Over a recent lunch in Chicago, George Papadopoulos searches for words strong enough to describe the importance of his wife, Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos. "She really has saved my life," says George, the Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI last year. "After the arrest – and I have never been in trouble in my life – I was half a man." We're tucked into a corner table at London House Hotel's 21st-floor restaurant, a dimly lit room with marble walls and a flickering fireplace. Between bites of a smashed cucumber salad, Simona, a 33-year-old Italian-born lawyer-model-actress, tells me, "I felt that he was caught in something bigger than him."
It's the first public interview that George, who is 30, has given in the months since agreeing to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation; until now, Simona has been his voice. Last December, she told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that her then-fiancé (the couple married in March) was no mere "coffee boy," as one Trump surrogate insisted on CNN. History, Simona said, would vindicate him as "the first domino" in the Russia investigation. George takes a sip of coffee, purses his lips and fixes me with a serious look. "It's like Simona said: This is much bigger than one person," he says. "This is much more complicated than Watergate. We are talking about foreign governments, intelligence, various countries, decoys, hacking, honey pots... And, of course, one of the most-watched presidential campaigns of history. I am just in the middle of it."
When conversing with an admitted liar, it can be difficult to know what to believe. That's especially true when trying to understand the dynamics of a relationship that's been entwined with the Russia investigation since day one. Questions were publicly raised about George and Simona’s relationship a few weeks earlier, when screenshots purporting to be from Simona's Twitter account circulated online. In one, she appeared to say George's "ex kindly offered me today the evidence he was begging her back while we were engaged. Now he is threatening me." Another tweet read, "Never felt so abused in my life. I stood up for him as I believed in him – he was using and lieing [sic] to me." (Simona tells me her Twitter account was hacked.)
For now, the couple are living in Chicago, George's hometown, while he awaits sentencing. His interest in politics began nearby, in Grant Park, at Barack Obama's 2008 election victory celebration. "I said, 'You know what? I can do what he does,' " George recalls. According to his LinkedIn profile, after earning a master's degree in security studies from University College London, he floated between consulting firms and think tanks before landing a spot on Ben Carson's presidential campaign. The following year, George and Simona met on LinkedIn.
Their shared contact, Joseph Mifsud, was from the London Centre of International Law Practice, where George briefly worked and which he now describes as "like, this hotbed with potential spies and all this craziness." Mifsud was a jowly, balding academic who, according to court documents, George "understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials." In March 2016, Mifsud allegedly advised him that the Russian government possessed dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of e-mails," information George is said to have divulged to the Australian ambassador to the U.K. at London's Kensington Wine Rooms. Australian officials reportedly passed the news to the FBI, igniting the investigation into the Trump campaign in July 2016.
By September, when Simona started her own job at the London Centre, George had joined the Trump campaign in New York, and Mifsud, their shared professional contact, was the excuse he used to connect with her on LinkedIn. The two began exchanging messages and selfies. After the election, in the spring of 2017, when Simona flew to New York to visit her aunt, George surprised her at the airport. "She probably thought I was a nutcase for being so persistent," he says. They drove straight to dinner. "In the taxi, he took my hand," she remembers.
"Yeah, but you didn't let go," he replies. "You didn't let go."
For "like, date five," George says, he invited Simona on a trip to Greece, where "a lot of strange things happened." Simona adds, "We met a few spies in Mykonos." Among them was an Israeli businessman in his mid-sixties – the couple are now convinced he was an agent for the Mossad – who, she says, would later offer George $10,000 in cash. According to Simona, the payment was "not to be a consultant, just to, let's say, 'keep [his] engagements.'" She's now convinced the payment "was a setup." Agents for the Mueller probe asked her about it when she was interviewed in Chicago last year. "They were testing my credibility," Simona says, adding she had to answer all of their questions truthfully. "If I didn't, I would be charged with lying to the FBI." (She says George accepted the money and gave it to his lawyers.)
By George's count, the Israeli businessman was one of half a dozen "land mines" – attempts at entrapment – he navigated before his arrest. Another was Stefan Halper, a Cambridge University professor reportedly dispatched by the FBI to ascertain whether the Trump campaign had been infiltrated by the Russians. In September 2016, Halper offered to pay George to write a paper on gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea. "I thought he was a normal professor," George says.
"No, you always thought he was a spy," Simona interjects. "Now we know."
As lunch winds down, George, barely suppressing a smile, says, "Tell her the theory about us.”
"OK," Simona says. "The theory is that we are not a real couple, that we were basically two agents for the different governments, occasionally sleeping together." Apparently, the FBI floated the idea to Simona during her interview. George was thought to have been an asset for either Greece or Israel. "Me, I am Russia," Simona says, laughing. For the record, she denies it: "I talk too much to be a spy. Spies are secretive."
When I ask the couple how they spend their days, both struggle to come up with an answer. Simona confesses to feeling isolated in Chicago. "Sometimes we fight because we have a lot of time together," she says. "Then we make up."
During my visit, the couple were excitedly planning for their future. Simona told me she was up for a film role in L.A.; George was looking forward to receiving his sentence and putting the whole Mueller probe behind him. It came as a surprise then, ten days later, when the photo shoot for this story was derailed after one of the couple's arguments. Simona says she cut herself on broken glass; she was driven to the hospital by Rolling Stone's photographer. George and Simona both say it was an accident.
When I speak to them a few days later, the couple appears to have resolved their differences. In the meantime, Simona tells me, she is finalizing with her lawyers the details of an upcoming testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Rep. Devin Nunes and Rep. Adam Schiff, leaders of the committee, she says, had sent her a signed letter. She says they want to ask: "'You defended George Papadopoulos from being a coffee boy. Can you come explain to us why?' "