Politics & Government

Loose lips and blind ambition: Unlikely source propelled Russian meddling inquiry

A monitor shows Attorney General Jeff Sessions meeting with members of the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, Nov. 14, 2017. Sessions, who was head of the foreign policy team during Donald Trump’s campaign for president, has asserted he pushed back against a proposal by George Papadopoulos to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A monitor shows Attorney General Jeff Sessions meeting with members of the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, Nov. 14, 2017. Sessions, who was head of the foreign policy team during Donald Trump’s campaign for president, has asserted he pushed back against a proposal by George Papadopoulos to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The New York Times

During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

About three weeks earlier, Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign.

Exactly how much Papadopoulos said that night at the Kensington Wine Rooms with the Australian, Alexander Downer, is unclear. But two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Papadopoulos to their U.S. counterparts, according to four current and former U.S. and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.

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 Donald Trump’s associates conspired.

If Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now a cooperating witness, was the improbable match that set off a blaze that has consumed the first year of the Trump administration, his saga is also a tale of the Trump campaign in miniature. He was brash, boastful and underqualified, yet he exceeded expectations. And, like the campaign itself, he proved to be a tantalizing target for a Russian influence operation.

While some of Trump’s advisers have derided him as an insignificant campaign volunteer or a “coffee boy,” interviews and new documents show that he stayed influential throughout the campaign. Two months before the election, for instance, he helped arrange a New York meeting between Trump and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt.

The information that Papadopoulos gave to the Australians answers one of the lingering mysteries of the past year: What so alarmed U.S. officials to provoke the FBI to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign months before the presidential election?

It was not, as Trump and other politicians have alleged, a dossier compiled by a former British spy hired by a rival campaign. Instead, it was firsthand information from one of the United States’ closest intelligence allies.

Interviews and previously undisclosed documents show that Papadopoulos played a critical role in this drama and reveal a Russian operation that was more aggressive and widespread than previously known. They add to an emerging portrait, gradually filled in over the past year in revelations by federal investigators, journalists and lawmakers, of Russians with government contacts trying to establish secret channels at various levels of the Trump campaign.

The FBI investigation, which was taken over seven months ago by special counsel Robert Mueller, has cast a shadow over Trump’s first year in office – even as he and his aides repeatedly played down the Russian efforts and falsely denied campaign contacts with Russians.

They have also insisted that Papadopoulos was a low-level figure. But spies frequently target peripheral players as a way to gain insight and leverage.

FBI officials disagreed in 2016 about how aggressively and publicly to pursue the Russia inquiry before the election. But there was little debate about what seemed to be afoot. John O. Brennan, who retired this year after four years as CIA director, told Congress in May that he had been concerned about multiple contacts between Russian officials and Trump advisers.

Russia, he said, had tried to “suborn” members of the Trump campaign.

Trump-Russia Probe
Australian High Commissioner Alexander Downer speaks to guests during a welcome party at the Australian High Commission in London. Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told the diplomat, Downer, during a meeting in London in May 2016 that Russia had thousands of emails that would embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the report said. Downer, a former foreign minister, is Australia’s top diplomat in Britain. Australia passed the information on to the FBI after the Democratic emails were leaked, according to The Times, which cited four current and former U.S. and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australian’s role. Alastair Grant AP file, 2015

‘The Signal to Meet'

Papadopoulos, then an ambitious 28-year-old from Chicago, was working as an energy consultant in London when the Trump campaign, desperate to create a foreign policy team, named him as an adviser in early March 2016. His political experience was limited to two months on Ben Carson’s presidential campaign before it collapsed.

Papadopoulos had no experience on Russia issues. But during his job interview with Sam Clovis, a top early campaign aide, he saw an opening. He was told that improving relations with Russia was one of Trump’s top foreign policy goals, according to court papers, an account Clovis has denied.

Traveling in Italy that March, Papadopoulos met Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor at a now-defunct London academy who had valuable contacts with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mifsud showed little interest in Papadopoulos at first.

But when he found out he was a Trump campaign adviser, he latched onto him, according to court records and emails obtained by The New York Times. Their joint goal was to arrange a meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Moscow, or between their respective aides.

In response to questions, Papadopoulos’ lawyers declined to provide a statement.

Before the end of the month, Mifsud had arranged a meeting at a London cafe between Papadopoulos and Olga Polonskaya, a young woman from St. Petersburg whom he falsely described as Putin’s niece. Although Polonskaya told The Times in a text message that her English skills are poor, her emails to Papadopoulos were largely fluent. “We are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Polonskaya wrote in one message.

More important, Mifsud connected Papadopoulos to Ivan Timofeev, a program director for the prestigious Valdai Discussion Club, a gathering of academics that meets annually with Putin. The two men corresponded for months about how to connect the Russian government and the campaign. Records suggest that Timofeev, who has been described by Mueller’s team as an intermediary for the Russian Foreign Ministry, discussed the matter with the ministry’s former leader, Igor Ivanov, who is widely viewed in the United States as one of Russia’s elder statesmen.

When Trump’s foreign policy team gathered for the first time at the end of March in Washington, Papadopoulos said he had the contacts to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin. Trump listened intently but apparently deferred to Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama and head of the campaign’s foreign policy team, according to participants in the meeting.

Sessions, now attorney general, initially did not reveal that discussion to Congress, because, he has said, he did not recall it. More recently, he said he pushed back against Papadopoulos’ proposal, at least partly because he did not want someone so unqualified to represent the campaign on such a sensitive matter.

If the campaign wanted Papadopoulos to stand down, previously undisclosed emails obtained by The Times show that he either did not get the message or failed to heed it. He continued for months to try to arrange some kind of meeting with Russian representatives, keeping senior campaign advisers abreast of his efforts. Clovis ultimately encouraged him and another foreign policy adviser to travel to Moscow, but neither went because the campaign would not cover the cost.

Papadopoulos was trusted enough to edit the outline of Trump’s first major foreign policy speech on April 27, an address in which the candidate said it was possible to improve relations with Russia. Papadopoulos flagged the speech to his newfound Russia contacts, telling Timofeev that it should be taken as “the signal to meet.”

“That is a statesman speech,” Mifsud agreed. Polonskaya wrote that she was pleased that Trump’s “position toward Russia is much softer” than that of other candidates.

Stephen Miller, then a senior policy adviser to the campaign and now a top White House aide, was eager for Papadopoulos to serve as a surrogate, someone who could publicize Trump’s foreign policy views without officially speaking for the campaign. But Papadopoulos’ first public attempt to do so was a disaster.

In a May 4, 2016, interview with The Times of London, Papadopoulos called on Prime Minister David Cameron to apologize to Trump for criticizing his remarks on Muslims as “stupid” and divisive. “Say sorry to Trump or risk special relationship, Cameron told,” the headline read. Clovis, national campaign co-chairman, severely reprimanded Papadopoulos for failing to clear his explosive comments with the campaign in advance.

From then on, Papadopoulos was more careful with the press – though he never regained the full trust of Clovis or several other campaign officials.

Mifsud proposed to Papadopoulos that he, too, serve as a campaign surrogate. He could write op-eds under the guise of a “neutral” observer, he wrote in a previously undisclosed email, and follow Trump to his rallies as an accredited journalist while receiving briefings from the inside the campaign.

In late April, at a London hotel, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that he had just learned from high-level Russian officials in Moscow that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” according to court documents. Although Russian hackers had been mining data from the Democratic National Committee’s computers for months, that information was not yet public. Even the committee itself did not know.

Whether Papadopoulos shared that information with anyone else in the campaign is one of many unanswered questions. He was mostly in contact with the campaign over emails. The day after Mifsud’s revelation about the hacked emails, he told Miller in an email only that he had “interesting messages coming in from Moscow” about a possible trip. The emails obtained by The Times show no evidence that Papadopoulos discussed the stolen messages with the campaign.

Not long after, however, he opened up to Downer, the Australian diplomat, about his contacts with the Russians. It is unclear whether Downer was fishing for that information that night in May 2016. The meeting at the bar came about because of a series of connections, beginning with an Israeli Embassy official who introduced Papadopoulos to another Australian diplomat in London.

It is also not clear why, after getting the information in May, the Australian government waited two months to pass it to the FBI. In a statement, the Australian Embassy in Washington declined to provide details about the meeting or confirm that it occurred.

“As a matter of principle and practice, the Australian government does not comment on matters relevant to active investigations,” the statement said. The FBI declined to comment.

A Secretive Investigation

Once the information Papadopoulos had disclosed to the Australian diplomat reached the FBI, the bureau opened an investigation that became one of its most closely guarded secrets. Senior agents did not discuss it at the daily morning briefing, a classified setting where officials normally speak freely about highly sensitive operations.

Besides the information from the Australians, the investigation was also propelled by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch. A trip to Moscow by another adviser, Carter Page, also raised concerns at the FBI.

With so many strands coming in – about Papadopoulos, Page, the hackers and more – FBI agents debated how aggressively to investigate the campaign’s Russia ties, according to current and former officials familiar with the debate. Issuing subpoenas or questioning people, for example, could cause the investigation to burst into public view in the final months of a presidential campaign.

It could also tip off the Russian government, which might try to cover its tracks. Some officials argued against taking such disruptive steps, especially since the FBI would not be able to unravel the case before the election.

Others believed that the possibility of a compromised presidential campaign was so serious that it warranted the most thorough, aggressive tactics. Even if the odds against a Trump presidency were long, these agents argued, it was prudent to take every precaution.

That included questioning Christopher Steele, the former British spy who was compiling the dossier alleging a far-ranging Russian conspiracy to elect Trump. A team of FBI agents traveled to Europe to interview Steele in early October 2016. Steele had shown some of his findings to an FBI agent in Rome three months earlier, but that information was not part of the justification to start an counterintelligence inquiry, U.S. officials said.

Ultimately, the FBI and Justice Department decided to keep the investigation quiet, a decision that Democrats in particular have criticized. And agents did not interview Papadopoulos until late January.

Opening Doors, to the Top

He was hardly central to the daily running of the Trump campaign, yet Papadopoulos continuously found ways to make himself useful to senior Trump advisers. In September 2016, with the U.N. General Assembly approaching and stories circulating that Clinton was going to meet with el-Sissi, the Egyptian president, Papadopoulos sent a message to Stephen Bannon, the campaign’s chief executive, offering to broker a similar meeting for Trump.

After days of scheduling discussions, the meeting was set and Papadopoulos sent a list of talking points to Bannon, according to people familiar with those interactions. Asked about his contacts with Papadopoulos, Bannon declined to comment.

Trump’s improbable victory raised Papadopoulos’ hopes that he might ascend to a top White House job. The election win also prompted a business proposal from Sergei Millian, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Belarus. After he had contacted Papadopoulos out of the blue over LinkedIn during the summer of 2016, the two met repeatedly in Manhattan.

Millian has bragged of his ties to Trump – boasts that the president’s advisers have said are overstated. He headed an obscure organization called the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, some of whose board members and clients are difficult to confirm. Congress is investigating where he fits into the swirl of contacts with the Trump campaign, although he has said he is unfairly being scrutinized only because of his support for Trump.

Millian proposed that he and Papadopoulos form an energy-related business that would be financed by Russian billionaires “who are not under sanctions” and would “open all doors for us” at “any level all the way to the top.”

One billionaire, he said, wanted to explore the idea of opening a Trump-branded hotel in Moscow. “I know the president will distance himself from business, but his children might be interested,” he wrote.

Nothing came of his proposals, partly because Papadopoulos was hoping that Michael Flynn, then Trump’s pick to be national security adviser, might give him the energy portfolio at the National Security Council.

The pair exchanged New Year’s greetings in the final hours of 2016. “Happy New Year, sir,” Papadopoulos wrote.

“Thank you and same to you, George. Happy New Year!” Flynn responded, before a year that seemed to hold great promise.

But 2017 did not unfold that way. Within months, Flynn was fired, and both men were charged with lying to the FBI. And both became important witnesses in the investigation Papadopoulos had played a critical role in starting.