What a shame. Just as the Trump troops had finally come up with what they thought was a put-away shot of the Russia investigation (or at least a nice shiny distraction) with their "Clinton's phony dossier started it all" plot, the damn thing blew up in their face. And during Christmas week too.
In case you haven't heard, the New York Times reported on Saturday that Trump's former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, the guy who copped a plea in exchange for cooperation with Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, got drunk in a London bar in May of 2016 and spilled to the Australian High Commissioner to Britain, Alexander Downer, that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
That would have been less than a month after Papadopoulos first heard that Russia had emails that would embarrass the former secretary of state from Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor with contacts in the Russian ministry of foreign affairs. And it was months before the release of the DNC emails in July, which evidently prompted the Aussies to alert the FBI about Papadopoulos' loose-lipped blather. It was then that the U.S. government opened a formal investigation into just what in the hell was going on with the Trump campaign and Moscow:
It was not, as Mr. 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 America’s closest intelligence allies.
Interviews and previously undisclosed documents show that Mr. 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.
It's interesting that we now know firmly when the FBI opened its investigation, and the story about how this tied the government up in knots -- not knowing quite how to deal with a counterintelligence case that potentially implicated the Republican presidential nominee -- is fascinating. But this was actually a last straw rather than a single hot tip. It may have been the first time the FBI heard from a credible source that Papadopoulos knew about the Russian theft of Clinton emails before it became public, but there had been a cascade of information coming from many different allied governments for months to the effect that the Russians had an "active measures" campaign going.
Last March the Guardian reported that the British spy agency GCHQ was aware of suspicious "interactions" between Trump-affiliated people and suspected Russian agents, information which they had passed on to the U.S. And they were not the only ones:
The European countries that passed on electronic intelligence – known as sigint – included Germany, Estonia and Poland. Australia, a member of the “Five Eyes” spying alliance that also includes the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, also relayed material, one source said. Another source suggested the Dutch and the French spy agency, the General Directorate for External Security or DGSE, were contributors.
This was all talk that was picked up as part of routine spying. These allied agencies found it odd that the Americans were so slow to act. But it's not hard to see why U.S. intelligence services would be reluctant to go there. A presidential candidate conspiring with a foreign adversary to win an election is unprecedented: It was the hottest of hot potatoes.
It appears, however, that when this news arrived that Trump's foreign policy adviser was drunkenly confessing to high-level diplomats that he knew the Russians were compiling dirt on Hillary Clinton -- apparently for Trump's benefit -- the intelligence agencies decided they had to take it seriously. We know what happened next.
The Obama administration took the information to the congressional leadership and asked for a bipartisan show of support for alerting the public, along with state and local election officials. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shut down the request, telling the president and the intelligence community that "he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics." In fairness, then-FBI Director James Comey was also reluctant to go public with the information, explaining later that it would be wrong to do so close to an election. (Well, unless it had to do with some Clinton emails, in which case he had no choice.)
In any case now we know what made the intelligence community rub the sleep from its eyes and realize that something serious was happening. Papadoupoulos, who Trump defenders have insisted was a minor player in the campaign, appears to have been a bigger role than we'd been led to believe. The Times story doesn't fully explain how the man the Trump defenders call the "coffee boy" happened to share a drunken evening with the Australian high commissioner, beyond saying it came about through connections with the Israeli embassy in London. Even though the Trump campaign has insisted that they reined the kid in, he was evidently active in the highest reaches of the campaign as late as September, when he arranged a meeting between Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The coffee boy must have made an amazing espresso; he traveled in some important circles.
The Times says it has no evidence that Papadopoulos said anything to his bosses in the Trump campaign about the stolen Clinton emails he was drunkenly blabbing about to Australian diplomats, well before anyone even knew they'd been stolen. The Trump people insist he never said a thing about it. That's about as believable as the idea that 3 million undocumented immigrants gave Clinton the popular vote in 2016. Remember, Papadopoulos is cooperating. What he knows, Bob Mueller knows. Soon enough we'll know too.