The New York Times published an article over the weekend laying out a new original story for the FBI’s investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with the Russian government.
The infamous Steele dossier was not the catalyst for the investigation, according to four unnamed government officials who spoke to The Times. Rather, a drunken barroom conversation that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had with an Australian diplomat in London in May 2016 was what led to the FBI probe.
Democrats and liberal pundits touted the story, which they said showed that Republicans have been overly focused on the dossier’s significance to the Russia investigation.
But some congressional Republicans, conservative pundits and a former Trump campaign adviser who has been interviewed extensively by Russia investigators aren’t buying the new spin.
They assert that there is still ample evidence that the FBI relied on the dossier for its investigation. They also question why, after the FBI/DOJ have dodged questions about the dossier for nearly a year, U.S. government officials have just now started leaking information that downplays the document’s significance to the Russia inquiry.
“It’s too convenient,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, told The Daily Caller of the Times’ article.
“The Democrats touted the Steele dossier’s conspiracy theories all year. But now, with the dossier’s credibility in tatters, they’re suddenly claiming that it was a totally irrelevant document all along,” another source familiar with the congressional Russia investigations told TheDC.
According to The Times’ report, the Russia investigation began at the end of July 2016 after the FBI was told by the Australian government about a conversation that Papadopoulos had two months earlier with Alexander Downer, Australia’s top diplomat to the United Kingdom.
Papadopoulos, an energy consultant who joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, has told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors that he was informed in April 2016 by a London-based professor named Joseph Mifsud that the Russian government had obtained “thousands” of Clinton-related emails.
The timing of the claim is significant because it would have been before it was publicly revealed that the Russian government hacked into Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account. It remains unclear whether Papadopoulos told anyone on the Trump campaign about Mifsud’s claim, much less whether the Trump campaign acted on the information.
Mifsud has some links to Russian government officials, but the full extent of those relationships remains a mystery.
Perhaps the most scathing takedown of the Times report comes from Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who writes for National Review.
McCarthy notes that the Times had already previously identified a spark for the Russia investigation: former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The Times reported on April 20, 2017 that a trip that Page made to Moscow in July 2016 was “a catalyst for the F.B.I. investigation into connections between Russia and President Trump’s campaign.”
The Steele dossier alleges that during that trip, Page met secretly with two Kremlin insiders and that he also served as the Trump campaign’s liaison to the Kremlin. Page has vehemently denied the allegation. He has also said he had very little interaction with Papadopoulos during the campaign.
The FBI and Justice Department were so concerned by Page’s involvement in the campaign that they obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant against him in Sept. 2016.
But McCarthy points out that there has been no suggestion that a similar surveillance warrant was obtained for Papadopoulos. If the FBI and Justice Department were “so alarmed” by Papadopoulos’ conversation with Downer, why did they not obtain a FISA warrant against him, McCarthy wonders in his article.
McCarthy also questions why, if Papadopoulos was central to the FBI investigation, he remained unidentified for so long in press reports.
“If Papadopoulos had really been the impetus for the investigation way back in July 2016, what are the chances that we would never have heard his name mentioned until after his guilty plea was announced 15 months later?” asks McCarthy.
Jordan, the House Judiciary Committee Republican, echoed that point.
“When they’re leaking about the dossier and Carter Page back in the spring, where was this then?” he asked, referring to leaks from U.S. government officials.
One Trump campaign adviser who has been interviewed extensively by Russia investigators is also questioning the new Papadopoulos-centered narrative.
“Investigators were far more interested in Carter Page and his July 2016 trip to Moscow than anything George Papadopoulos ever did or said,” the adviser told TheDC.
“The NYT is grasping at straws, desperately trying to change the narrative away from the discredited Steele dossier and crumbling Trump-Russia collusion allegations,” continued the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigations.
The Times article comes as several congressional panels have ramped up pressure on the FBI and DOJ to produce documents and witnesses that could help shed light on the dossier’s role in the Russia probe.
The House Intelligence and House Judiciary Committees have recently issued or threatened to issue subpoenas that would force agency officials to testify about the dossier.
The agencies’ recalcitrance to comply has led to allegations of “stonewalling” from some Republican lawmakers, including House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes.
As the agencies have withheld information from Congress, Democrats have sought to downplay the dossier’s importance to the allegations of Trump campaign collusion. That despite an early rush by Democrats to tie the collusion allegations to the Steele report.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, quoted the dossier’s allegations at length during a March 20, 2017 hearing with then-FBI Director James Comey.
Papadopoulos was a virtual unknown until several months ago, when The Washington Post reported that he had sent at least six emails to other Trump campaign advisers proposing meetings between Trump or campaign officials and Russian government officials, including Vladimir Putin.
Those emails suggested that Papadopoulos’ requests were largely rebuffed from others on the Trump campaign, including then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
After that spate of reports, Papadopoulos was largely out of the news until the end of October, when it was revealed that he pleaded guilty on Oct. 5 to lying to the FBI during interviews he gave in January and February 2017.
Mueller released documents showing that Papadopoulos had been arrested at the end of July 2017 and had been cooperating with prosecutors in the collusion investigation.