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A Confederacy of Grift

Crucial to Papadopoulos’s success is his apparent grasp of a foundational principle of the pro-Trump media universe: “The only rule seems to be not to let yourself disappear,” Warzel told me, describing the playbook he views as popularized by Alex Jones. “All press is good press, and scandal is the best possible.” In this view, the ultimate aim of these grifts may be not only money but also attention. Whatever the immediate financial rewards they’ve achieved, Stone and Corsi have succeeded in keeping themselves on television.

According to the special counsel’s sentencing memo, Papadopoulos seems to have been little more than a bit player in a much larger story. But his portentous tweets have made him a minor star on the fringes of right-wing media. The self-styled victim of the conspiracy of the moment—the deep state plot, spearheaded by Mueller, to take down Trump—can do, it seems, quite well for himself.

The idea of a definitive “Mueller report” spelling out just what happened during the 2016 election is powerful because of its imagined ability to dispel conspiracy: Surely the alternative facts provided by the president and his supporters will wilt in the face of evidence marshaled by the no-nonsense special counsel. But the success of Stone, Corsi, and Papadopoulos in selling stories about their persecution by the deep state suggests that the conspiracy theories will be harder to do away with.

Anyone can read the court documents spelling out the cases against the three men, and yet Stone has been able to sell the idea that, according to his T-shirts, he “Did Nothing Wrong!” and is accused of mere “process crimes” engineered by an over-aggressive prosecutor. (In a flourish of showmanship, he appears to have been wearing one of the T-shirts announcing his innocence when arrested by the FBI.) Despite Mueller’s detailed account of Papadopoulos’s interactions with a Russian government agent promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” Papadopoulos has told a parallel story in which the real collusion involves some opaque and dreadful conspiracy between the U.S. deep state, the U.K., and Australia. Corsi has gone further, preemptively leaking his draft plea agreement and hawking a book detailing his version of events.

Whatever form any report issued by the special counsel’s office eventually takes, it’s anyone’s guess whether it will have the narrative weight to counteract the pull of conspiracy theories. Perhaps the moment when Stone faces consequences and enters prison, or begins to cooperate with Mueller, is the moment when the grift falls to earth. Or perhaps he’s good enough at selling himself as a martyr to keep his version of the story going. After all, he’s spent the last 45 years turning Watergate from blemish to selling point. In a sense, he’s been preparing for this his entire life.

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