NYT Does Not Have the Smoking Gun on Trump Campaign Email Knowledge

The NYT had a complex story today, reporting three things:

  1. The counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign followed from a drunken conversation George Papadopoulos had in May 2016 with Aussie Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Downer
  2. Papadopoulos was more influential than Trump’s team has made out
  3. Papadopoulos pitched an April 2016 Trump foreign policy speech as a signal to Russia that Trump would be willing to meet

It’s the first detail that has attracted all the attention. NYT reported it this way:

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

Exactly how much Mr. 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 Mr. Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, according to four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.


Not long after, however, he opened up to Mr. Downer, the Australian diplomat, about his contacts with the Russians. It is unclear whether Mr. 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 Mr. 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 F.B.I. In a statement, the Australian Embassy in Washington declined to provide details about the meeting or confirm that it occurred.

NYT’s story does pose a good question: why the Australians didn’t tell the US about this conversation until July, after Wikileaks started releasing DNC emails.

But the few GOPers who have responded to this news raise another question: did the Aussies even know what emails Papadopoulos was talking about?

As I noted in October, we actually don’t know what emails Joseph Misfud was talking about when he told Papadopoulos the Russians had dirt on Hillary. Trumpsters are now suggesting these emails might be those Guccifer 1.0 stole from Hillary, but they could be a range of other emails.

This story would be far more damning if the NYT knew for sure that the emails were ones freshly stolen from DNC, John Podesta, or the Hillary campaign itself, but they don’t.

The uncertainty about what emails Papadopoulos learned about — and revealed to Downer — might explain why the Aussies didn’t tell the US right away. If the Australians didn’t know what emails the Russians had, it might explain their lack of urgency. If the emails were known Guccifer 1.0 emails, it wouldn’t be news. But it doesn’t explain why the Aussies didn’t tell the US in June, when Guccifer 2.0 started releasing documents, but instead waited until their own citizen, Julian Assange, started releasing some on July 22.

All this could be a lot more easily explained if we knew the one detail the NYT admits it didn’t confirm: whether and when Papadopoulos told the campaign that the Russians had emails (and whether he knew which emails the Russians had).

In late April, at a London hotel, Mr. Mifsud told Mr. Papadopoulos that he had just learned from high-level Russian officials in Moscow that the Russians had “dirt” on Mrs. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Mifsud’s revelation about the hacked emails, he told Mr. [Stephen] 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 Mr. Papadopoulos discussed the stolen messages with the campaign.

NYT makes clear Papadopoulos (who was, after all, remote and traveling a lot) primarily communicated via emails. But the emails they obtained (but didn’t share) don’t include any evidence of him telling the campaign about the emails (much less which ones they were).

Which brings us to a point I made in November: when the FBI arrested Papadopoulos in July, they believed he lied to hide whether he told the campaign about the emails, but they de-emphasized that detail in the October plea deal.

[T]he description of the false statements makes the import of them far more clear (import that the Special Counsel seems to want to obscure for now). Papadopoulos lied about the circumstances of his conversations with Mifsud — the FBI appears to have believed when they arrested him in July — as part of a story to explain why, after having heard about dirt in the form of thousands of emails from Hillary, he didn’t tell anyone else on the campaign about them. Laid out like this, it’s clear Papadopoulos was trying to hide both when he learned about the emails (just three days before the DNC did, as it turns out, not much earlier as he seems to have suggested in January), but also how important he took those emails to be (which in his false story, he tied to to a false story about how credible he found Mifsud to be).

FBI found those lies to be significant enough to arrest him over because they obscured whether he had told anyone on the campaign that the Russians had dirt in the form of Hillary emails.

To be sure, nothing in any of the documents released so far answer the questions that Papadopoulos surely spent two months explaining to the FBI: whether he told the campaign (almost certainly yes, or he wouldn’t have lied in the first place) and when (with the big import being on whether that information trickled up to Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner before they attended a meeting on June 9, 2016 in hopes of obtaining such dirt).

I’m sure that’s intentional. You gotta keep everyone else guessing about what Mueller knows.

The NYT’s sources are described as “four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role,” though this statement — and a past willingness on behalf of Papadopoulos’ fiancée to provide details and emails — suggests that people close to Papadopoulos cooperated as well: ” Papadopoulos’s lawyers declined to provide a statement.”

The point being, we still don’t have the most important detail of this story: whether Papadopoulos told the campaign about the emails, but more importantly, what the emails were.

Thus far, everyone seems intent on withholding that detail.

25 replies
  1. pseudonymous in nc says:

    …or what he thought “the emails” might be, and what the campaign might have thought “the emails” to be. It’s

    I noticed Byron York and others (still running with the Fruit of the Poison Dossier hypothesis) speculating on why Congress was told that Carter Page was under surveillance but apparently not Papadopoulos. Since P. was indeed living in London, visiting bits of Europe and not spending much time in the US, any surveillance would be likely done by… others.

    This may be part of why we haven’t seen many (any?) replies to P. made public, given that they originate from US citizens within the US. And brings me back to bmaz’s point about the template by which the products of CI investigations into the domain of admissible criminal evidence.

    • pseudonymous in nc says:

      [eyes typist] It’s an entire branch of philosophy. There are moments where we can pin down specific knowledge of specific email collections  — Roger Stone’s gloating at Podesta — but Peter Smith’s hunt for the elusive 33,000 is more representative of how “the emails” seem to have been thought of and approached from the GOP / campaign side. Until we learn otherwise.

    • emptywheel says:

      Not sure all the surveillance would be done by others.

      One thing that got added in the Intel Committee versions of 702 this year is emergency authorization for 703/704. That would say that they found the need to get quick authorization to spy on an American overseas but couldn’t do it easily. While that could certainly an ISIS figure or similar, it could also be someone associated with Trump.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A senior Aussie diplomat would have told his chain of command what he gleaned from one more night of partying with talkative foreigners. That’s one reason he’s there, something that Papa should bloody well have known. (But if criminals made no mistakes, Rumpole would have no business.)

    Someone higher up would have chosen not to tell their American counterparts. Assuming what we know is accurate, and given the presidential election, not telling the Americans sooner would seem to be a lapse of judgment on the part of the Australians. Moreover, Papa’s big mouth should have warned them that he would blab to others, his story would out, and the delay in telling the Americans might prove embarrassing.

    We don’t know what e-mails or other “dirt” Papa’s Russian contacts were peddling. But did Papa know? Was he important enough to be in the loop? Would he care whose e-mails they were if they were sufficiently embarrassing to the dreaded Hillary? How would he or someone higher up the chain establish that? That would be important if there were some sort of exchange of value between Trump and Russia. Trump’s unique “respect” for Putin implies there was, but what was the process?

    If Papa thought they were sufficiently embarrassing, would he have told someone personally or via telephone rather than write it in an e-mail? Even if Papa knew how vulnerable phone call contents would be to surveillance, he might have perceived the phone to be more secure than an e-mail.

    If he communicated verbally, that would give Mueller’s team a bigger proof problem. If he has the call contents through surveillance, he would be unlikely to use it publicly. So he would need some writing or overt act that would confirm knowledge among those higher up the chain than Papa.

    • bmaz says:

      Yeah, I dunno. I could easily see the Aussie “higher ups” kind of blowing it off as nonsense until they started seeing it being rolled out. Matt Apuzzo was just on MSNBC and said “we don’t know or have evidence” on whether or not Papadopolous told the campaign about the email dirt. Thing is, Mueller does, because he has Papadopolous. Mueller knows, yes or no.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        That would go into the Papadopoulos is a small-fry wannabe who talks too much and couldn’t be taken seriously by serious people category.  The one Trump tries to have it both ways, touting his low-level inexperience while having taken him seriously enough to employ and use on a very small “foreign policy” team.

        I can see where the Aussies might have put Papa’s drunken talk into the file and forget bin until confirmation started showing up.  But as you say, Mueller has Papa, and he would be again talking too much as fast as he can.  Hope we find out eventually what he has to say.

        • lefty665 says:

          Think you guys have got it, the Aussies wrote Papadopoulos off as a big mouth self aggrandizer until Wikileaks started releasing stuff. They may have figured that they were not the only ones he was getting drunk with and shooting off his mouth to, that the Americans were hearing it too. The safe bet is that he told anyone who would listen everything he knew and more to strut his I’m a big important guy stuff. From what we’ve seen so far it seems the Trump folks discounted him fairly heavily. They know a lot about self aggrandizement.

        • emptywheel says:

          This was the entire point of my linked post on the Pap plea. The FBI made it clear in July that they 1) knew Pap lied about how important the emails were and 2) did so to hide whether he told the campaign about it. DOJ downplayed that point in October, but that’s probably because that’s the secret they don’t want other witnesses to know they have.

          But for FBI to have written the affy the way they did in July, we can be pretty sure they have it (and had it via some solid means before arresting Pap).

          • Willis Warren says:

            Right, and if he lied about whether he told the campaign about it, that means…

            I think Trump’s team is bluffing on this because they can always say, “oh, that Pap, he was such a braggert”

      • pseudonymous in nc says:

        My guess is that Downer was playing “bullshitter or spook?” with Papadopoulos, given that (per my comment in the Manafort thread) anybody who calls themselves an “energy consultant” seems to occupy that space. So, assume bullshitter, but file away under possibly spook or spook-adjacent.

        • SpaceLifeForm says:

          Do not rule out a double-layered upside down Papadopoulos cake.

          Spook BS == disinfo

          Downer may have smelled it cooking.

  3. Bay State Librul says:

    BDO knows and Mueller knows.
    Ask and we will receive, at the time, and the hour of Mueller’s choosing, or when he is fired. Wasn’t Deep Throat an FBI Agent?
    Will it be the NYT, WAPO, The Daily Beast, Business Insider, Buzzfeed, Yahoo, or
    Emptywheel, that will sit high upon Mount Breaking News?

  4. scribe says:

    The NYT story seems more of a “thump the guitar and see what kind of sound it makes”, an attempt to shake someone who’s staying quiet into talking.

    The Aussie diplo, like diplos everywhere, would have filed a contact report with his superiors:  “X, a [job] who is a [other job] with the Trump campaign, said Y about the Russians having dirty emails on Hillary, while in his cups at a wine bar.  I tried to draw him out further, but he didn’t want to say more.”  Indeed, filing a contact reoport on his conversations is something every diplo does every day, and not filing one is a good way to get disciplined.  Whether anyone read it in conjunction with anything else at that time, beyond processing it into the archives and setting it up for keyword searching later in conjunction with someone trying to fit pieces together, is another matter

    • pseudonymous in nc says:

      The Aussie diplo, like diplos everywhere, would have filed a contact report with his superiors

      We’re talking about someone who was his country’s foreign minister for 11 years. Though he has a mixed reputation in Australia, Downer’s not some political donor given a ceremonial position or some deputy doing dull trade receptions. For comparison, the current Australian ambassador to the US is Joe Hockey, a former finance minister. I’m pretty sure that if either of them think something’s worth reporting back to Canberra, it gets read.

  5. dalloway says:

    Ex-CIA contributor on MSNBC thinks the timing of this story may be to counter Drumpf’s Twitter rant about the “bogus” dossier, partly financed by arch-villain Hillary Clinton, being the politically-motivated trigger for the Russia investigation.  He also said they may be “taking the gloves off,” whatever that means, because of continuing efforts by Drumpf and Republicans to de-legitimize not only Mueller’s investigation, but the FBI and DOJ as well.

    • pseudonymous in nc says:

      The WaPo today also had a piece on Nunes and his efforts to rattle the House investigation to a close, which quotes Gowdy in ways that suggest he doesn’t want to be covered in any shit that hits the fan, especially if the intent is to carry the FBI probe over to OGR.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Just for comparison, presidents and prime ministers’ most loyal and powerful agency is ordinarily their ministry of justice. They staff them with their most trusted servants. Presidents rarely attack them. When they do, it is not a sign of strength, stability or purpose.

    It is a sign of abandonment, of fear that they might be held to account for acts they normally getting away with. It is a sign of panic, desperation and fear, and of impending change. In what direction is left to those who remain.

  7. jasongwb says:

    Not sure how accurate this story from the Sydney Morning Herald is but it says that:
    “Fairfax Media has confirmed independently that the conversation first reported by The New York Times took place. In May 2016, Drumpf campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told Mr Downer over drinks at an upscale London wine bar that the Russians had a dirt file on rival candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of hacked Democratic Party emails.”

    “Democratic Party” emails and not “Clinton’s” emails. Here is the link

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