Downer ‘to blame’ for Russia probe into Trump
Information handed by Australia's UK ambassador Alexander Downer to the FBI prompted the Russia probe into US President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign, according to a new independent report from the US Justice Department.
The report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz also reveals for the first time the concerns Mr Downer conveyed to authorities after an encounter with Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos.
When the pair met for a drink in London in May 2016, Mr Trump was yet to secure the Republican nomination and Mr Papadopoulos boasted that he knew Russia had damaging information about Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton.
Mr Downer's interaction with Mr Papadopoulos and the fact that he communicated his concerns about him have already been reported, but the Horowitz report for the first time confirms how influential Australia's input into domestic US politics was, describing it as the "tipping point".
Mr Downer is not named in the Horowitz report, but News Corp Australia can reveal he is the official referred to as FFG - or a Friendly Foreign Government representative.
"The FBI opened Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, 2016, just days after its receipt of information from a Friendly Foreign Government (FFG) reporting that, in May 2016, during a meeting with the FFG, then Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos 'suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama)," the report states.
"The FBI Electronic Communication (EC) opening the Crossfire Hurricane investigation stated that, based on the FFG information, 'this investigation is being opened to determine whether individual(s) associated with the Trump campaign are witting of and/or co-ordinating activities with the Government of Russia'."
Mr Downer had shared his disquiet over the conversation with Mr Papadopoulos with Canberra through usual diplomatic channels in May, but with the caveat that the source was someone who was possibly not to be taken seriously, according to a government source.
The Australian government did not pass the information to US authorities.
But when Wikileaks continued publishing private emails from Mrs Clinton, Mr Downer had a "holy cow!" moment in July, where he realised that the encounter may have been significant, according to the source.
He then approached the US embassy in London and gave them the information that Mr Papadopolous shared with him and another diplomat at the Kensington Wine Bar on May 10.
"From July 28 to July 31, officials at FBI Headquarters discussed the FFG information and whether it warranted opening a counterintelligence investigation," the Horowitz report says.
Andrew McCabe, who was then FBI Deputy Director, told investigators "the decision to open the case was unanimous".
"McCabe said the FBI viewed the FFG information in the context of Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections in the years and months prior, as well as the FBI's ongoing investigation into the DNC hack by a Russian Intelligence Service (RIS)," the report says.
"He also said that when the FBI received the FFG information it was a "tipping point" in terms of opening a counterintelligence investigation regarding Russia's attempts to influence and interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections because not only was there information that Russia was targeting U.S. political institutions, but now the FBI had received an allegation from a trusted partner that there had been some sort of contact between the Russians and the Trump campaign."
Within days, Mr Downer was interviewed by FBI agent Peter Strozk, a former deputy assistant director of the agency who travelled to London on August 2.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is understood to have been aware of the report ahead of its release and the Australian government co-operated with US authorities.
Mr Downer's direct interaction with the FBI was counter to usual diplomatic procedure, with a government official confirming the FBI's official channel of communication should have been through the Australian Federal Police.
The Australian government agreed to the release of Mr Downer's full cable at the request of Mr Trump.
The long-awaited Horowitz report is the widest ranging examination yet into what prompted the FBI probe of Mr Trump, which was to become the basis of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's two year investigation.
Mr Trump denied colluding with Russia to influence the 2016 election and the Mueller report concluded in April that neither he nor any member of his campaign had done so.
The President had repeatedly slammed the investigation as a politically motivated "witch hunt", however Monday's report concluded that there was no evidence the Russia probe was biased. It did however find that there had been some errors in early paperwork.
The initial revelation of Australia's involvement in the probe's inception came at a perilous time for its relationship with the US and is understood to have impacted the disastrous first phone conversation between the newly elected president and his counterpart, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Mr Trump hung up on the January 27 call to Mr Turnbull, in part out of frustration at a refugee swap arranged by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
"Putin was a pleasant call," Mr Trump told Mr Turnbull in the call before ending it, according to a transcript that was leaked to the Washington Post.
"This is ridiculous."
Mr Downer has previously spoken of his meeting Mr Papadopoulos, who has since been a vocal critic of the former ambassador and accused him without basis him of colluding with Australian, UK and US intelligence agencies to target him.
He also claimed without foundation that Mr Downer had "bugged" his meeting with him, a claim which was disproved in Monday's report.
"We had a drink and he (Papadopoulos) talked about what Trump's foreign policy would be like if Trump won the election," Mr Downer told The Australian last year.
"He (Trump) hadn't got the nomination at that stage. During that conversation he (Papadopoulos) mentioned the Russians might use material that they have on Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the election, which may be damaging.''
Mr Downer said the information "was worth reporting", but "wasn't the only thing we reported. We reported (back to Australia) the following day or a day or two after … it seemed quite interesting.''
Mr Papadopoulos described himself as a senior aide to the Trump campaign, but has since served jail time after pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his own dealings with Russia.