A report by the New York Times published Saturday provides new insight into the investigation of potential collusion between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russian officials, and the role of George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the campaign who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with individuals who had ties to the Russian government.
The Times—citing interviews and recently obtained documents—reveals that the FBI's probe reportedly was not prompted by the dossier compiled by a former British spy, as Trump and others have alleged, but rather because in May of 2016 Papadopoulos drunkenly bragged to Alexander Downer, an Australian diplomat based in Britian, that "Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton," in the form of thousands of stolen emails.
"The information that Mr. Papadopoulos gave to the Australians, answers one of the lingering mysteries of the past year: What so alarmed American officials to provoke the F.B.I. to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign months before the presidential election?" the Times reports. "It was firsthand information from one of America's closest intelligence allies."
"Australian officials passed the information about Mr. Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, according to four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians' role," the Times explains—albeit, two months after receiving the tip. Still, the Times concludes, "the hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the FBI to open an investigation in July 2016 into Russia's attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump's associates conspired."
What remains unclear from the Times report is why the Australians waited two months to alert the FBI (the Australian Embassy in D.C. declined to comment) and whether Papadopoulos alerted other members of the Trump campaign when he was told that Russians were in possession of "thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton." While the documents obtained by the Times "show no evidence that Mr. Papadopoulos discussed the stolen messages with the campaign," the paper points out that it was mere weeks before "he opened up to Mr. Downer, the Australian diplomat, about his contacts with the Russians."
After news broke earlier this year that Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was reportedly cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is now leading the investigation into allegations of collusion, the president and those around him tried to downplay the influence of the former foreign policy adviser, with Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo even dismissing him as a "coffee boy."
"He was hardly central to the daily running of the Trump campaign, yet Mr. Papadopoulos continuously found ways to make himself useful to senior Trump advisers," and "interviews and new documents show that he stayed influential throughout the campaign," the Times notes. "Two months before the election, for instance, he helped arrange a New York meeting between Mr. Trump and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt."
So far, Mueller has charged four former Trump officials, including Papadopoulos: in October, Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates were indicted on federal charges that were uncovered as part of the probe but are unrelated to collusion (they've pleaded not guilty to all charges); however, at the beginning of December, Trump's former national security adviser Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The Times report comes amid mounting concerns that Trump may fire Mueller as the investigation intensifies, even as the White House continues to deny any plans to do so. Earlier this week, Trump said he had an"absolute right" to do what he wants with the Justice Department, which critics characterized as a "veiled threat" against the special counsel. The American public has promised mass protests if the president dismisses Mueller before the probe concludes, and continues to closely follow the story—which this week NPR readers selected as the top political story of 2017.
Foreign policy analysts, legal experts, and reporters flooded social media with takeaways from the Times report on Saturday. Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, tweeted: "it will be hard for the Trump team to continue to portray Papadopoulos as a low-level volunteer who had limited access. But given that he's on Mueller's team, they will continue to do so."
Many commenters expressed the belief that there is "NO WAY" Papadopoulos declined to alert his colleagues at the Trump campaign that Russians had dirt on his opponent:
It is difficult to believe that Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that Russia had dirt on Clinton but didn’t mention anything to the campaign he was part of.— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) December 30, 2017
There is NO WAY Papadopoulos didn't tell the Trump campaign that the Russians were in possession of Hillary's emails. He lived to prove his relevance.— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) December 30, 2017
And we’re to believe that Papadopoulos was impressed enough by news of the stolen emails to tell a top Australian diplomat but not report it to his own campaign bosses? Please. Trump campaign knew about Russia, failed to report it to the FBI, THEN Don Jr met with the Russians! https://t.co/1ZuivqwtcX— John Aravosis (@aravosis) December 30, 2017
"The White House should be scared," Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) concluded:
Important story below. Keep in mind no one was really aware of George Papadopoulos until his guilty plea was revealed. That tells us Special Counsel Mueller knows far more than people think. And Papadopoulos is cooperating with Mueller. The White House should be scared. https://t.co/q4pDlxpRES— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) December 30, 2017