ExclusiveCharles Tawil: 'Why would I entrap a pro-Trump guy?'

Israeli businessman shoots down spy claims by Papadopoulos in Trump-Russia probe

After George Papadopoulos, the first Trump official to plead guilty in Mueller investigation, dragged him into the headlines, businessman Charles Tawil gives his side of the story

Miriam Herschlag is Opinion & Blogs editor at The Times of Israel

PHOTO ON LEFT: George Papadopoulos (right) with Charles Tawil's son, at Crowne Plaza Hotel in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2017; PHOTO ON RIGHT: George Papadopoulos in Cyprus, June 2017 (Both photos and details supplied by Charles Tawil)
PHOTO ON LEFT: George Papadopoulos (right) with Charles Tawil's son, at Crowne Plaza Hotel in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2017; PHOTO ON RIGHT: George Papadopoulos in Cyprus, June 2017 (Both photos and details supplied by Charles Tawil)

DUBAI — Israeli businessman Charles Tawil has adamantly rejected claims that he entrapped George Papadopoulos, the first Trump administration official to plead guilty in the Russia investigation, as absurd.

Tawil, whose kaleidoscopic business career has spanned Africa, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, acknowledged giving $10,000 in cash to Papadopoulos on June 8, 2018. But he denied being a spy who bullied Papadopoulos into taking the money in a “terrifying’’ Tel Aviv hotel room, as Papadopoulos has claimed. In fact, Tawil said that the Trump campaign adviser, who is now pushing to delay serving his 14-day prison sentence, was “desperate” to keep working with him after the cash transaction that, according to Papadopoulos, ended their relationship.

Tawil spoke to The Times of Israel last week in the glittering Gulf city-state of Dubai, where he had come for a conference hosted by the United Arab Emirates’ Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, with whom Tawil said he is friendly.

Tawil’s once little-known name is now bound up with US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. He is referenced in an FBI sentencing memo as a foreign national whom Papadopoulos “believed was likely an intelligence officer of a foreign country (other than Russia).”

The first domino in the Trump-Russia investigation

Papadopoulos admitted lying to the FBI when he was questioned about his contact with Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor who had a senior role at a murky organization called the London Centre of International Law Practice (LCILP) where Papadopoulos also worked.

In 2016, Mifsud brokered a meeting between Papadopoulos and some Russians he claimed were tied to the Kremlin. Mifsud also allegedly told Papadopoulos that the Russians had thousands of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton. This information reached the FBI and triggered the investigation into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

In a March 2016 campaign meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, Papadopoulos offered to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In this photo from US President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, George Papadopoulos, third from left, sits at a table with then-candidate Trump and others at what is labeled as a national security meeting in Washington, as posted on March 31, 2016. (Donald Trump’s Twitter account via AP)

In September, Papadopoulos submitted a memo to the court saying he was “ashamed and remorseful” and received a sentence of 14 days. But after sentencing, his tune changed dramatically and he and his wife, Simona Mangiante, went on a media blitz claiming he was entrapped by the government.

Weaving a dark tale of deep-state treachery, the couple has cast Charles Tawil as a villain who tried to plant marked hundred dollar bills on him, calling him an outed government asset. On Tuesday, Papadopoulos tweeted: “Is the $10,000 Charles Tawil gave me part of an FBI/CIA entrapment operation?”

Papadopoulos has claimed he was terrified when Tawil handed him $10,000 in hundred-dollar bills in “some hotel room in Tel Aviv.” He said he feared Tawil would kill him if he turned down the cash.

“Come on! I threatened to kill him if he doesn’t take the money?” snorted Tawil, as he searched his phone for a photo of a smiling George Papadopoulos. “If you see the picture of my son with him, he doesn’t look like a guy who is scared.”

Advisor, consultant, entrepreneur — not spy

Tawil, a trim 61-year-old raconteur with rimless glasses and a worldwise smile, sips a cappuccino monogrammed with the capital “A” logo of Dubai’s impossibly swank Armani Hotel at the foot of the Burj Khalifa tower, which, at 160 stories, is the world’s tallest building.

Describing himself as an occasional adviser to African leaders — among them Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma — Tawil specializes in energy deals, but says he has a passion for promoting biodiversity.

Capitalizing on the fluent Arabic he speaks as the son of Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Arab world, Tawil operates in arenas where discretion is the better part of valor.

Until making his appearance in the Mueller FBI sentencing memo, he kept a low profile. Tawil, who also holds US citizenship, declined to be photographed for this article.

The beginning of a not so beautiful friendship

Tawil says Papadopoulos caught his eye in 2016, as a potential business partner with entree in the Arab world. In September that year, the then 29-year-old former Hudson Institute intern brokered a meeting between candidate Donald Trump and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Tawil was impressed.

While attending the March 2017 AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC, Tawil learned that David Ha’ivri, a strategic consultant who promotes Jewish settlement in the West Bank, was in touch with Papadopoulos. Ha’ivri made a call, and he and Tawil flew to Chicago for a fateful lunch meeting with Papadopoulos.

Tawil came away from the meeting in high spirits. “He was ambitious, a young guy, my son’s age, so I thought why not. And then he told me, look, I’m broke and I’m going to go live in Europe.”

But Papadopoulos didn’t tell Tawil he was in deep hot water. The FBI had interviewed Papadopoulos for a second time six weeks earlier. Had Tawil known Papadopoulos was under investigation, he says he would never have pursued the partnership.

Enter Simona Mangiante

In May, Papadopoulos was in Mykonos with his then-girlfriend, Simona Mangiante. Tawil says Papadopoulos invited him to join them and tell him what he thought of Mangiante. “He spoke to me as if I was his father and giving him recommendation.”

Tawil was game: he’d never been to Mykonos, wanted to get to know Papadopoulos better, and found a cheap charter flight, so he headed for a two-day stay on the Greek island.

According to Tawil, he met Mangiante in a single encounter, an evening with the couple in a noisy pub.

Mangiante seemed fishy to him. He thought she was much older than the 30 years she claimed to be. He doubted she was from Naples, Italy. The accent was off — he thought she seemed Slavic —  and her ties to European socialist politics made her an unlikely match for an ardent Trump supporter like Papadopoulos.

Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos speaks to members of the media after attending a closed-door meeting with Democrats on the House intelligence committee, Wednesday, July 18, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Mangiante has faced numerous questions about her identity, and, in a statement to ABC, she admitted to doctoring the age on her passport from 37 to 34. She has said her accent is often mistaken for Russian, but that she is, indeed, Italian.

Ten thousand dollars in a Tel Aviv hotel room

Tawil says Papadopoulos had no bank account and wanted money in cash, so, on June 8, he had him come to Tel Aviv to receive the $10,000. Papadopoulos would repay him once they closed a planned consultancy deal. Tawil’s son fetched the money from their house in Herzliya.

George Papadopoulos (right) with Charles Tawil’s son, at Crowne Plaza Hotel in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2017 (Photo and details supplied by Charles Tawil)

“I have cash. I work in Africa, you know. I need cash,” says Tawil, who laughs at claims he took Papadopoulos to “some hotel room in Tel Aviv.” That “strange room,” he says, was simply Papadopoulos’s hotel room at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Tel Aviv’s Azrieli office tower complex.

“I have a picture of him with my son hugging, the same day he got there.” The photo shows the two smiling men posing in a hotel lounge.

In Papadopoulos’s version of events, the day in Tel Aviv also included a business meeting with “ex-Israeli intelligence people” pitching a social media manipulation operation. Again, Tawil laughs off the cloak-and-dagger description, and says the two met with the Israeli Arab founders of a new Nazareth-based social media marketing company aiming to do business in the Arab world.

In Cyprus, from sweet to sour

The following day, June 9, Tawil and Papadopoulos went to Cyprus to close a deal on a consultancy project for a friend of Tawil’s in the Limassol Port. The three men shook hands on a consulting arrangement that would fetch Papadopoulos a $10,000 monthly stipend.

Tawil says someone in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office then invited Papadopoulos to come to Thessaloniki, Greece, where Benjamin Netanyahu was arriving for an energy and security summit with the Greek and Cypriot presidents.

George Papadopoulos in Cyprus, June 2017 (Courtesy George Tawil)

“The day he left me he was really genuine,” says Tawil, who provides a photo he says was taken at breakfast in Cyprus. “He hugged me, kissed and told me, you know, you saved my life. We’re gonna make great things together.”

Tawil says he even woke early to take Papadopoulos to the airport, though his own flight was departing hours later. When Papadopoulos offered to take a taxi, “I said, come on, you’re like my son, I’m taking you to the airport.”

That was June 14. The note in Tawil’s calendar for June 15, 2017 reads: “Crisis with George.”

“Something happened in Athens,” says Tawil. Papadopoulos emailed their Cyprus client demanding a more concrete financial arrangement, an email that Tawil described as tin-eared and offensive, saying it led to cancelation of the project.

Don’t ever contact me again?

Papadopoulos insists that after he left Israel he told Charles Tawil to take back the cash and never contact him again. Tawil says the opposite is true, that he never received such a message, and Papadopoulos “was desperate to work with me.”

Peter Dovey (Courtesy)

It wasn’t just their post-cash transaction trip to Cyprus. In an email that Tawil shared with The Times of Israel, dated July 3, 2017 — three weeks after supposedly cutting ties — Papadopoulos sought to set up a meeting for Tawil and himself with Nagi Idris and Peter Dovey, the directors of the London Centre of International Law Practice. Papadopoulos worked for the LCILP, a company that bills itself as providing “specialized training, technical assistance, and advice to government ministries, embassies, etc,” and, most pertinently, employed both Papadopoulos and the Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, at the heart of the Russia investigation.

Nagi Idris, owner of EN Education (Courtesy)

In the email, Papadopoulos refers to Tawil as his “current business partner,” and heralds Trump’s Saudi deals as a potential goldmine.

“As you know, the Trump administration has signed a $350 billion arms agreement with Saudi, and there will be many further private sector initiatives in the energy and tourism sectors. Given the synergy that exists between our various contacts in Saudi and Washington, it would behoove us to discuss how we can be involved.”

Reached for comment on the claims raised by Tawil in this article, including that he pursued the business partnership weeks after receiving the $10,000 in cash, Papadopoulos told The Times of Israel the matter was “incredibly sensitive.”

“All I will say is that Tawil was notified by me in writing shortly after I left him, and when I began to realize that the $10,000 was not for any legitimate work, to come take his money and never contact me again,” wrote Papadopoulos.

The state of not being the deep state

Tawil is at turns amused and aghast to find himself swept up in the vortex of the Papadopoulos-Mangiante conspiracy tales. He ridicules their claims that he was a player in some kind of deep-state entrapment sting.

“First of all, I support Trump, so why would I entrap a pro-Trump guy?” he says. “I like the fact that Trump is the president. I wanted him to be president. I worked a lot in Africa and I see the damage that Clinton and Obama did to the world. Trump may be eccentric but he is at least straightforward.”

Tawil finds comedy in Papadopoulos’s allegation that the cash was marked and should be examined in order to discover who was running the supposed operation against him. And in any case, how, he asks, does giving somebody money entrap them? “You’re allowed to go with a million dollars to America, just declare it.”

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