China's economic and technological development through legitimate means. However, we are concerned by actions China's government has taken that are out of step with international norms.

"The United States encourages our partners to consider national security risks that may arise from foreign investment transactions," the spokeswoman said.

In the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, Motor Sich and Beijing Skyrizon in 2017 agreed to jointly build a plant to service and manufacture aircraft engines. The Chinese partners offered to build a small town in which Ukrainian engineers would feel at home, Boguslayev said.

"They said, 'Give us 1,000 people,' " Boguslayev recalled. " 'We'll build a church for you here. We'll build a kindergarten.' "

The plant has been partially built, Boguslayev said, but is not yet operational.

Beijing Skyrizon representatives continue to tour Motor Sich plants regularly, Boguslayev said, taking copious notes and interviewing workers.

China is interested in Ukrainian technology beyond Motor Sich, hiring Ukrainian engineers and bringing them to China, Western officials and Ukrainian defense industry specialists say.

"It's not just outsourcing, but taking our specialists in both the missile sector and in aircraft-building," said Sergii Bondarchuk, a former head of Ukrainian defense export company Ukrspecexport who now lives in London. "Ukraine is losing a generation of engineers in this way."

- - -

The Washington Post's Paul Sonne in Washington, Lyric Li in Beijing, Oksana Parafeniuk in Kiev and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.

The surreal life of George Papadopoulos

By T.A. Frank
The surreal life of George Papadopoulos
George and Simona Papadopoulos in their Los Angeles home. A film crew has been following the couple shooting a docu-series. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Elisabeth Caren

This is a story about stories. Most of them are crazy. Some of them are true. I first met George Papadopoulos, the unlikely trigger of an investigation that many thought would take down Donald Trump, on a balmy California day in December 2018, less than a week after his release from federal prison. He wore a gray suit, a white shirt and a maroon tie, and greeted me with a cheery handshake. He asked about my flight and told me how much he was enjoying life in Los Angeles so far.

"I thought people might be hostile," he said as we took an elevator to the Rooftop Grill at the nearby Montage hotel. Instead, "they're just intrigued. Basically, 'Hi, nice to meet you, cool story.' "

We took a seat at an outdoor table, and he ordered a cafe Americano and a "Green Vitality" smoothie with kale, apple and chlorophyll. "It's L.A.," he shrugged.

His 12 days in prison, he said, were worst before the fact. The reality of minimum-security confinement came as a relief. "You're expecting you're going in to get raped and killed," he said. "I get inside the prison, and the guards are basically mocking my sentence: 'You're more trouble for us than we are for you.' "

He told me that he and his wife, Simona, had found a rental apartment near the Hollywood sign, and he confirmed a Washington Post report that he was running for Congress. "I have some support," he said. "There's a lot of interest, actually, in it." He had his eye on the 48th Congressional District, where a Democrat had just defeated Republican Dana Rohrabacher ("Ro, Roka, what's his name - Dana Rakaburger?").

In person, he came across as warm, oddly guileless and eager to please. He made boastful claims. ("I was on a first-name basis with Netanyahu for four years.") He made ingratiating claims. ("As an individual I'm more comfortable with Washington Post people like you than with, I dunno, the Daily Caller.") And then there was his central claim: that the entire federal investigation of Trump had its origins in dirty tricks masterminded by a group of foreign and U.S. intelligence entities.

If you're among the Americans who aren't obsessed with Special Counsel Robert Mueller or dependent on MSNBC or Fox News - that is to say, the majority - you might need to be reminded that George Papadopoulos is the onetime foreign policy adviser to Trump who pleaded guilty in October 2017 to having lied to the FBI about the timing and extent of his contact with a professor who promised to connect him to high Russian officials. This made him an object of cable-news fascination, a man posited by many to be the long-sought link between the Trump campaign and Moscow, the key to unlocking a Kremlin-Trump conspiracy.

Although most people stopped believing anything so grandiose about him long before Mueller released the report of his collusion investigation, Papadopoulos, now 31, has managed to (sort of) stay prominent. He has released a book, "Deep State Target," that lays out an alternate version of events, in which he was set up in a series of traps laid by the FBI, the CIA and foreign intelligence operatives. It has received enthusiastic endorsements on Fox News, where Papadopoulos has become a regular guest, and other right-leaning outlets.

In early October 2018, I began to correspond with Papadopoulos about writing a profile of him and his wife, with a view to understanding his version of events. If even half his claims checked out, they would upend everything we know about what has been called Russiagate. In late November, just before he was due to report to prison, we agreed to meet in Los Angeles after his release. So began my attempt to understand his story - a project that would draw me into correspondence with Israeli officials, Swiss lawyers, Italian politicians, medical cannabis advocates, Hollywood filmmakers and comedian Tom Arnold. It was a movie with a deranged screenwriter and absurd characters - what, in America in 2019, you might call the usual. But that was all the more reason to try to make sense of it.

---

First, let us lay out the basics.

George Papadopoulos grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, the son of a Greek American couple who divorced when he was 7. George and his younger brother, Dean, lived with their father, Antonios, until George was a sophomore in high school, and then the boys moved to Lincolnwood to live with their mother, Kiki. George graduated from DePaul University in 2009. In 2011, armed with a master's in security studies from University College London, he became a researcher at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based neoconservative think tank, working with senior fellow Seth Cropsey, chiefly on a project to encourage an energy alliance among Greece, Cyprus and Israel, and a pipeline project that would exclude Turkey.

In 2015, soon after Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower, Papadopoulos, eager to get into political life, tried to join the Trump campaign, with no success. Instead, a few months later, he landed a job as an adviser to presidential candidate Ben Carson. That lasted about two months, and in February 2016, Papadopoulos took a job at an organization called the London Center of International Law Practice, or LCILP. In early March 2016, after further outreach to the Trump campaign, he landed a role as an unpaid foreign policy adviser. Since one Trump campaign theme was to improve relations with Moscow, Papadopoulos spent several weeks trying to put together a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Papadopoulos had no contacts with Russia, so he connected with someone who he believed did: a Maltese academic named Joseph Mifsud, who was a director at LCILP. On March 24, 2016, Papadopoulos wrote an email to Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis and the foreign policy team, saying that his "good friend" Mifsud had introduced him to a woman who was Putin's niece (she wasn't) and to the Russian ambassador in London (he hadn't) and that the Russians were "keen to host us." In an email, Clovis counseled holding off on taking action before NATO allies were consulted but added, "Great work."

For the next several weeks, Papadopoulos was in regular contact with Mifsud. He also exchanged emails with a woman named Olga Polonskaya, aka "Putin's niece," and with Ivan Timofeev of the Russian International Affairs Council, a prominent Moscow think tank. On May 10, Papadopoulos had drinks with Alexander Downer, Australia's high commissioner to the United Kingdom at the time, and mentioned that Moscow might reveal damaging information it had about Hillary Clinton. This was relayed to Canberra and later to the U.S. Embassy in London. Upon this basis, it has been reported, the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign, code-named Crossfire Hurricane. In September, FBI informant Stefan Halper met Papadopoulos under the pretext of commissioning a report on oil fields in the Mediterranean, for which he ultimately paid Papadopoulos $3,000.

In late January 2017, soon after Trump's inauguration, Papadopoulos was questioned by FBI agents about his contacts with Russians and other foreign nationals. In February, Papadopoulos deleted his Facebook account. Then, on July 27, 2017, after returning from an extended trip abroad, Papadopoulos was arrested at Dulles Airport and charged with lying to the FBI about the timing and significance of his relationship with Mifsud and with obstructing justice for having deleted his Facebook account, the latter offense carrying a potential 20-year sentence. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of lying.

These are the core, agreed-upon facts. When the news of Papadopoulos' guilty plea broke on Oct. 30, 2017, the most common theory of the case, based on news reports at the time, was that Papadopoulos, a little-known Trump campaign adviser, had been coordinating with a Kremlin asset, Mifsud. With time, that softened into a theory that a foolish young man had been courted by a shadowy Kremlin operative and then lied about it. But there is also a Papadopoulos version of the story. In that account, Papadopoulos is approached by spies tied to the U.S., British, Israeli and Australian governments for the purpose (depending upon the spy) of either foiling his anti-Turkey recommendations or sabotaging Donald Trump's campaign. His meetings with Mifsud and Downer were part of a larger setup.

"This was not a Russian operation. This was a British-Australian operation," he says. "The Israelis helped." Papadopoulos, in short, is offering a conspiracy theory. This in itself doesn't make him wrong. Sometimes, after all, the existence of a conspiracy is certain, and solving the mysteries surrounding it must involve theory. Sometimes, the existence of a conspiracy is uncertain but still worth investigating. What, after all, was the idea that Trump and Putin had coordinated with WikiLeaks to steal the 2016 election if not a theory of conspiracy? In the case of Papadopoulos, it seemed certain that conspirators of some sort had entangled him in their web. On that much, both liberals and conservatives could agree.

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Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos is a stylish Italian lawyer who a multitude of Americans, at least those with prolonged MSNBC exposure, seem to believe is a Russian spy. Simona and George moved from Chicago to southern California in September 2018, when Simona landed a small movie role. Within a few weeks, their life became almost as surreal as George's had been in 2016. They befriended comedian and actor Tom Arnold, ex-husband of Roseanne Barr, even though he is so hostile to Trump that he once got a visit from the Secret Service for a tweet offering to fight with the president.

They also signed up for a multi-episode documentary about their lives, meaning that a production crew was frequently tailing them. For me, this created a friendly game of cat and mouse, since I wanted to chronicle the crew filming, while the crew preferred to film me chronicling. (We wound up staying mostly separate.)

Simona, meanwhile, was leading a Twitter life punctuated by fights with Russiagate obsessives, random trolls and sometimes her own mother-in-law. She has a terrible relationship with George's family, and when I first interviewed her and George together, I deemed the subject touchy enough that I decided to postpone mention of it to a subsequent trip. She brought it up in 20 minutes. "I left everything behind and gave unconditional support to my husband," she said. "The least I expect is a neutral attitude."

The three of us met for dinner at Simona's favorite Italian place, Via Alloro, in Beverly Hills. Simona, who has striking green eyes and blond (though naturally brownish) hair, wore a white knit dress with a black belt and thigh-high tan suede boots. Her lipstick was crimson. Her speech, already accented, can get so rapid when she's worked up that the documentary crew has discussed using subtitles.

Simona was born in 1981 and grew up in Caserta, Italy, near Naples. She earned a law degree in 2005 and spent several years in a variety of internships and legal jobs before taking a post with the European Parliament, where she worked for seven years. In the fall of 2016, she moved to London and found a job at LCILP, working with Joseph Mifsud. This is how George came into her life. Although he had left LCILP half a year earlier, he had noticed Simona's picture on the website and sent her a flirtatious message. They stayed in touch.

After three months, Simona left LCILP and hung up her own shingle, specializing in law related to international child abduction. In April 2017, when she took a trip to New York to visit her aunt, George showed up at the airport, and this first meeting led to a passionate attraction. They met several times more over the following months, vacationing on Mykonos and Capri and visiting Simona's parents in Caserta. She was still living in London when George went dark one day and stopped responding to messages or calls. Only a few days later, when he sent Simona a message from his mother's Facebook account, did she find out that he had been arrested.

Simona flew to Chicago, where George was living with his mother. It was 15 days after George's arrest, and she saw a frightened man. They spent three weeks together. On a subsequent trip to Chicago, she received a subpoena from Robert Mueller and underwent a multi-hour FBI interrogation. During the year that followed, she kept coming back, and her savings ran out. "I realized I really cared about him," she said.

On Simona's third trip to Chicago, in December 2017, George proposed marriage, getting down on one knee in his room in his mother's house. On March 2, 2018, they were married at City Hall. No one from George's family attended. The only guests were then-ABC News journalists Rhonda Schwartz and Brian Ross, who later did a segment on the wedding. In smoother times a few months earlier, George's mother had given Simona a family ring, a large emerald surrounded by diamonds. Simona held up her hand to show it to me. Remembering this gift, she seemed to soften toward her in-law. "This situation makes everybody crazy," she said.

---

Because Simona and George live in an unusual sort of isolation, with many invitations to Hollywood events as novelty guests but with few close friends, they have developed an unlikely circle of intimates. Among them is the documentary team. FGW Productions, headed by producer Stephanie Frederic, recently did a six-part A&E documentary on the murder of Tupac Shakur, but Frederic has observed that Simona and George, who are prone to intense changes of mind and mood, make that one seem easy.

Simona and George are technically unpaid for participation, but FGW compensates them for other things, like family photographs and incidentals. The first extended period the group spent together was during the days immediately before George's departure for prison in Oxford, Wisconsin. For Simona, who was in tears for much of her time in Wisconsin, the film crew was a comfort in the storm, and after George's release, the couple grew closer and closer to Frederic, even staying at her apartment for several weeks.

"I find myself being part therapist, part producer," says Frederic. This may understate her role. For a while, she was advising them on media inquiries, too, and the documentary team even helped find George and Simona their apartment in Beachwood Canyon. This raises obvious questions about the effect of observer on the observed, but Frederic said she never looks to create situations for their own sake in the manner of reality TV.

If Frederic has become an improbable surrogate mother, Tom Arnold has become an improbable surrogate father. We met at one of his haunts, Soho House West Hollywood. Arnold was sipping honey tea to battle a bout of laryngitis, but he relished talking about Simona and George, frequently dissolving into high-pitched chuckles.

The three had met on Beverly Drive, he said, when Arnold was out walking with his kids. George had called out "Tom Arnold!" and introduced himself. An exchange of numbers led to an invitation from Arnold to meet him at Soho House. George showed up first. "He started telling his story, and I started taking some notes," said Arnold. "Then she comes out, and the world lights up."

The three have been friends ever since. As Arnold sees it, George is a good kid who got in over his head. Fringe rightists, he believes, have seduced him into a narrative that elevates his importance even as it absolves him of guilt. "They want George to be their conspiracy monkey," he said.

If the friendship with Arnold was improbable, it may also have been inevitable. Arnold seems to have crossed paths with everyone, including, to his displeasure, Trump. Arnold sees George and Simona as incompetent spies in an unlikely love story, and he has since become an informal therapist to the couple. "I said to them, 'I was in a famous marriage,' " he said, referring to his long-ago union with Barr. "I'm also a writer and a storyteller. People will tell bits and pieces of your story. But you're the ones who get to tell your whole story."

---

As the weeks went by, I contacted many former Papadopoulos acquaintances in government, think tanks and the private sector in the United States, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt and Greece. Those who spoke to me offered similar impressions: Papadopoulos was an agreeable young man who'd often worked alongside Hudson Institute fellow Seth Cropsey. But most offered no response. Cropsey ignored multiple emails and eventually passed me on to the Hudson Institute press office, which offered careful and uninteresting replies. (I contacted nearly everyone mentioned in this article, but many declined to answer or to comment on the record.)

I next saw George and Simona in late January, a day after Simona's birthday, when the couple were to be photographed for this article. The shoot was at their apartment, a small 1920s duplex on a leafy thoroughfare north of Franklin Boulevard. When I arrived, Simona was sitting on a stool getting makeup applied, while George, dressed in a dark cotton sweater and jeans, brewed espresso in a red Bialetti pot on a burner in the kitchen.

The downstairs of their home consisted of one 12-by-18-foot main room, an adjacent kitchen and a walled patio. Squeezed into these spaces were a dozen of us: George and Simona, the makeup artist, a photographer and two assistants, three members of the documentary crew, a decorator, myself and Travis Barker, the decorator's Yorkshire terrier.

If the hosts felt bothered by such an intrusion, they didn't show it. They were happy that their apartment had been made habitable at all. The decorator, whom FGW had hired for the occasion, had stretched a budget of $3,000 and filled up the place. The living room now had a blue-and-white Persian-themed area rug, a blue couch, a round faux-marble-top coffee table, a tea-light candelabrum, an unframed modern painting on the wall, and fake flowers and assorted knickknacks on the fireplace mantel and the built-in shelves.

There was a knock on the front door. "I brought your suits," said Tom Arnold, walking in with clothes on a hanger. George and Simona, grinning and surprised, hurried over to him. The documentary crew hurried over, too. "Happy birthday, happy birthday," he told Simona. "Is your mother-in-law - I saw them removing a dumpster - is she in pieces in there?"

After the shoot, the couple got ready for a party at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood. I gave them a ride there, and since they were famished, we swung by In-N-Out Burger. As we waited in the drive-through line, George said he was no longer running for Congress but focusing instead on his role on the advisory board of C3® International, a medical cannabis start-up that he hoped would help stem the opioid crisis. Simona said she was proud of her husband for his career and for his onward march. "Thank you, my love," he said. "We were resilient, Simona. Many people would not be resilient. They would just give up."

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Conspiratorial stories can be reasonable or insane, but most have the same trigger: a glitch in the narrative, something in the official explanation that doesn't make sense. In the case of George Papadopoulos, that glitch is Joseph Mifsud.

The New York Times has called Mifsud "an enthusiastic promoter of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia." Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have labeled him a "Kremlin-linked" "cutout." Documents later produced by Mueller and his team suggested that, if not for Papadopoulos' lies, investigators might have elected to "challenge the Professor or potentially detain or arrest him while he was still in the United States."

But Mifsud worked in high government circles in Europe, and no action taken by investigators suggests that they viewed him as a serious threat. Until the Papadopoulos indictment went public, Mifsud appears to have lived a normal and unencumbered life, attending conferences and meeting with Western government officials. Stephan Roh, a Zurich-based lawyer who communicates with the media on Mifsud's behalf, maintains that Mifsud "is not a Russian spy but a Western intelligence co-operator."

Mifsud went into hiding days after Papadopoulos' plea became public, and his disappearance leaves rabbit holes that threaten to swallow even the most cautious explorer. But we can say this much: If he was Kremlin-linked, then he managed to infiltrate a lot of European and possibly American institutions, and it's strange that there hasn't been an outcry or investigations into the breach. On the other hand, if he was part of Western intelligence, then, as Republican congressman Jim Jordan told Fox News, "that changes it all."

George and Simona depend more than most people on the help of new friends. Simona's outreach can resemble that of a panicked swimmer. George relies more on warmth, flattery and a Zelig-like adaptability to his audience. When the organizer of the Hollywood Beauty Awards, to which he'd been invited, called him as we walked to a cafe, it sounded at times as if he were speaking to Florence Nightingale. "It's a great cause," he said. "It's people like you who are changing the world one step at a time."

For all his low-level fawning, Papadopoulos never asked me for favors and only rarely went off the record. Sometimes, I would remind him that I was recording. Once or twice, out of compassion, I felt compelled to offer him a chance to walk back a jejune statement. He never did.

His most reflective moment came during an interview in a dreary bakery area at Gelson's, an upscale supermarket chain. He admitted that participating in a documentary, which would expose many embarrassing things, was risky. "Sometimes I don't understand why I'm doing it," he said. He talked about growing up in suburban Chicago, experiencing his parents' divorce and being separated from his mother. He's estranged from his brother, and relations with his mother seem to be loving but rocky. He'd told me earlier that he hadn't seen his father in nearly two years. "I think of the situation as part of the collateral damage," he said. "I don't justify his behavior at all. I would never abandon my son, basically, in the middle of a crisis, like he has."

Why, I asked, had he been so hungry for early success? He grew thoughtful. "I looked up to my father," he said. "I loved that he was a doctor and very successful. I always said to myself, 'When I have children someday, hopefully, I want them to revere me that way too.' "

"I guess a bit of it was having a chip on my shoulder, not following the medical path, and viewing politics as the most prestigious role you could possibly have in the world," he mused. "I mean, at 25, I could sit in a meeting one-on-one like I am with you with a foreign minister of a foreign country. ... And for me there was something exhilarating in it. It made my blood rush. It was a thrill. I would just tell my dad: You're rich. I love that. You have a beautiful home. But what's your thrill?"

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As anyone who has spent any time in the Twitterverse knows, it's a warped space that can feel like a gauge of public sentiment even as it distorts it. In the case of Simona, a faction of Twitter seems to believe that she is on a long-term Kremlin mission connected to Joseph Mifsud. This notion went into overdrive when she was caught in an acknowledged deception: sending ABC News a photo of her passport that altered her birth date by three years. (She says she wanted to pass as younger in Hollywood.) British blogger and former member of Parliament Louise Mensch, who is notorious for seeing a Russian hand in everything from Islamic State terrorism in Istanbul to the 2012 death of Andrew Breitbart, is one of her most ardent attackers.

Hoping that my reporting would help beat back this tide, Simona provided me with contacts for family, friends and former colleagues. I spoke to her mother, Carolina Cicatelli, who sent me a dozen photographs showing Simona at various ages in settings that were obviously Italian. Italian socialist Gianni Pittella, a former vice president of the European Parliament, said he'd known Simona's family for years and described her as "loyal and a very, very good person." (Pittella, as it happens, is also a friend of Joseph Mifsud's and introduced Simona to him.) Old friends told me stories that matched up, and no one disputed that she'd worked for the European Parliament for seven years. I did see from her Internet pursuers that she had changed her LinkedIn profile in small ways and tweeted out and deleted documents related to her employment; still, to jump to espionage (as opposed to unemployment or breakups or moves) as the explanation made about as much sense as jumping to tuberculosis as the reason for a cough.

George, by contrast, was proving more troublesome. He had been quick to pull up articles he'd written with Cropsey (claiming to have done most or all of the writing) and a photo of himself and Cropsey in a meeting with the president of Cyprus, to prove that he had played a crucial role at the Hudson Institute. But I was still waiting to see emails backing up other claims about his career there.

I spoke to George's mother, Kiki Papadopoulos. She painted a vivid picture of the toll taken by an FBI investigation. But she also told me that her ex-husband, rather than abandoning his son as George had claimed, had been supportive during George's ordeal and had paid his legal bills.

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I next saw the Papadopouloses on the evening before Valentine's Day, and George was especially upbeat. Days earlier, Republican congressman Mark Meadows had called for declassifying the files on Russiagate. "Let's start with the docs on George Papadopoulos," Meadows tweeted, adding that "I know, and the FBI knows, that Papadopoulos was not part of any collusion."

George and Simona had asked to dine at Crustacean, an haute-Vietnamese fusion restaurant in Beverly Hills. "What do you think," George asked the waiter, "the crab or the lobster?"

"The crab is what we're world-famous for," the waiter said.

I remembered, with expense-account dread, that the crab cost $72.

"Let's do two of those crabs," said George.

I asked him about a tweet he'd sent the day before: "Trust the plan." I'd been astonished to see him trot out a signature phrase among adherents of a conspiracy theory called QAnon, centered on an anonymous Web poster called "Q" who claims to be a government official working with Trump on a master plan to expose a corrupt deep state.

Papadopoulos said the tweet had been inspired by a Drake song, "God's Plan," and had nothing to do with conspiracy. "All of a sudden, I have 10,000 likes," he said, breaking into laughter. "And all these people are like, 'You're making me cry. You have no idea how emotional I am that you're Q.' "

On the drive home, as we discussed how many of Papadopoulos' former contacts had minimized their ties to him, I reminded him of how important old emails would be to bolster his version of events. "I have them, all of them," he said. Simona, sitting in back, hadn't made a sound, and I turned around to see if she'd fallen asleep. No, she'd been fighting on Twitter with Louise Mensch.

The next morning, Los Angeles was deluged in rain. I arrived at the Papadopoulos apartment to drive us to a production meeting with FGW. Simona, wearing a white blazer, jeans and her above-the-knee suede boots, seemed out of sorts, and as she prepared the Bialetti pot for coffee, she told me she'd slept poorly. The Twitter battle with Mensch had expanded into a marital battle. George had retweeted Mensch when she plugged his book, but he had stayed quiet when Mensch hurled Russian-spy allegations at Simona.

"I'm very disappointed by him, actually, more than Louise," Simona said. "She's playing a game, right? She's telling George, 'I'm interested in your book. Your wife is a Russian agent.' It would be simple and elegant to say, 'Thanks for being interested in my book, but read the record about my wife's background.' "

As Simona continued in this vein, George walked in, his face pinkish from a shower and puffy from recent sleep. "And my logic is very simple," he said. "Me shouting to the world that my wife is not a Russian spy puts much more attention on her, mocks her, and it mocks -"

"No, no George, this is an easy way to dismiss -"

They began to talk over each other. "You have to be a man," said Simona. "Grow some man qualities, and face people who insult me and bully me. You can't do that? This is the door, you can go."

I looked at the clock and suggested we skip coffee. We headed into the rain, and George and Simona, still fighting, shared a children's umbrella with cat ears. Traffic was slow in the downpour, and there was going to be no change of subject. I asked if social media was a frequent source of their disputes.

"This is very typical from her," said George, unhelpfully.

"From her, because of your behavior," said Simona.

"I don't need to go to every single person on Twitter and say don't say that about my wife. You're talking like a 5-year-old."

"George, you're talking like a little traitor with no balls. That's what you're talking about. That's what you are, actually."

By the time I pulled up to Simona's destination, the two had agreed to divorce.

"It's really sad, actually. I feel really disgusted by you," Simona said, opening the door and planting a suede boot in a large puddle.

---

I liked George and Simona.

I could see why Tom Arnold had told me that they were meant for each other. They seemed to fight and make up daily. A few hours after their morning clash, when George noticed a bleeding hangnail, Simona reacted as if he'd been wounded by a sword. For all their troubles, they took pleasure in life and savored new experiences. My theory of Simona was that she was an intelligent but temperamental person who was in love with George. But my theory of George was more unsettled.

During our first meeting, he had told me he'd had $35,000 in the bank when he was arrested. At a subsequent meeting, he said it was $25,000. He had claimed not to have seen his father for almost two years, but his sentencing statement noted his parents being in the courtroom. When I mentioned learning that his father had paid his legal bills, he said that his father had helped him only after making him exhaust his savings.

When I spoke on the phone to George's father, Antonios Papadopoulos, he called George's claim of having to drain his savings a "100 percent lie." "George had no savings that I'm aware of," Antonios said. "I paid for everything, including his transportation back and forth to the court and the $9,500 fine." As for the family's relations with Simona, he would say only that "I see Simona's involvement in George's life entirely differently from the way George sees it."

A few days later, I spoke to C3® International CEO Steele Smith. Papadopoulos had said he was being paid $100,000 a year to sit on the company's advisory board. But Smith characterized Papadopoulos as a "minor shareholder" and said the position was unpaid. (Papadopoulos later forwarded me a proposal from the company that laid out the payment terms as he had described them. Smith said the proposal was not current.)

I spoke to a British barrister named Arvinder Sambei, who had worked with LCILP until early 2017. Papadopoulos had identified her as a lawyer for the FBI who had arranged for him to meet Joseph Mifsud in Italy. "I'm completely taken aback," she said, adding that she had encountered Papadopoulos only once, when she was making tea, and that she had never been engaged as counsel by the FBI. Rather, as a former senior prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service, she had sometimes worked with the FBI's Office of International Affairs.

By the time I reached a U.S.-Israeli businessman whom Papadopoulos now accuses of being part of a sting operation against him overseen by the FBI - supposedly in a failed effort to make Papadopoulos look like a spy for Israel and give them a reason to arrest him - I doubted I would be speaking to a secret agent. His name is Charles Tawil, and he forwarded me numerous emails and messages contradicting Papadopoulos' timeline and claims. Papadopoulos has alleged that Tawil gave him $10,000 in marked bills (which he now says Congress wants to examine) and that he took it out of fear. But Tawil says that Papadopoulos himself requested the money. It was an advance on a consulting deal that had fallen through because of an inappropriate email Papadopoulos had later sent the client.

Tawil forwarded me that email, from mid-June 2017, as well as messages sent several weeks later, in which Papadopoulos wrote that he had been offered a job in Brussels but turned it down. "Of course I prefer working with you than to some job in the eu commission, but need to know that we are still working together you and I on the deals and with retainer monthly," he wrote. Tawil, who is bitter that Papadopoulos never returned the money and accused Tawil of being a secret agent, told me he now assumes that Papadopoulos was lying about everything.

I had pressed Papadopoulos on providing corroborating documents, saying this was key to his credibility. He said he was locked out of his old email accounts but finally texted me that his ghostwriter on "Deep State Target" had a paper archive of his emails that I could pick up in New York. I got the writer to send them, and five days later I received a binder that included hundreds of emails - with only occasional redactions - between Papadopoulos and the Trump-related people in his life during 2016 and 2017. Papadopoulos had been evasive about providing written evidence, but this was a remarkable gesture of transparency, and he placed no conditions on my use of the collection.

I was struck to see a number of Papadopoulos' statements verified. Yes, he had helped engineer a meeting, through an Egyptian embassy official, between Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi. Yes, he had offered input on Trump's foreign policy speech in late April 2016. Yes, there was an email from Theresa May's office asking Papadopoulos to pass on official congratulations to Trump.

At the same time, however, the collection undermined many claims that he has made. Some examples: "Deep State Target" describes a cryptic conversation with a Belarusan American businessman named Sergei Millian in January 2017 that Papadopoulos characterizes as "the last I hear from him. Ever." But in reality Millian kept emailing Papadopoulos, getting no reply, for months afterward. The book claims that Trump headquarters informed him of an interview request from Russian news service Interfax and gave him instructions about what to say, complimenting him afterward. In reality, Interfax contacted Papadopoulos directly, and though the campaign OK'd the interview, the feedback afterward apparently wasn't positive. Papadopoulos wrote to campaign official Michael Glassner to ask if he was, as others had told him, "off the campaign because of an interview I gave."

Papadopoulos seems to have met a number of foreign officials by suggesting that he had a close connection to Trump. Then he would write to the campaign about these meetings and suggest he had a close connection to foreign officials. (This included the untrue claim to have met the Russian ambassador to London.) At no point - apart from Clovis' "Great work" - does anyone in the campaign seem to encourage his outreach to Moscow.

I had been through many potential narratives of Papadopoulos, but now a simple one was starting to emerge: that an ambitious young man with a strong desire to impress people had most likely embellished his way into a world of trouble, relaying common rumors (e.g., that the Russians had damaging information about Hillary Clinton) as firsthand information to people like Alexander Downer. If this theory was true, then Papadopoulos' story wasn't about how a vital campaign operative fell into traps laid by deep-state conspirators. It was about how, in a time of Trump-Russia hysteria, a minor player could set off global earthquakes because he wanted to look big.

An uncomfortable list of inconsistencies had to be discussed, and I flew down to Los Angeles in March to ask Papadopoulos about them in person. "Deep State Target" had been released a few days earlier, and George, sometimes accompanied by Simona, had been appearing on cable news nonstop. When I stepped into the apartment in Beachwood Canyon, I could see that the two of them were exhausted.

I caught up first with Simona, who had made a voluntary closed-door appearance before Senate investigators. Among the questions she'd been asked was why George said he'd never met with a Russian yet had boasted in emails that he'd met several Russians, including the ambassador to Britain. "You know what I said: Knowing George he was bulls----ing," Simona said with a laugh. "He was just trying to impress somebody." After about an hour, she went upstairs to take a nap, and George and I seated ourselves on the tiny Spanish-tiled patio to go over remaining questions.

Since Papadopoulos had implied to an interviewer that he'd broken off relations with Charles Tawil in June 2017, why, I asked, had he messaged Tawil weeks later, to say he had turned down a job in Brussels to keep working with him? "That was me trying to get him away from me," Papadopoulos answered. "Me telling him I have a new job is polite for 'Leave me alone.' "

But didn't he tell Tawil he'd turned down the job? "Well, because I had his money in my pocket. I'm trying to say, 'Hey, man, I still have your money. I'm trying to get away from you, but you know I have a liability here in my hand.' "

Why had he told Congress that the FBI had said when arresting him, "This is what happens when you don't tell us everything about your Russia contacts," but had written in his book that an FBI agent had told him, "This is what happens when you work for Trump"?

"There was an agent who made that remark, OK? This is in the middle of seven agents swarming me, and a chaotic moment. But because I can't remember who exactly said that comment, that's why I wasn't telling Congress that."

We spent an hour in this manner. But the ordeal seemed to bother me more than Papadopoulos. As the three of us drove to dinner afterward, the conversation was cheerful as ever. This time, I'd chosen the restaurant: Yamashiro, a Japanese-themed place with an expansive view of the city. "Wow, look how beautiful this is," George said as we pulled up. "This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. This is amazing."

---

Robert Mueller's "Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election" was released in April. It raised questions about obstruction of justice but closed the door on theories of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. Overall, it has been a helpful development for Papadopoulos. The report has confirmed his claim that he was investigated for his ties to Israel. A subsequent story in the New York Times bore out his claim that Azra Turk, a young woman who allegedly posed as a flirtatious assistant to FBI informant Stefan Halper, was yet another spy (or, in Times parlance, "cloaked investigator") sent by the U.S. government. Such revelations, coming in the wake of other news reports calling into question the propriety of FBI behavior toward the Trump campaign, have led a growing number of people to buy into Papadopoulos' story as a whole. On May 3, even Donald Trump weighed in, tweeting out Papadopoulos' claim to Sean Hannity that "this whole thing was a complete setup." But I also saw on social media that close observers of his case, often on the right, were raising questions about contradictions in his stories.

During my final dinner with George and Simona, we talked about Los Angeles and winter rains and Italian intelligence agencies. Afterward, we walked out to a garden overlooking nighttime Los Angeles, glittering to the sea. I took a few pictures, including one of a happy Simona planting a kiss on George's cheek. "This was so fun," George said. I was reminded of what Stephanie Frederic had told one of the people she recruited for her Papadopoulos documentary: "You're going to like them."

When I dropped them off at home, we exchanged hugs. George told me that I'd become a friend and that having me reporting on them had been a special experience. "Yes," Simona said. "You taught us - many things."

But I could say that they had taught me things, too, or at least made them clear. The more a given narrative means to us, the harder it is to abandon, even if the facts don't support it. That's true of those on the left who continue to see Trump-Russia collusion - and it's true of those on the right who, despite the inconsistencies in Papadopoulos' story, have begun to champion it.

Perhaps more than anything, what unites the combatants in America's cold civil war is a need for heroes and villains who can keep us entertained. Whatever you think of George and Simona, they are great characters, and you can cast them as good guys or bad guys with equal ease, depending on your agenda. Maybe that's why they've had such a fruitful transition from the world of politics to the world of Hollywood - if you can call that a transition at all.

---

Frank is a writer at large for the Hive at Vanity Fair.

How one village on the Volga sowed chaos in Europe's oil market

By Jake Rudnitsky
How one village on the Volga sowed chaos in Europe's oil market
Pensioners Nikolay Martynenko and Valentina Martynenko near their home in the of Nikolayevka, 26 km outside of Samara, Russia, on May 14, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrey Rudakov.

Residents of Nikolayevka haven't had much to gossip about since the owner of the vodka museum over on People's Friendship Street died, forcing the closure of the only tourist attraction in town.

But now that this hardscrabble village in central Russia has emerged as the epicenter of an international oil scandal, they say they knew all along that something bad was about to happen.

It's here, just east of a looping bend in the Volga River, that authorities say corrosive chlorides entered Russia's 40,000-mile network of oil pipelines, causing the first-ever shutdown of the main export artery to Europe. President Vladimir Putin was quick to lash out at national operator Transneft, saying April 30 that the crisis was causing "huge" damage. Eight days later, investigators blamed a band of black marketeers working in concert with a local company that had access to Transneft's system through feeder lines in Nikolayevka.

Valya Martinenko, 72, can clearly see the depot where the contamination is alleged to have occurred from the backyard of the little blue cottage she's lived in her whole life. She said the tanker-truck traffic that used to wake her up at all times of day and night mysteriously stopped more than a month ago.

"I don't miss them," she said as chickens pecked along a road nearby. "They only kicked up dust. And that place never hired locals anyway."

Russia's Investigative Committee accuses the group of stealing at least 1 million rubles ($15,400) of pipeline-ready oil, covering their tracks by replacing it with a similar volume of a liquid mixture consisting of raw crude and organic chlorides.

The scheme lasted about 10 days and ended up tainting as much as 5 million tons of exports through the Druzhba link to Belarus and beyond, affecting refineries throughout Eastern Europe. That includes at least 1.6 million tons shipped out of the Ust-Luga terminal on the Baltic, most of which is still at sea, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The node in Nikolayevka, now a crime scene, had a capacity to move as much as 40,000 tons a month, or about 1,300 tons a day. That means that each ton of dirty crude may have ended up contaminating almost 400 tons of oil already in the network.

"This is a story about greed and small-time fraud colliding with incompetence and a lack of control over what goes in the pipe," Bloomberg oil strategist Julian Lee said.

A spokesman for Transneft declined to comment.

A least four of the six suspects sought by the Investigative Committee have been taken into custody. They include a woman who's the nominal owner of the company that controls the depot in Nikolayevka.

The facility's former owner, Roman Trushev, said he sold the depot last year, according to Kommersant. Trushev, who's wanted for questioning in Russia, told the newspaper that he was in Germany when the scandal erupted and cancelled plans to return to Moscow.

Transneft chief Nikolay Tokarev, who served in the KGB with Putin in Dresden during the Cold War, said in his meeting with the president that the company has about 150 collection points around the country similar to those supplied by Nikolayevka. Most of them, he said, are run by large oil companies.

Diluting the contaminated oil could take several months and cost Transneft more than $370 million, according to Citigroup analyst Ronald Smith. The spoiled crude may need to be mixed with clean supplies to avoid damaging refineries.

"Transneft was caught off guard because, well, this has never happened before," Vitaly Yermakov, an oil expert at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said from Moscow.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said Transneft will foot the bill for any physical damage suffered by its partners in Belarus, Poland and elsewhere as a result of the dirty flows. The final figure will likely be below $100 million, according to Energy Minister Alexander Novak.

Trushev, the former owner, told Kommersant the depot is too small to account for all the tainted crude. Transneft tests for contaminants every 10 days, so if Nikolayevka was the only source of the dichloride then the concentration must have been extraordinarily high, according to Rustam Tankaev, head of the Infotek-Terminal consultancy in Moscow.

"Major oil companies don't even touch the stuff because it is stone-age technology, and the small producers that do use it don't have the capacity to wreak such havoc," Tankaev said. "So if it wasn't an accident, it seems likely it was an intentional act."

Back in the village, Elena and Valery, a couple in their 50s, said they knew something was wrong when the facility changed hands and the new owners stopped interacting with the locals. They said the old management was generous, building a church and donating presents to the school during the holidays.

"But we didn't get a thing out of the new management," he said.

Besides, said Martinenko, the lifelong resident, all those oil people are harmless compared to the real danger-the battery-recycling plant on the edge of town.

"You can't breathe when the wind shifts the wrong way," she said. "We've tried everything to get it closed down but nothing works. Why isn't that an international scandal?"

- - -

Bloomberg's Sherry Su, Olga Tanas and Dina Khrennikova contributed.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Orbán is offensive in the present tense, but he offends the past as well

By richard cohen
Orbán is offensive in the present tense, but he offends the past as well

RICHARD COHEN COLUMN

(Advance for Tuesday, May 21, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, May 20, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cohen clients only)

WRITETHRU: Last graf, 2nd sentence: "never aided the" sted "aid the Nazis"

By RICHARD COHEN

Donald Trump serves up a daily smorgasbord of offenses. He lies with almost every breath. He promulgates policy by inane tweet. He hires on a whim, fires out of pique and runs through the federal government spreading chaos and confusion as a fairy might spread pixie dust. He is his own Mount Rushmore of incompetence and vile behavior. He is the most un-American of American presidents.

Last week, Trump welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the White House. Any other American president would not have extended the invitation in the first place. It could have been avoided. Hungary is a landlocked country with not even 10 million people. It represents no balance of power, no major trading partner. Its best days are behind it, its glorious heroism in standing up to the Russians in 1956 is not even a memory to the current generation of historically blank Americans -- Trump, until recently, no doubt included.

Hungary's fame is now infamy. Under Orbán, it has lurched to the right -- not into mere populism, but into a sort of pre-fascism. Civil liberties and political rights have been curtailed. The judiciary is being brought to heel. The visage of philanthropist George Soros, made into the durable caricature of the Wandering Jew of old, was plastered around Hungary. "Don't let Soros have the last laugh," the posters said. The posters were of a single man. But the man, really, was a people.

"They do not fight directly, but by stealth," Orbán said in a speech last year. "They are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs. They are not generous, but vengeful, and always attack the heart -- especially if it is red, white and green [the colors of the Hungarian flag]."

The "they" of this rancid speech is no mystery. It is the same Jews that informed the anti-Semitic speeches of Adolf Hitler, and those of Hungary's own fascist party, the Arrow Cross Party. That Orbán could continue this foul heritage is something of a marvel. Hungary's Jews were nearly obliterated in the Holocaust -- more than 437,000 were sent to Auschwitz alone, an organizational feat pulled off by the diligent Adolf Eichmann. Orbán's scapegoats are ghostly memories.

Soros was a Hungarian Jew who survived the Nazi occupation and the pogroms organized by the homespun Arrow Cross, which filled the storied Danube with the bodies of its victims, shot at the river bank. And yet, Soros all-but returned to Hungary, aiding its incipient democracy movement, funding a university and making grants to individual Hungarians of promise. One of them was the young Viktor Orbán.

Trump took no notice of any of this in his photo-op remarks during Orbán's visit. "People have a lot of respect for this prime minister," Trump said. "He's a respected man. And I know he's a tough man, but he's a respected man. And he's done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration."

Actually, Orbán has done the wrong thing on immigration. He's called Syrian refugees "Muslim invaders," which is an odd thing to call bedraggled and hapless refugees mostly just passing through. According to a CNN poll, Hungary is the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. If it is not also the most anti-Muslim, Orbán must wonder where he went wrong.

Right-wing populism has reappeared in a Europe that has seen it before. Until very recently in Austria the far-right Freedom Party had taken over the Interior Ministry, often the first stop on the way to a dictatorship. Other countries are being threatened. You would expect an American president to defend democracy. Not this one, though.

Even by the standards of photo-op blather and even by the standards of Trump's own praise of strongmen like Vladimir Putin of Russia or Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, Trump's welcome of Orbán is in a class of its own. Orbán is not merely a "tough man" -- so were Hitler and Stalin -- but a smotherer of democracy and a demagogic bigot. His anti-Semitism has had an effect.

Viktor Orbán is offensive in the present tense, but he offends the past as well. He proceeds as if the Holocaust never happened -- as if Jews were never murdered for being Jewish, as if the Arrow Cross never aided the Nazis in killing an additional 80,000 Jews. Orbán is an heir to that Arrow Cross. Trump is an heir to everyone who looked away.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The missing option in American politics

By michael gerson
The missing option in American politics

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Tuesday, May 21, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, May 20, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

WRITETHRU: 5th graf, last sentence: "such as the" sted "such at the"

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- In a country that spans a continent, in a party that produced Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, there is still no serious political challenge to the ideological supremacy of a corrupt, deeply prejudiced conman who cares nothing for democratic traditions, constitutional limits and moral norms. Donald Trump's reelection would entrench a particularly vicious brand of Know Nothingism, advocated with tireless arrogance, combined with resolute ignorance, enabled by steadfast sycophancy.

It has been my particular concern that religious conservatives -- the base of Trump's political base -- regard a leader without character as the answer to prayer. For some, this makes sense. The goal of their advocacy is really Christian supremacy. Instead of seeking the good of the whole, this type of political engagement seeks a privileged place for certain sectarian beliefs. Privileged legal status. Privileged White House access.

Those who seek the unconstitutionally ambitious goal of a "Christian America" turn out to be quite easily appeased. A few scraps from the political table -- some empty words about the Johnson Amendment, some overbroad criticism of Islam, some disparagement of transgender and gay rights -- seem more than enough to justify Trump's status as political savior. "He has been the most faith-friendly president ever," according to Jerry Falwell Jr.

I know my critique is complicated by the fact that most conservatives (myself included) are pleased with a specific element of Trump's agenda -- the appointment of judges tethered to the words of the Constitution. This is not a minor thing. But the words of the Constitution itself are starkly at odds with a belief in Christian supremacy. And so respect for that document can only be located within a different and better theory of Christian social engagement.

In most of Europe (and Latin America), an alternative would be obvious: a movement known as "Christian Democracy." This approach emerged under mainly Catholic influence in the 19th century. It combined center-right views on most social issues with center-left approaches to economic justice based on solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a Christian Democrat. In America, compassionate conservatives might be placed in this ideological space. So would pro-life Democrats such as the late Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

If you look at the Democracy Fund's chart of the ideological distribution of American voters, there are a significant number that fall into the quadrant of socially conservative and economically liberal -- far more than are found in the libertarian quadrant of socially liberal and economically conservative.

Yet there has never been the (more pluralistic) American equivalent of a Christian Democratic party. Why is that? At the most basic political level, as Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out to me, there is no socially conservative and economically interventionist party because we don't have a parliamentary system. A country with multiple viable parties would probably find some home for this ideological hybrid.

But this begs the question of why neither of the major parties in the United States has consistently represented this viewpoint. It probably has much to do with the history of Catholicism in America. In 1800, there were perhaps 40,000 Catholics in the country. A century later, mainly as a result of mass migration, there were about 14 million. The Democratic Party welcomed this immigrant influx, providing patronage opportunities in large cities. Republicans following the Civil War turned generally anti-Catholic, leaving the GOP dominated by white Protestants who didn't take well to German, Irish and Italian migrants and their strange, supposedly anti-democratic religion. Bloody riots ensued.

"The Democratic Party of the New Deal and the mid-20th century was a compatible home offering economic progress and a safety net without undermining basic institutions," says John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. In the 1970s, Democrats such as Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden had pro-life records. But this changed quickly and dramatically as the Democratic Party become more monolithically pro-choice.

When Catholics emerged as a major force in Republican circles -- with thinkers such as William F. Buckley Jr. -- it was through the instrument of the conservative movement. And these Catholics were influenced more by libertarianism than Catholic social theory.

Pro-life Democrats such as Carr, and Protestants influenced by Catholic social thought like me, and Jewish, Mormon and non-religious people who view social solidarity as a central commitment have been left homeless. "This is the missing option in American politics," Carr told me.

American politics will be improved and humanized when some party gives this solidarity movement -- rather than Christian supremacy -- a comfortable political home.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Bullies like Trump cannot be appeased. They must be confronted.

By eugene robinson
Bullies like Trump cannot be appeased. They must be confronted.

EUGENE ROBINSON COLUMN

(Advance for Tuesday, May 21, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, May 20, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Robinson clients only)

By EUGENE ROBINSON

WASHINGTON -- Justin Amash finally said out loud what many other Republicans know but will only whisper: "President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment." Amash's party may never forgive him. His nation ought to thank him.

The Michigan congressman on Saturday became the first significant GOP official to acknowledge the clear implication of special counsel Robert Mueller's report. Every Republican member of Congress should be pressed for an on-the-record response. How does the president's conduct (BEG ITAL)not(END ITAL) amount to obstruction of justice? Where does the Constitution give Congress the right (BEG ITAL)not(END ITAL) to act?

Democrats should be asked these questions, too. I understand that many, apparently including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, believe that starting impeachment proceedings would damage the party's prospects in the 2020 election. But isn't duty supposed to take precedence over political expediency? It clearly did for Amash, whose reward for his principled stance was a Twitter blast from Trump and a primary challenge for his seat.

Classy as ever, Trump called Amash a "total lightweight" and a "loser who sadly plays right into our opponents [sic] hands!" All the president accomplished with this name-calling was to give Amash's analysis a much wider hearing.

Amash wrote in a series of tweets that he reached his conclusion "only after having read Mueller's redacted report carefully and completely, having read or watched pertinent statements and testimony, and having discussed this matter with my staff, who thoroughly reviewed materials and provided me with further analysis."

That sounds like the sort of thing we pay elected officials and their staff members to do. But Amash wrote that few of his colleagues "even read Mueller's report; their minds were made up based on partisan affiliation."

That's actually a key point. Anyone who reads the 448-page report can see, as Amash concludes, that Attorney General William Barr -- in his four-page summary, his congressional testimony and other statements -- "intended to mislead the public" about Mueller's findings. Barr apparently "hopes people will not notice," his deception, Amash says. Busted.

Amash's emperor's-new-clothes moment did not cause the dam of blind GOP solidarity to break. Instead, his colleagues attacked him, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., saying that maybe Amash "wants some type of exit strategy." In other words, apparently, carefully reading the Mueller report and thoughtfully analyzing its findings means you're no longer welcome in today's Republican Party and might as well leave.

As McCarthy noted, this is not the first time that Amash has been inconveniently faithful to his principles. I disagree with many of Amash's libertarian views, but it is refreshing to see a politician stand up for what he believes.

In the Mueller report, Amash finds "multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice." Impeachment, Amash notes, "does not even require probable cause that a crime ... has been committed," but simply that an official "has engaged in careless, abusive, corrupt or otherwise dishonorable conduct." Trump does all of the above, all of the time.

I'm under no illusions here. At this point it is clear that the vast majority of congressional Republicans will stay aboard the rustbucket USS Trump, which has been taking on water from the beginning, until it actually begins to sink.

But here is a line from Amash's tweetstorm that Democrats should reflect on: "While impeachment should be undertaken only in extraordinary circumstances, the risk we face in an environment of extreme partisanship is not that Congress will employ it as a remedy too often but rather that Congress will employ it so rarely that it cannot deter misconduct."

Speaking of misconduct, the Trump administration is now refusing to comply with perfectly lawful subpoenas issued by duly constituted committees of the U.S. Congress. If this president is allowed to get away with such defiance, why wouldn't the next president do the same -- or go even further? What good is a system of checks and balances if officials decline to use the tools that the framers of the Constitution so painstakingly crafted?

I can't be certain what the political impact of a formal impeachment process might be. Trump would doubtless claim he was being persecuted, as a way to rile up his base and boost GOP turnout. But he will surely claim victimhood anyway, even if Pelosi decides not to move forward. Bullies cannot be appeased. They must be confronted.

Democrats' options for avoiding impeachment are narrowing. Amash's politically dangerous stand is a reminder that elected officials, regardless of party, are supposed to put duty first.

Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Alabama's unexpected lesson on abortion

By e.j. dionne jr.
Alabama's unexpected lesson on abortion

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

(Advance for Monday, May 20, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, May 19, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Dionne clients only)

WRITETHRU: 1st graf, 1st sentence: "the most restrictive ban in the country" sted "a law banning it across the board"; 3rd graf, 1st sentence: deleting "or if a mother's life were endangered."

By E.J. DIONNE JR.

WASHINGTON -- It's instructive that Alabama has handed the anti-abortion movement a great victory by passing the most restrictive ban in the country -- and Republican politicians who regularly tout themselves as pro-life don't like it.

Abortion is cast by its opponents as a "non-negotiable" question. Yet it turns out to be very negotiable and, indeed, a matter of "personal belief."

Thus did House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., say he opposes the Alabama law because it "goes further than I believe" by failing to include exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was right there with him. "Personally, I would have the exceptions," McDaniel told CNN. "That's my personal belief."

Of course the Alabama abortion law is extreme. But you cannot fault the consistency of the Alabama legislators who supported it. If abortion is murder, it's murder. I suppose you can have gradations on murder charges -- first or second degree, say, or voluntary manslaughter -- but that's not the issue here. McCarthy and McDaniel can't really think abortion is murder if they believe it's OK some of the time.

Writing on the conservative website The Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last called the Alabama law "the most damaging development to the pro-life movement in decades."

Wow! Why so? "If you want to end the abortion regime, you don't get rid of it by outlawing abortion," he explains. "There is a teaching effect to the law, but it's not strong enough to support a law which does not have the consent of a large percentage of the citizenry. You get rid of abortion by moving public opinion. Which is hard. It's incremental. It's small steps."

Pause on Last's thought -- (BEG ITAL)you don't get rid of abortion by outlawing it(END ITAL). But the entire thrust of the contemporary right-to life movement is to get rid of abortion by outlawing it. Even with the exemptions McCarthy favors, the Alabama law would still outlaw almost all abortions.

The dirty secret is that supposedly pro-life politicians support the exceptions because they poll well. But if your stand on abortion is based on a deep moral conviction, polling should have nothing to do with it.

Which is why I am among those -- and I think there are a lot of us -- who despise the way abortion is discussed in our politics. The issue has become a partisan cudgel, the subject of a lot of posturing involving self-interested calculation that rarely involves much respect for the ethical commitments of the opposing sides.

Whether the fetus is a human life from the moment of conception or a potential life, a human being is the result at the end of nine months of pregnancy. So it shouldn't be hard for even the most pro-choice person to understand why those who oppose abortion believe as they do. At the same time, only women bear the physical burdens of pregnancy and society, as currently constituted, demands far more of mothers than fathers. So it should not be hard for even the most ardent pro-lifers to understand why women who advocate for abortion rights see control over their own reproduction as inextricably linked to gender equality.

But opponents of abortion must acknowledge this: (BEG ITAL)Making abortion illegal doesn't stop abortion(END ITAL). It does, however, make abortions unsafe for women who have them. A study by the Guttmacher Institute found that there were 22.3 million abortions between 2010 and 2014 in countries where abortion is highly restricted -- and 74% of those abortions were unsafe.

I share the right-to-life movement's desire to reduce the number of abortions. But I also agree with the pro-choice movement that making abortion illegal or virtually impossible to obtain will only place women's lives in jeopardy.

A better way forward would start by reducing the incidence of abortion through better family-planning programs. Even more important, we can give poor women who bring children into the world the help they need after giving birth.

The abortion rate is six times higher among poor women than affluent women. This is not because the rich have more moral qualms. The poor, unlike the wealthy, live with the fear that they will not be able to give their children the life they deserve. And we can honor the responsibilities mothers take on -- in deeds not just words -- by making the rules surrounding work more family-friendly.

The bottom line: If you truly want to defend the right to life, support women and lift up the poor.

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Bats in the belfry

By kathleen parker
Bats in the belfry

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, May 19, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, May 18, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Parker clients only)

WRITETHRU: 2nd graf, last sentence: "an Alabama U.S." sted "the U.S."; "surfaced of past inappropriate" sted "surfaced of inappropriate" and deleting "long ago" at end of sentence. 7th graf, 2nd sentence: "that survives an" sted "that survive an"; penultimate graf, last sentence: "And how many" sted "And, how many"; "better world." sted "better world?"

By KATHLEEN PARKER

WASHINGTON -- When author Mark Childress penned "Crazy in Alabama," he wasn't just whistling Dixie.

"I haven't been quoted this much since Roy Moore," Childress recently told me, referring to last week's coverage of Alabama's passage of a law banning abortion in nearly all circumstances. Moore, of course, was an Alabama U.S. Senate candidate who lost a 2017 race after accusations surfaced of past inappropriate sexual conduct with underage girls..

So, is Alabama really crazy? Is Georgia, which recently passed a "heartbeat bill" banning abortion after the baby's heartbeat can be detected, usually at around six weeks? (Neither law has taken effect, and both will surely be challenged in court.) Lest I be chastened for daring humanize an embryo, let me state for the record that the correct term for "heartbeat" is "fetal pole cardiac activity," because at six weeks, said embryo doesn't have a cardiovascular system and, therefore, no fully-formed, beating heart.

The question of craziness, meanwhile, depends upon one's definition of crazy. Is Alabama crazier than New York, where some protections for babies "born" alive during an abortion were recently eliminated, making it easier to end their life if desired by the abortion seeker?

Is Alabama crazier than Virginia, where Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam seemed to support infanticide back in January when commenting on a proposed bill that would relax some of the state's abortion restrictions? In a radio interview, he said that in cases where a mother goes into labor with a late-term fetus that has "severe deformities … there may be a fetus that's not viable … the infant would be resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother."

Trying to clarify after the inevitable firestorm, Northam's office later said that the "discussion" would be regarding medical prognosis and treatment, not ending the life of the newborn. For a physician, Northam seems challenged to express himself medically. And consider this: Although only about 1.4% of abortions occur at or after 21 weeks, the Guttmacher Institute's data suggest that "most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment." Just to be clear.

The crucial aspect of both the New York law and Virginia's proposed law (which as been tabled, for now) is that they reduce medical oversight of late-term abortions. In both cases, only one doctor would be involved in deciding and performing a late-term abortion, eliminating additional physicians who can tend to a baby that survives an abortion. New York previously had required two doctors in the room; Virginia required that three doctors certify that continuing the pregnancy would likely cause the patient's death or that it would "substantially and irremediably impair" her mental or physical health. Thus, a single doctor could decide that a woman's perhaps fleeting state would be sufficient to end a baby's potentially viable life.

Some Americans may find these adjustments acceptable, though they are surely few. More important is to understand that the extremism of what New York did -- and Virginia attempted to do -- invited the extremism of Alabama, Georgia and other pro-life states.

Nevertheless, pro-life legislative efforts haven't been for naught. Fence-sitters may now see more clearly on which side to plant their feet. In a 2016 Pew poll, 69% of Americans opposed overturning Roe vs. Wade. But most people are comfortable with limitations. We can quibble over where those limits should be, but nothing will ever please everyone. Where insight fails, facts are often helpful: Biologically, life begins at conception. Full stop. A fetus is not part of a woman's body except as is umbilically necessary to sustain its life. Otherwise, it is a free-floating human being with its own unique DNA. If left to develop according to nature's course, the little tadpole would become a fully formed human baby and, barring unforeseen circumstances, grow up to become a regular reader of this column.

It is ironic, meanwhile, that as pro-life activists radicalize their agenda, abortion rates are in steady decline. Likewise, pro-choicers are radicalizing their agenda as birth rates are no longer sufficient to replace the current population. Whatever transpires in the legal realm, I'll always wonder how acceptance of destroying the pre-born has affected our humanity. And how many among the over 60 million Americans aborted since 1973 were destined to shape a better world.

I know. Crazy.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Our states are laboratories -- run right now by mad scientists

By dana milbank
Our states are laboratories -- run right now by mad scientists

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, May 19, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, May 18, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Milbank clients only)

By DANA MILBANK

Louis Brandeis imagined that states could serve as laboratories of democracy. At the moment, they are serving as a bunch of mad scientists.

The late Supreme Court justice envisioned states trying "novel social and economic experiments." But he could not have anticipated just how novel the thinking would be of Alabama state Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R), author of the state's toughest-in-the-nation law, which bans virtually all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.

"I'm not trained medically so I don't know the proper medical terminology and timelines," the legislator-scientist said during this week's debate on his bill. "But from what I've read, what I've been told, there's some period of time before you can know a woman is pregnant. ... It takes some time for all those chromosomes and all that."

Chambliss then argued that, under his law, women would be free to get abortions during this period of time -- so long as they don't yet know they are pregnant. So a victim of incest could get an abortion? "Yes, until she knows she's pregnant," he reasoned, as journalist Abbey Crain recounted.

The genius behind the abortion law elaborated: "She has to do something to know whether she's pregnant or not. It takes time for all the chromosomes to come together."

The poor fellow seems to have confused chromosomes, the genetic material that combines during fertilization, with the hormones detected in pregnancy tests.

So, once an egg is fertilized, no more abortions? Chambliss floundered: "I'm at the limits of my medical knowledge, but until those chromosomes you were talking about combine -- from male and female -- that's my understanding." Contradicting himself, he also said that throwing away eggs that were fertilized in vitro wouldn't land you in jail because "it's not in a woman. She's not pregnant."

He similarly was confused about how a doctor, who under the law would face imprisonment for assisting with an abortion, would discern between the identical symptoms of a woman miscarrying (which would still be legal) and one having a medication-induced abortion. "The burden of proof would be on the prosecution," he said -- thus opening the 25 of pregnancies that end in miscarriages to law enforcement probes.

When one woman in the chamber questioned his familiarity with female reproduction, Chambliss replied: "I don't know if I'm smart enough to be pregnant."

The better question is whether he's smart enough to be writing laws.

Thus did Chambliss join the vanguard of clueless male legislators telling women what to do with their bodies. In Ohio, the author of a bill banning insurance coverage for non-life-threatening abortions included an exception for a fictitious procedure in which a doctor implants the fetus from an ectopic pregnancy in the uterus. The bill also appears -- inadvertently -- to ban coverage of IUDs and possibly birth control pills.

And Georgia, in its bill banning abortion after six weeks, designated "unborn children as natural persons" with "full legal recognition" -- thus inviting questions about whether it's legal for fetuses in the uteri of female inmates to be imprisoned without charges, whether women who have abortions could theoretically be charged with murder and whether, if a tax deduction is claimed for the unborn child, it would be repaid after miscarriages.

And: If fetuses are full persons, could we at least start teaching them biology?

After Justice Brett Kavanaugh provided the Supreme Court with a likely decisive vote to repeal Roe v. Wade, abortion opponents in state legislatures -- Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Louisiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Kentucky, North Dakota, Iowa and elsewhere -- have joined a pell-mell rush to come up with restrictive laws to serve as test cases. They say science has improved since Roe, but clearly the scientific knowledge of those writing the laws has not.

The new abortion bans are commonly dubbed "heartbeat" bills because pulsing cells can be detected as early as six weeks -- but embryos don't have hearts at that point. Women may be near or past the six-week abortion window before they know they're pregnant. And though lawmakers may not intend to ban birth control or to jail women who have abortions, those possibilities are far more realistic than Trump's claim that Democrats like to "execute" swaddled newborns.

No wonder House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who claims Democrats favor "infanticide," had difficulty with a question this week about whether Republicans would now be identified with the new laws. McCarthy opposes the Alabama bill, saying the state took an "extreme" position.

So extreme that it departed not just from legal convention but from medical science.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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