WASHINGTON – George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy advisor of the Trump campaign, made an astonishing revelation to the highest Australian diplomat in Britain:
About three weeks earlier, one Mr. Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in order to try to harm her campaign.
It is not clear exactly how much Mr. Papadopoulos said that night at Kensington Wine Rooms with Australian Alexander Downer. But two months later, when democratic e-mails began appearing online, the Australian authorities forwarded information about Papadopoulos to their US counterparts, according to four current and former US and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the role of the government. Australians.
The hacking and revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were the factors that led the FBI to open an investigation in July 2016 about Russia's attempts to disrupt the elections and if any of the associates of President Trump conspired.
If Mr. Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. and is now a cooperating witness, was the unlikely match that sparked a fire that consumed the first year of the Trump administration, his saga is also a tale of the miniature Trump campaign. He was impetuous, boastful and under-qualified, but he exceeded expectations. And, like the campaign itself, it has turned out to be a tempting target for an operation of Russian influence.
While some of Mr. Trump's advisers have mocked him as an insignificant campaign volunteer or a "coffee boy" new documents show that he remained influential while at the table. along the countryside. Two months before the election, for example, he helped organize a meeting in New York between Mr. Trump and President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt.
The information that Mr. Papadopoulos gave to Australians responds to one of the persistent mysteries of the past year: What has so alarmed US officials to provoke the FBI to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign months before the presidential election?
This was not, as claimed by Mr. Trump and other politicians, a record compiled by a former British spy engaged by a rival campaign. Instead, it was first-hand information from one of America's closest intelligence allies.
Interviews and previously undisclosed documents show that Mr. Papadopoulos played a critical role in this drama. known. They add to an emerging portrait, gradually filled last year in revelations by federal investigators, journalists and lawmakers, Russians with government contacts trying to establish secret channels to various Trump campaign levels. The investigation, begun more than seven months ago by Robert S. Mueller III, cast a shadow over the first year of his tenure – even as he and his aides downplayed Russian efforts and falsely denied contacts from the campaign with the Russians
They also insisted that Mr. Papadopoulos was a low-level character. But spies frequently target peripheral gamers in order to gain insight and leverage.
F.B.I. In 2016, the authorities disagreed on the aggressive and public way to continue the investigation on Russia before the elections. But there was little debate about what seemed to be going on. John O. Brennan, who retired this year after four years as C.I.A. Director, told Congress in May that he had been concerned about the multiple contacts between Russian officials and Trump's advisers.
Russia, he said, had tried to "bribe" members of the Trump campaign
. "The signal to meet"
Papadopoulos, then 28-year-old Chicago ambitious, was working as an energy consultant in London when the Trump campaign, desperate to create a foreign policy team, l? appointed counselor in March 2016. His political experience was limited to two months after Ben Carson's presidential campaign prior to his collapse.
Mr. Papadopoulos had no experience on Russia's issues. But during his hiring interview with Sam Clovis, a senior campaign assistant, he saw an opening. He was informed that improving relations with Russia was one of Trump's main foreign policy goals, according to a testimony of Mr. Clovis
In March, Mr. Papadopoulos met Joseph Mifsud. , a Maltese professor at a now-defunct London academy who has had valuable contacts with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Mr. Mifsud showed little interest in Mr. Papadopoulos early
But when he discovered that he was a Trump campaign advisor, he was Is hooked on him, according to court records and emails obtained by The New York Times. Their common goal was to arrange a meeting between Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow, or between their respective assistants.
In response to questions, counsel for Mr. Papadopoulos refused to provide a statement.
Before the end of the month, Mr. Mifsud had arranged a meeting in a London cafe between Mr. Papadopoulos and Olga Polonskaya, a young woman from St. Petersburg whom he falsely described as a niece of M . Putin. Although Ms. Polonskaya told The Times in a text message that her English skills were poor, her e-mails to Mr. Papadopoulos were largely fluent. "We are all very excited about the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump," wrote Ms. Polonskaya in a message
Most importantly, Mr. Mifsud linked Mr. Papadopoulos to Ivan Timofeev, a program director. for the prestigious Valdai Discussion Club, a gathering of academics that meets annually with Mr Putin. The two men corresponded for months on how to connect the Russian government and the countryside. The archives suggest that Mr. Timofeev, who was described by Mr. Mueller's team as an intermediary of the Russian Foreign Ministry, discussed the issue with former head of the ministry, Igor S. Ivanov, who is widely regarded in the United States When Mr. Trump's foreign policy team met for the first time at the end of March in Washington, Mr. Papadopoulos said that He had contacts to arrange a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin. Mr. Trump listened carefully, but he was apparently referred to Jeff Sessions, then Senator from Alabama and head of the campaign's foreign policy team, according to meeting participants.
The sessions, now the Attorney General, did not first reveal this discussion in Congress, because, he said, he did not remember it. More recently, he said that he had rejected Mr. Papadopoulos' proposal, at least in part because he did not want anyone so hardcore represents the campaign on such a delicate issue .
If the campaign wanted Mr. Papadopoulos down, the previously undisclosed emails obtained by the Times show that he did not receive the message or did not succeed to hear it. He continued for months trying to arrange some sort of meeting with Russian representatives, keeping key campaign advisers aware of his efforts. Mr Clovis finally encouraged him and another foreign policy advisor to go to Moscow, but neither of them went because the campaign would not cover the cost.
Papadopoulos was confident enough to alter the outline of Mr. Trump's first foreign policy speech on April 27, an address in which the candidate stated that it was possible to improve relations with Russia. Mr. Papadopoulos reported this speech to his new contacts with Russia, telling Timofeev that it should be considered as "the signal of meeting".
"It's a speech of statesman," acknowledged Mr. Mifsud. Ms. Polonskaya wrote that she was happy that "Mr. Trump's position towards Russia is much sweeter" than that of the other candidates
Stephen Miller, then senior political advisor of the campaign and now a high councilor of the White House. , was anxious that Mr. Papadopoulos serve as a substitute, someone who could publish Mr. Trump's views on foreign policy without speaking officially for the campaign. But Mr. Papadopoulos's first public attempt was a disaster.
In an interview with The Times of London on May 4, 2016, Mr. Papadopoulos asked Prime Minister David Cameron to apologize to Mr. Trump for criticizing his remarks about Muslims as "stupid" and divisive . "Say sorry to Trump or risk a special relationship," Cameron said, heading the title. Clovis, co-chair of the national campaign, scolded Papadopoulos severely for failing to clear up his explosive comments with the campaign in advance.
Since then, Mr. Papadopoulos has been more cautious with the press – though he has never regained the full confidence of Mr. Clovis or several other campaigners
]. Mifsud proposed to Mr. Papadopoulos that he also serve as a substitute for the campaign. He could write editorials in the guise of a "neutral" observer, he wrote in an undisclosed email, and follow Mr. Trump to his rallies as an accredited journalist while receiving briefings from him. Inside the countryside
At the end of April, in a London hotel, Mr Mifsud told Mr Papadopoulos that he had just learned in Moscow from senior Russian officials that the Russians had "messed up" Mrs. Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails," according to court documents. Although Russian hackers extracted data from the National Democratic Committee's computers for months, this information was not yet public. Even the committee itself did not know it.
The question of whether Mr. Papadopoulos shared this information with anyone else during the campaign is one of many unanswered questions. He was mostly in touch with the email campaign. The day after Mr. Mifsud's revelation about hacked emails, he told Miller in an email only that he had "interesting messages from Moscow" about a possible trip. The emails obtained by The Times show no evidence that Mr. Papadopoulos discussed stolen messages with the campaign.
Shortly thereafter, however, he opened up to Mr. Downer, the Australian diplomat, his contacts with the Russians. It is not known if Mr. Downer fished this information in May 2016. The meeting at the bar was held because of a series of contacts, starting with a representative of the Israeli Embassy. who introduced Mr. Papadopoulos to another Australian diplomat in London.
It is also unclear why, after getting the information in May, the Australian government waited two months before transmitting it to the FBI In a statement, the US Embassy said: Australia in Washington refused to provide details of the meeting or to confirm that it occurred.
"In principle and practice, the Australian Government does not comment on issues relating to active investigations," the statement said. The F.B.I. refused to comment
Once the information that Mr. Papadopoulos had revealed to the Australian diplomat reached the FBI, the office opened an investigation that became one of his best kept secrets. Senior officers did not discuss this during the morning morning briefing, a classified framework where officials normally speak freely about highly sensitive operations.
In addition to Australian information, the investigation was also propelled by information from other friendly governments, including the British and the Dutch. A trip to Moscow by another advisor, Carter Page, also raised concerns at the F.B.I.
With so many strands arriving – about Mr. Papadopoulos, Mr. Page, the hackers and more – F.B.I. The agents debated the aggressive way of investigating Russia's relations with Russia, according to current and former officials familiar with the debate. The issuance of subpoenas or the interrogation of people, for example, could shatter the investigation in the last months of a presidential campaign
This could also give tips to the Russian government, which could try to cover its tracks. Some officials objected to such disruptive measures, especially since the F.B.I.
Others thought that the possibility of a compromised presidential campaign was so serious that it justified the most comprehensive and aggressive tactics. Even though the chances against a Trump presidency were long, these agents argued that it was prudent to take all precautions
This included the interrogation of Christopher Steele, the former spy who compiled the case alleging a large-scale Russian. conspiracy to elect Mr. Trump. A team of F.B.I. The agents traveled to Europe to interview Mr. Steele in early October 2016. Mr. Steele had shown some of his findings to an F.B.I. agent in Rome three months earlier, but this information was not part of the rationale for starting a counter-intelligence investigation, US officials said. and the Justice Department has decided to keep the investigation quiet, a decision that Democrats in particular have criticized. And the agents did not interview Mr. Papadopoulos before the end of January
He was barely at the center of Trump's campaign, but Mr. Papadopoulos continually found ways to make himself useful to Trump's senior advisers. In September 2016, as the UN General Assembly approached and rumors circulated that Clinton would meet with Egyptian President Sisi, Papadopoulos sent a message to Stephen K. Bannon, Executive Director. campaign, proposing to negotiate a similar meeting for Mr. Trump.
After days of planning discussions, the meeting was scheduled and Mr. Papadopoulos sent a list of discussion points to Mr. Bannon, according to people familiar with these interactions. Asked about his contacts with Mr. Papadopoulos, Mr. Bannon declined to comment.
Trump's improbable victory raised Mr. Papadopoulos' hopes that he could mount to a White House senior job. The electoral victory also sparked a business proposal from Sergei Millian, a naturalized US citizen born in Belarus. After contacting Mr. Papadopoulos unexpectedly during the summer of 2016, the two met in Manhattan several times
. Millian has boasted of his ties with Trump – bragging that the president's advisers said are overrated. He led an obscure organization called the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, some of whose board members and clients are hard to confirm. Congress is considering where it fits into the whirlwind of contacts with the Trump campaign, although he said he was unjustly monitored solely because of his support for Mr. Trump
. Millian proposed that he and Mr. Papadopoulos form an energy – related business that would be funded by Russian billionaires "who are not under sanctions" and who would "open all doors for us" to "n? whatever level up to the top. "
A billionaire, he said, wanted to explore the idea of opening a hotel at the Trump brand in Moscow. "I know the president will distance himself from the business, but his children might be interested," he writes.
Nothing came of his proposals, in part because Mr. Papadopoulos was hoping that Michael T. Flynn, then Mr. Trump's choice to be a national security advisor, could give him the portfolio of energy at the National Security Council.
The couple exchanged New Year's greetings in the last hours of 2016. "Happy New Year, sir," Mr. Papadopoulos writes:
"Thank you and even to you, George. Mr. Flynn responded, before a year that looked promising.
But 2017 did not go that way.In a few months, Mr. Flynn was fired, and the two men were accused of lying to the FBI and both became important witnesses in the investigation.Mr Papadopoulos had played a critical role in the start.
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