The Serbian magazine that published a purported interview with Donald Trump in which the Republican nominee apologized for the US intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s says it is trying to determine now whether it was the subject of a hoax — something the Serbian-American at the heart of the story denies.
"This is a personal attack on me and Serbia and the people in the diaspora, particularly in Chicago," Vladimir Rajcic, a Serbian-American actor living in Chicago, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview when asked about the Trump campaign's denial that the interview took place. "Because somebody did not like Trump saying 'I am apologizing to Serbian people.'"
"The bombing of Serbs, who were our allies in both world wars, was a big mistake,” Serbian weekly political magazine Nedeljnik originally quoted Trump as saying in the article published on Thursday. “Serbians are very good people. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration caused them a lot of harm, but also throughout the Balkans, which they made a mess out of."
When first reported in the English media on Thursday morning, the interview in question came as a bombshell.
"We established the contact with the Trump campaign through Mr. Vladimir Rajcic, a Serbian American who is close to some aides of Mr. Trump," Marko Prelevic, Nedeljnik's managing editor, told BuzzFeed News in an email on Thursday morning. "We asked him if we could send over some questions and after a couple of weeks got answers from Suzanne Ryder Jaworowski in an email."
By Thursday afternoon, the Trump campaign was calling the interview a hoax.
"Mr. Trump never gave an interview to the Serbian weekly magazine Nedeljnikas as falsely reported by the discredited Newsweek, nor was such an interview conducted by our Indiana State Director [Suzanne Ryder Jaworowski]," campaign spokesman Jason Miller said in a statement. "This was a hoax and we look forward to a retraction and an apology from all involved."
In a press statement emailed late Thursday afternoon, Prevelic further explained that the magazine had long wanted to run an interview with Trump and turned to Rajcic, who is currently running for president of Serbia in the country's 2017 election, when conventional outreach failed. They provided questions to Rajcic, who then gave them what he said was an emailed response from the Trump campaign, a screenshot of which is attached here:
Prevelic confirmed to BuzzFeed News that they had never been directly in touch with Jaworowski, but an email sent to address listed for her in the screenshot went through without a response.
Once the story began to pick up in the foreign press and the Trump campaign issued its denial, the statement says, the magazine was left trying to determine what had happened. It could be that the Trump campaign was concerned about the negative press they were receiving, the editors speculated. "It wouldn't be the first time that Trump and his aides got caught in a lie," the statement reads.
"There is, of course, another possibility, and we are looking into it in order to retain our credibility," it continues. "That's a simple enough answer: we were hoaxed by Mr Rajcic, although he remains adamant that the interview was genuine. If this is the case, we take all the blame. We chose to believe a person who gave us all the proof that we asked, and we weren't professional enough to doubt it."
Rajcic insists that someone on the Trump campaign or close to it got cold feet and backed away from the interview.
"They set us up — they set me up actually," he said. "That's not fair, that's not fair to Serbia, and its not fair to the Serbian magazine who never had a bad intention. We know actually what happened."
Despite all that, Rajcic still supports Trump and wants to make sure Chicago's 350,000 ethnic Serbs do too.
"I am fine being the bad guy," he said. "If that's going to help out the campaign? I support that."
Rajcic has spent the last week boasting about the ties he has to the Trump campaign. In a recent article in Serbian local media — and posted to Rajcic's official Facebook page — Rajcic boasted of his role in Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's performance in the recent vice presidential debate.
Politico reported that Jaworowski said she recently met a man of Serbian descent at a fundraiser "who insisted he was running to be president of the Balkan nation and who had expressed interest in supporting the campaign." In the campaign's statement, Jaworowski said that she has "never served as a conduit to interview Mr. Trump for anyone."
The statement as reported by Nedeljnik stood out both for its attempt to attack former President Bill Clinton for his foreign policy stances and its closeness to the Russian position on the NATO intervention. Moscow opposed both the mid-1990s intervention in Bosnia to end the ongoing civil war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia and the 1999 bombing of Serbia to end the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
The campaign for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton issued a statement prior to the Trump campaign's denial calling the interview "no surprise" and another way that the candidate continued to "pander to Putin."
The comments also will likely appeal to Serbian nationalists who are already supporting Trump. During Vice President Joe Biden's recent trip to Serbia, he was met with ultranationalist protesters wearing Trump T-shirts.
“Trump is the alternative to globalization. He will destroy old centers of power in the United States and he is a supporter of Russia,” Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, said at the time.