A wintery chill lingered in the air on April 6, 2016 as I drove west across Long Island to the town of Bethpage for Donald Trump’s first big rally in the New York area. Bethpage is the long-time headquarters of the old Grumman Aircraft Corporation, which manufactured propeller fighter-bombers at its 150 acre plant there during World War II, and jet fighters like the F-14 Tomcat in the 1960’s. By the time of the presidential election of 2016, its massive hangers were being used as TV and motion picture studios, and one of them was scheduled for Trump’s big rally.
At this point, you’ve got to look up and read the stories about the campaign to remember what was going on back in April of 2016. The short version of the story is this: After months of buffoonery at Republican Party primary debates — remember him calling Rubio “Little Marco” and Cruz “Lyin’ Ted and Bush “Low Energy Jeb”? — Trump was on the cusp of doing what nobody thought could be done. He was on his way to winning the nomination. He had practically swept the March 15 “Super Tuesday” primaries in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina, losing only Ohio to Governor John Kasich. He won Arizona on March 22, and would go on to win New York on April 19, and sweep the “Acela Primaries” on April 26 in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. By May he ran virtually unopposed in Washington, Oregon, West Virginia and Nebraska and was crowned the presumptive nominee.
But on April 6, the Trumpian buffoonery was in full flower in Bethpage. The rally was over-sold. I had to take a shuttle bus from a parking lot miles away to the Grumman complex on Route 107. Out the window of the bus was a changed Long Island landscape. Practically every storefront in every strip mall for several miles was taken up by businesses run by Afghan immigrants: Halal groceries, lamb kabob shops, boutiques selling Afghan fashions, mini-Mosques, Afghan bookstores. Two guys in the seat behind me complained about what had happened to the neighborhood. “You know how they do it?” one guy asked the other, referring to immigrants. “They come in, and they take a job washing dishes at a pizza joint, and the next thing you know, they got their family in there and they own the place, and they change everything.”
The rally was packed shoulder to shoulder with couples wearing “Make America Great Again” caps, Vietnam veterans in leather biker vests, and Italian Americans and Irish Americans whose fathers had probably worked at Grumman but who had moved further out on Long Island to escape the “foreigners” who had replaced them in Bethpage. Backed by a wall of American flags, Trump came on to stomping and cheers. He launched into a long story about how he used to drive out to Bethpage to play golf when he was first starting out in New York real estate, before he owned his own golf courses. Cheers. Stomping. Yaaaay Long Island! Some cops grabbed a black guy and carried him down a central aisle in the hanger that looked like it had been fenced off just for that purpose. More cheers. More stomping. Trump said he was going to build that wall, and Mexico was going to pay for it. Pandemonium. A forest of TV cameras on a big riser in front of the stage recorded the whole thing. Coverage of the rally was carried live on local TV and cable.
I left the rally thinking, there’s no way this guy is going to take this crazed act all the way to the White House. A lot of people were thinking the same thing in early April of 2016. That’s what we knew.
But what didn’t we know back then?
We didn’t know that in early March, a young man who was then all of 28 years old by the name of George Papadopoulos had been appointed to be a “foreign policy adviser” to the campaign of Donald Trump. Prominent on his resume was a stint as an unpaid intern at the conservative Hudson Institute. Other than that, nothing was apparent that would qualify him to be a “foreign policy adviser” to anyone, much less a presidential campaign.
We didn’t know that on March 14, young Papadopoulos was in Rome and met a man by the name of Joseph Mifsud, who described himself as a “professor” of a defunct London college. The “professor” took a strong interest in young Papadopoulos when he learned that he was a foreign policy adviser to Trump.
We didn’t know that on March 19, according to a report later on Vice, John Podesta’s email was hacked by groups acting at the behest of Russian intelligence.
We didn’t know that on March 24, the “Professor” would arrange a meeting in London between Papadopoulos and a young Russian woman by the name of Olga Polonskaya, whom he falsely introduced as “Putin’s niece.” The three discussed setting up a meeting between candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos reported back to a “senior Trump campaign official” later identified as Deputy Campaign manager Sam Clovis about the meeting in London. Clovis wrote back that he would “work it through the campaign” and told Papadopoulos he had done “great work” with the meeting in London.
We didn’t know that Papadopoulos would travel to New York for a meeting of the Trump foreign policy team chaired by senior campaign adviser Senator Jeff Sessions. Papadopoulos would describe his contacts with the “Professor” and the Russian “niece” of Putin and suggest that he could help to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin. We didn’t know that Sessions would later mislead the Senate about this meeting and his knowledge of Russian contacts during his confirmation hearings for Attorney General.
We didn’t know that throughout the month of April, Trump foreign policy adviser Papadopoulos would exchange numerous emails with Olga Polonskaya regarding setting up a meeting between Trump and Putin. We didn’t know that Polonskaya would put him in touch with an official of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow. We didn’t know that Papadopoulos would have numerous conversations by phone and Skype with this official of the Russian government about setting up a meeting between Trump and Putin, and he would report back to Deputy Campaign Manager Clovis about his negotiations.
We didn’t know that on April 26, Papadopoulos would meet with the “Professor” for breakfast at a London hotel, during which the “Professor” told him that his contacts in the Russian government had informed him that they had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and “thousands” of her emails. This was months before it became publicly known that the emails of candidate Clinton and her campaign chairman Podesta had been hacked. It is hard to believe young Papadopoulos didn’t report this delightful tidbit of top-secret intelligence directly to his superiors in the Trump campaign.
We didn’t know that through the rest of April and throughout May, Papadopoulos would continue his contact with the official from the Russian Foreign Ministry, and he would continue to report these contacts back to the Trump campaign.
We didn’t know that, according to a recent report in the New York Times, following the meeting with the “Professor” in London, Papadopoulos would have drinks with a senior Australian diplomat and tell him about how he had learned that the Russian government had “dirt” and “thousands” of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
We didn’t know that two months later, when Democrats’ emails were first revealed by WikiLeaks, the senior Australian diplomat would inform his American counterparts of his conversation with Papadopoulos about Russian interference in the American election.
We didn’t know that in July of 2016, the FBI would act on this information and establish a counterintelligence investigation of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, and that they would keep this investigation secret until it was revealed by (then) FBI Director James Comey in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on March 20, 2017.
We didn’t know that in January of 2017, George Papadopoulos would be questioned by the FBI about his contacts with Russians during the Trump campaign. We didn’t know that he would lie to the FBI about those contacts. And we didn’t know that he would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI and begin cooperating with the investigation by Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the presidential election of 2016.
Way back in the Spring of 2016, on the heels of Trump’s appearances in the clown-car debates of the Republican primaries and his unhinged performances at campaign rallies in Bethpage, Long Island on April 6; Rochester, New York on April 10; Albany, New York on April 11; Rome, New York on April 12; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 13; Hartford, Connecticut on April 15; Syracuse, New York, on April 16; Poughkeepsie, New York on April 17, through several dozen more campaign rallies right up to the Republican National Convention in July, we didn’t know shit about what was going on behind the scenes between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. What we would come to know, however, was that Trump would mention the Clinton emails, which were stolen by the Russians, and WikiLeaks, which received the emails from the Russians, more than 160 times in speeches during the closing months of the campaign.
With two indictments and two guilty pleas and more on the way, we’re going to learn what we didn’t know about the Russians and the ways they helped Donald Trump’s campaign for president. That I can promise you.