- Thomson Reuters
- The FBI decided to investigate whether President Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia after early foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos told a top Australian diplomat that Russia had compromising information on Hillary Clinton, The New York Times reported.
- Though there were several events that prompted the bureau to investigate the campaign, Papadopoulos’ conversation with the diplomat was reportedly the one that led the bureau to formally launch its probe.
- Newly obtained emails also show that Papadopoulos’ reach and influence within the campaign was greater than previously known.
The FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow was not prompted by a dossier compiled by a former British spy, but by campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos boasting to a top Australian diplomat about Russia’s dirt on then Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, The New York Times reported Saturday.
The Times also obtained new emails which show Papadopoulos’ influence within the campaign and contacts with Russia-linked individuals was greater than previously known.
The bureau opened its Russia probe in July 2016. President Donald Trump and his allies have dismissed the investigation as a Democratic “witch hunt” spurred by the dossier, which was compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, and alleges a number of explosive Trump-Russia ties.
The dossier was originally funded by a group of Republicans opposed to Trump during the Republican primaries. After Trump became the party’s nominee, Democrats took over its funding. Though the document has not been fully verified, some of it has been corroborated and the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee are using it as a “roadmap” in their investigations.
But The Times report indicates that Papadopoulos, not the dossier, played a pivotal role in driving the FBI to investigate the campaign’s ties to Russia.
Papadopoulos is one of four individuals in Trump’s orbit who have so far been charged since special counsel Robert Mueller began overseeing the Russia probe in May, after Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in October to one count of making false statements to investigators about his contacts with Russians during a January 27 interview with the FBI.
Papadopoulos told the FBI at the time that his outreach to the Russia-linked foreign nationals occurred before he joined the campaign, according to the statement of offense. But his first interaction with an “overseas professor” with ties to high-level Russian officials occurred on March 14, 2016, weeks after he joined the campaign, the document said.
That professor, who was later revealed to be Maltese academic Joseph Mifsud, wasn’t open to engaging with Papadopoulos at first, but he became more interested after he learned Papadopoulos was working on the Trump campaign.
Mifsud and Papadopoulos stayed in touch and Mifsud connected the Trump campaign adviser with at least two Russia-linked individuals over the next few weeks: Olga Polonskaya, a wine company manager based in St. Petersburg, and Ivan Timofeev, a senior official in the Russian International Affairs Council.
Mifsud told Papadopoulos in April 2016, just over a month after their initial contact, that the Russians had information that would embarrass Hillary Clinton that came in the form of “thousands of emails,” the FBI document said.
The next day, Papadopoulos wrote in an email to campaign adviser Stephen Miller – who now serves as a senior policy adviser in the White House – that there were “interesting messages coming in from Moscow” but did not elaborate on what he had learned.
In May, Papadopoulos told Alexander Downer, Australia’s top diplomat to the UK, about Russia’s dirt on Clinton while they were drinking at a swanky bar in London, according to The Times.
Two months later, when the radical pro-transparency group WikiLeaks posted a trove of hacked Democratic National Committee emails online, Australian officials informed their American counterparts of Papadopoulos’ conversation with Downer, the Times reported. The FBI began scrutinizing the Trump campaign’s Russia ties that month.
Papadopoulos’ role appears larger than previously known
Though the White House has worked to distance itself and the Trump campaign from Papadopoulos since the charge against him was unsealed, details in the FBI document and previously undisclosed emails obtained by The Times paint a different picture of Papadopoulos’ role and influence within the operation.
According to the statement of offense, when the campaign’s newly formed foreign policy team met for the first time in March 2016, Papadopoulos said he was connected to people who could organize a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was serving as Alabama senator at the time, was at the meeting.
Sessions said initially that he did not disclose the conversation to Congress because he “did not recall.” Later, he amended his previous statement and said that he shot down Papadopoulos’ suggestion because of the aide’s inexperience and lack of foreign policy credentials.
Papadopoulos’ actions over the next few months during the 2016 campaign indicate that he was either unaware of Sessions’ warning or did not heed it.
Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to Timofeev, the Russian national with connections to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, via email on April 18, according to the FBI’s October filing. They had multiple conversations over the next few weeks to lay the groundwork for a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials.
Papadopoulos emailed then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in April saying he had received “a lot of calls over the past month” about how “Putin wants to host the Trump team when the time is right,” according to The Washington Post. He emailed Lewandowski and another campaign adviser, Sam Clovis, on May 4 to ask again about setting up a meeting.
“There are legal issues we need to mitigate, meeting with foreign officials as a private citizen,” Clovis replied.
A ‘much softer’ position toward Russia
Papadopoulos was also influential enough in the campaign to be tapped to edit an outline of Trump’s first foreign policy speech, which he gave on April 27, 2016.
“We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China,” Trump said at the time. He added that he wanted to ease tensions and see “improved relations with Russia,” and that “this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries.”
He also said that he wanted to “make a deal” that was not only beneficial to the US, but to Russia as well.
After the speech, Papadopoulos touched base with Timofeev and said the speech was “the signal to meet,” according to The Times.
Mifsud also agreed and said the address was “a statesman speech,” and Polonskaya wrote in an email obtained by The Times that she was glad Trump’s “position toward Russia is much softer than that of other candidates.”
On July 14, 2016, Papadopoulos emailed one of his foreign contacts and indicated a meeting had “been approved from our side.”
The meeting, Papadopoulos wrote, would be “for August or September in the UK (London) with me and my national chairman, and maybe one other foreign policy adviser and you, members of president putin’s office and the mfa to hold a day of consultations and to meet one another.”
Mifsud also reportedly told Papadopoulos he wanted to act as a campaign surrogate for Trump. According to The Times, Mifsud suggested in an email to Papadopoulos that he could pen op-eds as a “neutral” observer and attend Trump’s rallies with press credentials while also being briefed on the campaign’s inner workings.
Papadopoulos was arrested in July and his guilty plea suggests he is cooperating with investigators. Three other former campaign or administration officials have also been charged so far: former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former campaign adviser and Manafort associate Rick Gates, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty in October after being charged with 12 counts related to money laundering, tax fraud, and conspiracy against the US. Flynn pleaded guilty earlier this month to one count of lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russians and is likely cooperating with Mueller’s team.