The warning that a former top Australian diplomat provided to the U.S. Embassy, which is said to have been the basis for the FBI to initiate its Trump-Russia investigation, was relayed to the United States without prior approval from Australia’s government, according to a new book.
Alexander Downer, the former Australian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, did not have permission from the Australian government when he alerted the U.S. Embassy in London in July 2016 about a conversation about Russian “dirt” that he had earlier that year with President Trump’s campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. The new claim was made by former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in his memoir, A Bigger Picture, according to excerpts from the Sydney Morning Herald.
It was this “friendly foreign government” information that was cited in summer 2016 as the justification for initiation of the Crossfire Hurricane counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and any connections with Russia, which was later wrapped into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Turnbull said Downer had no authority when he contacted U.S. diplomats in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign to raise the possibility of Russian election interference. Downer had previously sent a cable to Australia’s Foreign Ministry about his May 2016 discussion with Papadopoulos, but the U.S. wasn’t alerted until Downer took matters into his own hands and told U.S. diplomat Elizabeth Dibble about it, according to the book.
“Trump was endorsed as the Republican candidate on July 19, and that prompted Alexander to call on the U.S. charge d’affaires … and tell him about the Papadopoulos discussion,” Turnbull wrote. “He had no authority from Canberra [Australia’s capital] to do this, and the first we heard of it in Australia was when the FBI turned up in London and wanted to interview Downer.”
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in October 2017 to making false statements to the FBI about his discussions with mysterious Maltese academic Joseph Mifsud, whom he said informed him about possible Russian “dirt” on Clinton, and he spent two weeks behind bars. Mueller concluded the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election but did not establish any criminal conspiracy between Russia and Trump’s campaign.
Turnbull wrote, “We were very reluctant to get dragged into the middle of the US presidential election, but agreed to Downer being interviewed on the basis it was kept confidential and any information he provided was not circulated beyond the FBI.”
The former prime minister wrote that Joe Hockey, Australia’s ambassador to the U.S. at the time, ensured that Trump did not think Downer’s actions were part of an “anti-Trump conspiracy” by the Australian government.
“Fortunately sanity and the facts prevailed, but it provided an interesting frisson to our meetings at the White House in February 2018,” Turnbull wrote.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s lengthy report last year criticized the Justice Department and the FBI for at least 17 “significant errors and omissions” related to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and for the bureau’s reliance on British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s salacious and unverified dossier. Steele put his research together at the behest of the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee through the Perkins Coie law firm.
Last May, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation separately interviewed both Downer and Papadopoulos about their meeting.
Papadopoulos said, “I believe he was doing was spying on me,” and, “It’s as if I was there being interrogated and profiled by an intelligence officer — and that’s exactly what I left that meeting thinking.”
Papadopoulos also claimed Downer recorded him and denied telling Downer about any Russian “dirt” claims, though he acknowledged he did tell the Greek foreign minister about the alleged damaging information a couple weeks later.
“There’s nothing illegal about spreading rumors, okay?” Papadopoulos said. “So there’s no reason for me to be hiding it if I really did tell [Downer] that.”
Downer denied recording Papadopoulos.
“I wouldn’t as a diplomat record meetings that I had with people — that would be very unprofessional,” he said. Downer said the meeting was “was perfectly friendly” and “there was nothing untoward about it at all.” Downer added that “in the imaginary land that people on the Twittersphere live in, there are suggestions that we were all rolling drunk or that I had very cunningly got Papadopoulos drunk — impossible.”
Downer also quipped that “this sort of idea that there is a kind of a ASIS-ASIO-MI6-MI5-FBI-CIA-Ukrainian Government conspiracy to bring down the Trump administration, that this is treason, that I should be in Guantanamo Bay … I mean, it’s a little bit sad that people take that kind of thought seriously.”
Papadopoulos tweeted in April that “Alexander Downer and the Australian government were willfully trying to sabotage the campaign and spy on me. I reported Downer to the FBI, Mueller and Congress. His bizarre recording of me was so overt I almost laughed.”
Declassified documents, released last week, show Trump-Russia collusion denials Papadopoulos provided to multiple FBI confidential human sources were never relayed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as the FBI sought warrants to wiretap Page.
Under the supervision of Attorney General William Barr, U.S. Attorney John Durham is investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. Durham’s inquiry expanded from an administrative review to a criminal investigation last year, allowing his team the power to impanel a grand jury and hand down indictments.
While in London last year, Durham reportedly viewed the cable Downer sent to Canberra in May 2016. He interviewed another Australian diplomat in London, Erika Thompson, who arranged and attended Downer’s meeting with Papadopoulos.
Downer also met with Durham’s team in London and is said to have told investigators he was not part of a conspiratorial plot to undermine Trump.
Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham released an October 2019 letter he sent to Australia’s leaders, asking for their “continued cooperation” in the Barr-Durham inquiry and claiming, among other things, that Downer had been “directed to contact Papadopoulos” and “relay” the information obtained from him to the FBI.