ATHENS — A brass band played, fighter jets streaked the clear blue sky and a red carpet adorned the airport tarmac on the day in May 2016 when Vladimir Putin came to Athens for a visit.
“Mr. President, welcome to Greece,” the Greek defense minister, Panos Kammenos, said in Russian as he smiled broadly and greeted a stone-faced Putin at the base of the stairs from the plane.
Kammenos, a pro-Russian Greek nationalist who bragged often of his insider Moscow connections, would receive a second key visitor that day, but with considerably less fanfare.
Not yet 30 years old, George Papadopoulos had been unknown in Greece — and everywhere else — only two months before.
But suddenly, just as Putin arrived, he was in Athens, quietly holding meetings across town and confiding in hushed tones that he was there on a sensitive mission on behalf of his boss, Donald Trump.
This October, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his extensive efforts to connect Trump’s presidential campaign with senior Russian officials. Trump has since dismissed Papadopoulos as a “low level volunteer.”
But in his ancestral homeland, the man whom Trump had named in March 2016 as one of five top foreign policy advisers and an “excellent guy” was regarded as a critical interlocutor, first to the Trump campaign and later to the incoming Trump White House.
He may have carried on like “a second-rate actor in a political thriller,” as one acquaintance described his manner. But when he bragged that he had helped Trump win the presidency, many here believed it.
Before his spectacular fall, he was lavishly wined and dined by local business kingpins, celebrated in official tweets and rewarded with the perks — judge in an island beauty contest — of a favorite Greek son.
He also received access to officials at the highest levels of the Greek government, many of whom shared links to Russia and sympathies that would be unusual in other Western capitals. Kammenos, in particular, stood out both for his pro-Russian views and his determination to forge a bond with the young Trump adviser.
Although Papadopoulos’s plea deal focused on his contacts with an obscure and mysterious Maltese professor who claimed Russian ties, Greek politicians and analysts say his best and most obvious path to Moscow would have run through Athens.
“If I were in his shoes, I would have thought, ‘Can my Greek friends help me make the Moscow connection?’ ” said Thanos Dokos, director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “It would make sense.”
Whether that’s how it happened may be a subject for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who continues to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence last year’s presidential election. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s Dec. 1 guilty plea — also for lying to the FBI, about Russia — suggests that Mueller is looking at an array of possibilities.
But in Greece, the connection between the officials Papadopoulos cultivated and his vigorously pursued campaign objective — to build up relations with the Kremlin, and ideally broker a meeting between Putin and Trump — is hard to miss.
The son of Greek immigrants who was raised in Chicago, Papadopoulos had a thin résumé that was full of exaggerations, including a nonexistent stint at Model United Nations. But during a meeting with The Washington Post’s editorial board in March 2016, Trump named him as one of five foreign policy advisers.
At the time, the Republican front-runner had been largely abandoned by the party’s foreign policy establishment and was under pressure to produce his team, having previously said his top foreign policy adviser was “myself.”
Even in the relatively intimate world of Greek and Greek American international relations experts, Papadopoulos was a mystery. The few who had met him said he was earnest — he showed up to casual get-togethers in suit and tie — and ambitious. His aim, he told associates, was to get a job on a U.S. presidential campaign and to work in the White House.
But he was also very green.
Dokos, who heads one of the most prominent Greek foreign policy think tanks, said he met Papadopoulos because he was the assistant to a researcher with the Washington-based Hudson Institute who was conducting interviews in Athens.
“He was basically serving as the note taker,” Dokos said.
Less than two years later, after a short stint with the Ben Carson campaign, Papadopoulos was in Washington to meet Trump and join the team of the man who would become America’s 45th president.
As it happened, Kammenos was in Washington the same day, for a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The Greek defense minister had largely been shunned by the Obama White House for his bombastic rhetoric — he once threatened to unleash a wave of jihadists on Berlin if the European Union did not back off its austerity demands — and for his Moscow links.
Throughout the worst of Greece’s economic crisis, Kammenos had been outspoken in arguing that the country could pivot to Russia for help if negotiations with Europe turned sour.
He also pushed for an end to sanctions imposed on Russia, championed a plan for Russia and Greece to jointly manufacture Kalashnikov assault rifles and befriended a number of influential Moscow players, including the wealthy Greek Russian businessman and politician Ivan Savvidis.
“He’s been one of the strongest Putin supporters in Greece,” said Adonis Georgiadis, vice president of Greece’s center-right New Democracy party.
Greece, an E.U. and NATO member, has a long-standing strain of its geopolitics that looks east to Russia rather than to the West.
But Kammenos, leader of the right-wing Independent Greeks, was also eager to improve his ties to Washington. Perhaps sensing that would be unlikely under a President Hillary Clinton, he became one of the few senior government ministers in Europe to enthusiastically back Trump.
And that support extended to Papadopoulos, whom Kammenos publicly embraced on social media and introduced around town during late spring 2016.
“Papadopoulos was totally unknown. But then Kammenos took him by the hand and promoted him everywhere,” Georgiadis said.
In short order, Papadopoulos had soon had meetings not only with the defense minister, but also with Greece’s foreign minister, its president and a former prime minister — a remarkable level of access for such a young aide.
All are considered relatively pro-Russian. At the time of the meetings, internal Trump campaign documents show that Papadopoulos was working aggressively to connect with senior Russian officials and was hoping to broker a meeting between Putin and Trump.
It is not known whether Papadopoulos met any members of Putin’s entourage in May 2016, when both were in Athens and the president was accompanied by his foreign minister, plus state oil and gas executives. But Georgiadis said he believed that Kammenos would have been able to put the two sides in touch — and had good reason to do so.
“He would have wanted to show Papadopoulos that he had good ties with the Russians and he would have wanted to show the Russians that he had good contacts with the Americans,” Georgiadis said.
Kammenos did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article. Attorneys for Papadopoulos said they would not comment on his meetings with Greek officials.
Others who met with Papadopoulos around that time described him as acting as though he were on a secret mission, refusing to confirm the location of meetings until half an hour before they began.
“Every so often, he would lower his voice so as not to be overheard or drop hints of major contacts,” Alexis Papachelas, editor of the well-regarded Greek daily Kathimerini, later wrote of his meeting with Papadopoulos.
Kammenos was not Papadopoulos’s only important link to Greek power circles. Soon after Papadopoulos was named to Trump’s campaign, he reached out to the Rev. Alex Karloutsos, a senior official with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and an influential player in the Greek American community.
Karloutsos, who said he has visited the Oval Office under every president since Jimmy Carter, helped Papadopoulos make some early contacts in Greece.
But he soon noticed that the young adviser was prone to exaggerating his own importance as a conduit to Trump. He was also troubled by Papadopoulos’s reaction to his swift transformation from an outsider hungering for insider connections to a player the insiders all wanted to know.
Papadopoulos, Karloutsos said, lapped up the perks of being romanced by the Greek business and political elite.
“He was caught up in the euphoria. ‘No one knew me, then everybody knew me,’ ” Karloutsos said. “He loved being in the limelight.”
The glare grew many times brighter after Trump’s surprise victory. Within hours, Kammenos tweeted his congratulations to the president-elect — along with a picture of Papadopoulos and a note saying the young Greek American was “now important for Greece.”
When Papadopoulos returned to Greece the next month, he told Marianna Kakaounaki, an investigative reporter for Kathimerini, that he had “a blank check” for any job he wanted in the Trump administration because of his services to the campaign.
“Everyone knows I helped him [get] elected, now I want to help him with the presidency,” Papadopoulos boasted in a text message.
When prominent Greeks and Greek Americans gathered at Washington’s Metropolitan Club for a party the night before Trump’s inauguration, Kammenos and Papadopoulos were both there to celebrate.
Eight days later, Papadopoulos was interviewed by the FBI — and lied, according to his plea agreement, about the timing and nature of his interaction with the Maltese professor. There would be no White House job. In both Athens and Washington, Papadopoulos virtually disappeared from view.
But he became a frequent guest on Mykonos, the Greek island that’s a paradise for the well-heeled.
During the late spring and into the summer, locals said he was a regular if discreet visitor at the island’s poshest clubs. He judged a beauty contest — watching impassively as bikini-clad contestants marched by — and onlookers at the clubs described him as partying hard and spending freely.
“He didn’t say where he got the money,” said one witness to an expensive night of revelry. “He just told us he worked for the Trump administration.”
Papadopoulos’s lawyers, Thomas Breen and Robert Stanley, disputed the descriptions of their client’s behavior on Mykonos. “Like many of the unflattering statements made by those who have an agenda to discredit George, those statements are flat-out lies,” they said.
By midsummer, Papadopoulos was telling people on Mykonos that he had grown disenchanted with the United States and planned to settle permanently in Greece.
But on July 27, he flew to Dulles International Airport and was arrested by federal agents upon arrival.
He soon began cooperating with Mueller’s investigation in return for a sentence sharply reduced from the five years in prison that he could have faced for lying to the FBI.
His whereabouts afterward are not known. In mid-October, Kammenos visited Chicago, Papadopoulos’s home town, as the defense minister traveled the United States with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. At the White House, Kammenos beamed as he extended a hand to greet Trump.
On Oct. 30, Papadopoulos’s plea was made public. Since then, Greek officials have largely avoided talking about him.
Karloutsos, the priest, said he called and emailed Papadopoulos to express concern but never heard back. He now lights a candle each Sunday for the 30-year-old.
Papadopoulos’s story, he said, is an old one.
“The Greeks create their gods, then they destroy them,” Karloutsos said. “It’s called hubris. It’s called an Icarus complex.
“He flew too close to the sun.”
Elinda Labropoulou in Athens and Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.