Len Khodorkovsky: The State Department's secret weapon

Arriving in America from the Soviet Union, Len Khodorkovsky never imagined he’d one day be designing memes for the president.

Len Khodorkovsky in the White House Rose Garden (photo credit: LEN KHODORKOVSKY)
Len Khodorkovsky in the White House Rose Garden
(photo credit: LEN KHODORKOVSKY)
Len Khodorkovsky’s story is one of those heartwarming American Jewish stories: A refugee from the Soviet Union finds a safe haven in America, where he thrives, builds a Jewish family and reaches professional success… then helps the president of the United States tweet Game of Thrones memes.
OK, that last bit is a twist in the usual plot.
In 2018, Khodorkovsky was senior adviser for Global Public Affairs in the US State Department, and leading communications for then-envoy for Iran Brian Hook’s team.
In May, the US left the Iran Deal. That fall, Khodorkovsky was part of the effort to “set the stage leading up to the announcement of sanctions.”
“I was in charge of our digital strategy on Iran, and one of the things we put together was a comprehensive compendium called ‘The Outlaw Regime,’ a detailed retelling of Iran’s malign behavior to date,” Khodorkovsky recounted. “We launched it at that year’s UN General Assembly and the secretary of state announced it at his [United Against Nuclear Iran] speech.”
As the November 4 date for sanctions approached, the Iran policy group tried to figure out how to effectively send a message to the Tehran regime.
“At the time, Game of Thrones was pretty big and someone in the room said, ‘We want them to think winter is coming,’” Len said, recalling a pervasive phrase from the HBO smash. “As we got closer to the sanctions date, I thought about what that person said, and suggested the secretary of state announce sanctions on social media in an unorthodox way.”
Khodorkovsky created a graphic of US President Donald Trump standing against a gray background with a text in a Game of Thrones-esque font revealing, “SANCTIONS ARE COMING.” He passed it on to Hook, and soon after found out Trump himself wanted to tweet the image.
The president posted the graphic without any information, sparking talk online and a lawsuit threat from HBO.
“We dominated the conversation that whole weekend leading to the rollout of sanctions. It became the central image of sanctions on Iran,” Khodorkovsky noted.
Len Khodorkovsky with parents and grandparents in the Soviet Union. (Photo: Len Khodorkovsky)

LEN KHODORKOVSKY was born Leonid Khodorkovsky in 1969 in Chernivtsi, in what is now Ukraine and was then the Soviet Union.
“I don’t think of myself as Russian, nor do my parents think of themselves as Russian. If you’re Jewish, you always knew you were a second-class citizen,” Khodorkovsky said. He shared a bedroom with his grandparents, who spoke Yiddish.
Khodorkovsky recounted being asked his nationality when at summer camp. Other kids would respond Ukrainian or Uzbek, as was written on their identifying papers, “but if you’re Jewish, you’re always Jewish.”
“It’s one of those things that makes a kid feel warm and fuzzy every time I had to encounter something in an official capacity,” he quipped sarcastically.
“My grandfather always hated the Soviets and Communists, but we were stuck. My family put in requests, but they were rejected.”
Khodorkovsky’s father was demoted at work, which was not as bad as being sent to a gulag, Khodorkovsky noted, but still carried a stigma as someone who tried to leave the country. The Khodorkovsky family was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1981, after years of trying. The request was approved after a strange man knocked on their door, looked around the house and then left without explaining his visit.
“About three weeks later, my dad took me to a soccer match. When we came back – we lived on the third floor and I raced up the stairs and was the first one up – I saw a postcard wedged in the door and handed it to my dad. It ended up being a notice to pack up and leave; we had permission to emigrate,” Khodorkovsky said.
It turned out their mysterious visitor was a KGB officer who wanted to live in their apartment, and that opened the door for the family to leave the Soviet Union.
“We melted all the gold we could just to have stuff we could sell in transit and have some money when we got to America,” recalled Khodorkovsky.
They landed in New York on August 13, 1981, and settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Khodorkovsky’s father, an engineer, didn’t speak English and began working as a machinist, eventually learning the language and returning to his earlier career path. His mother was a bookkeeper and had to start over as well.
It was his grandfather who got a job before anyone else, because he met some Holocaust survivors in the neighborhood who spoke Yiddish and hired him to be the superintendent of a building they owned, in which many other Yiddish-speaking Jews lived.
Those Holocaust survivors ended up adopting the Khodorkovskys in a way, paying for the grandparents to visit Israel for the first time and for the Khodorkovsky children to attend Jewish day schools.
Khodorkovsky grew up, attended Rutgers University and married Debbie, who he met as a teenager when they attended the local Modern Orthodox boys’ and girls’ schools, and with whom he has four children.
Len Khodorkovsky as a Soviet youth.  (Photo: Len Khodorkovsky)Len Khodorkovsky as a Soviet youth. (Photo: Len Khodorkovsky)

CAREER-WISE, Khodorkovsky began as a graphic designer – as one may have guessed from his deftness with creating Internet memes – and worked in the New York advertising world for 20 years.
He loved politics and, at his wife’s encouragement, went into political ads in a firm called Jamestown that works with Republican candidates. Within a few years, he got the 2016 Trump presidential campaign account and worked on all of his television and print advertising.
One of the major ads he worked on came out right after Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton used the word “deplorables” to describe Trump supporters.
“It really galvanized his base,” Khodorkovsky said. “It was a two-minute ad that was pretty epic. It was basically the Trump manifesto. We bought time in all the swing states the weekend leading up to the election; we saturated the marketplace with that ad. We synchronized [Trump’s] message into a coherent narrative and brought the base to the polls.”
Khodorkovsky then was on Trump’s transition team, helping cabinet nominees through their confirmation process. He returned to the private sector, until about half a year later, he was asked to work for the State Department.
Khodorkovsky began his journey in the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for Digital Strategy, in which he ran its entire digital presence, from the State Department website to social media accounts and online broadcasting. His goal was to bring them to the standards he was used to in the private sector and his purview included every issue the State Department dealt with.
The State Department used social media to tell its own stories and be the first to frame the narrative, rather than have third parties – like the traditional media – do it. Khodorkovsky opened Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Twitter account and pushed to keep it as relevant and newsworthy as possible, ushering it to over two million followers.
One of the biggest events Khodorkovsky ran social media for was the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the US Embassy in Jerusalem, after it moved from Tel Aviv. He gave Snapchat exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the event, and those videos got over 7.5 million views in real time.
“It was a big coup in making that a mainstream story. It reached a larger audience than it would have and the story was framed in a way that was different had someone covered it using the traditional lens,” Khodorkovsky explained.
Khodorkovsky also enthusiastically recounted meeting his childhood hero Natan Sharansky at the event, with whom he took a selfie.

IN THE ensuing years, Khodorkovsky was involved in spreading and promoting the US “maximum pressure” campaign, and was behind the first-ever tweets in Farsi from a US president.
On his own Twitter account, Khodorkovsky relishes trolling the Iranian regime. In June 2019, he tweeted a picture with the Iranian mullahs’ robes depicted in the colors of the rainbow with the text: “Happy Pride Month to the long-persecuted LGBT community in Iran.” After the US killed IRGC Commander Qasem Soleimani, he tweeted: “Pro tip from a guy who marched in involuntary Soviet parades: don’t confuse the numbers of marchers in Soleimani’s funeral procession with support for the regime. When you live in a dictatorship, showing up isn’t an option. You either march or get harassed, arrested, or killed.”
 Khodorkovsky’s style raised eyebrows and anonymous State Department career diplomats told CNN the social media strategy that he led on Iran is “useless” and “silly,” but Hook, the US special representative for Iran, felt otherwise.
“Len played a very important role in the maximum pressure campaign against Iran,” Hook said this month. “[Len] is creative and he’s fearless. He designed President Trump’s now legendary ‘SANCTIONS ARE COMING’ tweet, among so many other messaging campaigns. There’s no one in government like Len. Indispensable.”
Khodorkovsky was also instrumental in crafting the messages on policies closely connected to Israel.
One of those was the Warsaw Summit on the Iranian threat in February 2019. Khodorkovsky shared that the first time he heard the phrase “Abraham Accords” was from a colleague in the National Security Council attending that event, seeing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with other leaders from across the Middle East gathered in the Polish capital to work towards a shared goal.
“All of those countries were gathered in the room, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates,” Khodorkovsky said, the last two being countries that have since made peace with Israel. “All those foreign ministers were in the room, so it’s been an interesting trajectory.”
That conference was also the first time White House Special Adviser Jared Kushner spoke publicly of the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan for the Israelis and the Palestinians, announcing a conference in Bahrain under that title to take place later that year. Khodorkovsky designed the branding and materials for that event, and the Trump administration’s peace plan, presented in January 2020.
It was in Manama, Bahrain, where Khodorkovsky said it felt “inevitable” that moderate Sunni states would establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
“The interaction between people in the hotel itself where the workshop was happening was so matter-of-fact, almost normal. Israeli businessmen and diplomats, Americans, Gulf country representatives were mingling matter-of-factly. [Normalization] just seemed really inevitable. I don’t know that anybody thought that we could come to an agreement in [Trump’s] first term, but it did seem within the realm of the possible,” he said.
Len Khodorkovsky's graphic sending a message to the Tehran regime was tweeted by Donald J Trump.  (Photo: Len Khodorkovsky)Len Khodorkovsky's graphic sending a message to the Tehran regime was tweeted by Donald J Trump. (Photo: Len Khodorkovsky)

IN EARLY 2020, Khodorkovsky moved to the State Department’s Office of the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and Environment, where he became chief marketing officer, once again responsible for getting out the message about a major Trump administration campaign, this time against China.
Since then, he has been deeply involved not only in the issues related to COVID-19, but also in focusing on ways to keep American allies from allowing Chinese companies to build their essential infrastructure, especially 5G Internet networks.
“After we traveled the world, I think outside of China, we’re down to a dozen or so companies [using Chinese companies for 5G]. Fifty-three countries joined what we’re calling the clean network, a way to get countries and companies to secure their 5G infrastructure from malign actors, and one of those actors is the Chinese Communist Party and Huawei, their appendage,” Khodorkovsky explained.
Khodorkovsky warned that 5G security could have an impact on anything from electrical grids to sanitation systems to home Internet.
“We can’t trust Chinese vendors because of their vulnerability in digital security,” he stated.
As for marketing those efforts, Khodorkovsky’s boss, US Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and Environment Keith Krach, gave his work rave reviews.
“Creating a global brand takes strategic precision, creativity and media savvy. Len built and grew the Clean Network brand from scratch in a matter of months. That takes more than know-how, it takes magic,” Krach said. “Democracies are under attack from authoritarian states today more than at any other time in modern history. These challenges all cry out for leaders like Len who can mobilize people to dream up innovative solutions and shape the future in ways that will benefit us all.”
Len Khodorkovsky with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Under Khodorkovsky's direction, Pompeo's Twitter account skyrocketed to two million followers. (Photo: Len Khodorkovsky)Len Khodorkovsky with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Under Khodorkovsky's direction, Pompeo's Twitter account skyrocketed to two million followers. (Photo: Len Khodorkovsky)
 
US DEPUTY special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism Ellie Cohanim was similarly effusive, calling Khodorkovsky “the State Department’s secret weapon,” and attributing his successes in the State Department in part to his background.
“Len’s personal experience with totalitarianism has made him an invaluable partner to me in my own work combating hate and misinformation,” she said. “Len has the strongest moral compass, as well as a deep and keen understanding of the challenges the US and the free world face – whether the threat from the regime in Iran, the Chinese Communist Party, or the threat that antisemitism poses to our values of religious freedom and human rights.”
Khodorkovsky saw his work in the past three years as a way to do something for the country that has done so much for him.
“For a Soviet refugee to have an opportunity to work for the American State Department – it was kind of inconceivable to me and my parents. I think they were happier than when I told them they’d be grandparents; it was that momentous,” he said. “Just being able to give back to the country that gave my family a second chance, where we found a home, where we were wanted, is in and of itself gratifying. Just that is an accomplishment I am proud of.”
With the Trump administration winding down, Khodorkovsky is leaving the State Department, proud of work he did for Israel, which he said is “a second home in many ways” in addition to being one of America’s strongest allies.
“The die has been cast; good days are ahead. The big psychological hurdle was overcome, and it’s great news for the people in the region, Israeli, Emirati, Bahraini, everybody who seeks a more peaceful, prosperous and better life for their kids. The world is a much better place today than it was before the Trump administration,” he said.
And for the future, Khodorkovsky argued China is the biggest issue.
“The global power competition between free nations and authoritarian nations is certainly one that has come to define not just the short term, but probably the next 10 to 20 years. It is critical the good guys emerge with the upper hand. To the extent that I have been able to contribute to that becoming a reality, I am certainly proud of the effort we’re putting in. When the new administration takes office, it will hopefully build on the things we’ve been able to accomplish for the benefit of the US and the free world,” he stated.
Khodorkovsky hopes to continue to find ways to contribute to the conversation about the initiatives he helped it build, but is first planning to “pivot to more domestic issues” – spending more time with his family.