Alexander Downer at the opening session of the 2017 Global Heads of Mission Meeting at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture: Kym Smith
Alexander Downer at the opening session of the 2017 Global Heads of Mission Meeting at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture: Kym Smith

‘I played him‘: Trump aide taunts Australia

THE former Trump campaign aide whose conversation in a London bar with Alexander Downer sparked the Russia investigation now says he knew the meeting "was designed to spy" on him and that he "played" the Aussie diplomat.

"The Australians already flipped on him," George Papadopoulos tweeted on Monday, in response to news Donald Trump had enlisted Scott Morrison to help look into Australia's role in the origins of the Russia probe.

Papadopoulos met with Mr Downer, then Australia's high commissioner to the UK, in May 2016, where the Trump aide let slip that the Russians had a "dirt file" on Hillary Clinton.

Mr Downer passed the tip onto Canberra, which then passed it on to US intelligence officials. But Papadopoulos tweeted today that he was playing Mr Downer, a former Liberal MP, the whole time.

"Downer was a fool," wrote Papdopoulos, who last year was sentenced to two weeks in prison for lying to the FBI.

"I played him the entire meeting that I knew was designed to spy on my energy related work and then to ask a bizarre last minute question about Clinton-Russia. The transcripts will prove it all, folks. They exist."

 

 

The Downer meeting has been drawn back into the headlines after The New York Times revealed the US President called the Prime Minister a few weeks ago explicitly to push him to help Attorney-General William Barr show that Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had "corrupt and partisan origins".

The news has heightened impeachment talk swirling around the President, who is already under fire for appearing to seek Ukrainian assistance to investigate his Democratic rival Joe Biden.

The Morrison Government confirmed it was willing to help with Mr Trump's request.

"The Australian Government has always been ready to assist and co-operate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation. The PM confirmed this readiness once again in conversation with the President," a spokeswoman for Mr Morrison said.

Australia's US ambassador Joe Hockey wrote to Mr Barr in late May offering assistance. "The Australian Government will use its best endeavours to support your efforts in this matter," he wrote.

"While Australia's former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, the Hon. Alexander Downer, is no longer employed by the Government, we stand ready to provide you with all the relevant information to support your inquiries."

 

Alexander Downer in his office at the High Commission in London. Picture: Ben Stevens/i-Images
Alexander Downer in his office at the High Commission in London. Picture: Ben Stevens/i-Images

 

THE 'DRUNKEN' MEETING

The New York Times first reported on the origins of the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign, codenamed "Crossfire Hurricane", in December 2017.

That report described how, in July 2016, two agents were dispatched to London on a secretive mission to interview Mr Downer, who had passed on information about the meeting with Papadopoulos.

Papadopoulos had allegedly boasted to Mr Downer "during a night of heavy drinking" two months earlier that the Russians had a "dirt file" on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of hacked emails.

Papadopoulos told Mr Downer he received the information from Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence. He later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Mr Mifsud.

Papadopoulos and others have since floated the unproven allegation that Mr Mifsud was actually a Western intelligence asset involved in an elaborate entrapment scheme - something Mr Downer has labelled a "sad" conspiracy theory.

Speaking to The Australian in April last year, Mr Downer said he was the one who first reached out to Papadopoulos in early May 2016 through Erika Thompson, a counsellor at the high commission.

Ms Thompson's partner worked at the Israeli embassy and suggested Mr Downer meet Papadopoulos, who had days earlier been quoted in The Times publicly attacking then British prime minister David Cameron for criticising Mr Trump.

Mr Downer and Ms Thompson met Papadopoulos late one afternoon in May 2016 at the swanky Kensington Wine Bar - but both men have since disputed The New York Times' characterisation of the meeting as "wine-fuelled", saying they each ordered a single gin-and-tonic.

"We had a drink and he talked about what Trump's foreign policy would be like if Trump won the election," Mr Downer told The Australian.

"(Trump) hadn't got the nomination at that stage. During that conversation (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 it seemed "worth reporting" in a diplomatic cable back to Canberra. "It wasn't the only thing we reported," he said. "We reported (back to Australia) the following day or a day or two after … it seemed quite interesting."

But he stressed Papadopoulos never said the word "dirt".

"He didn't say dirt, he said material that could be damaging to her," he said. "No, he said it would be damaging. He didn't say what it was."

Papadopoulos, who earlier this year released a book titled Deep State Target, has said he felt something was off from the start of the meeting, and suspected Mr Downer was recording him with his phone.

"What I believe he was doing was spying on me," he told the ABC in May. "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."

Mr Downer denied this. "I wouldn't as a diplomat record meetings that I had with people - that would be very unprofessional," he said.

For his part, Papadopoulos has also denied ever mentioning Russian dirt on Ms Clinton. "I have absolutely no memory of ever talking to him about that," he said, but added, "There's nothing illegal about spreading rumours, OK? So there's no reason for me to be hiding it if I really did tell (Mr Downer) that."

 

 

THE 'SHADOWY' AGENCY

Earlier on Monday, Papadopoulos wrote on Twitter, "I have been right about Downer from the beginning. A wannabe spy and Clinton errand boy who is about to get exposed on the world stage. Great reporting, NYTs! Mifsud is next."

Speaking to ABC radio this morning, Mr Downer said he had no knowledge of the latest reports. "I don't know anything at all about conversations Scott Morrison has had with Donald Trump," he said.

"I just have nothing more to say about it. I had a conversation with this guy (Papadopoulos) and passed on one element about it. I can't offer you any more information. I know nothing of the conversations that Scott Morrison has had with the Americans, including President Trump about this, insofar as there have been any. I just don't have a clue."

Fuelling conspiracy theories around Mr Downer is his former association with a shadowy London-based security firm called Hakluyt, which was created by ex-MI6 British Secret Service agents.

Mr Downer joined the advisory board of Hakluyt in 2008 when he was a UN special envoy but was forced to step down when he took up the top diplomatic post in 2014.

News Corp reported in January 2016, however, that Mr Downer had still been attending client conferences and gatherings of the group - and that British foreign officials had privately expressed disquiet.

"The group operates in the shadows, it's not exactly open and transparent and so any serving, and that's the difference, serving diplomat with access to sensitive information and insight associating with the group raises a worry in Whitehall," one diplomatic source told News Corp.

At the time, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade defended Mr Downer, saying he had had "no commercial relationship with Hakluyt since resigning from its advisory board in May 2014, prior to commencing duty as High Commissioner in London".

"Mr Downer maintains contact with a large number of individuals and firms in the British business community. This is common practice for an Australian High Commissioner in the UK," a DFAT spokeswoman said.

Speaking to the ABC in May, Mr Downer said the conspiracy theories floated by the likes of Papadopoulos were impossible.

"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," he said.

 

 

THE $25 MILLION

Papadopoulos's characterisation of Mr Downer as a "Clinton errand boy" reaches back even further to 2006, when as Foreign Minister he oversaw a $US25 million ($37 million) Australian aid donation to the Clinton Foundation.

The donation, one of only four from a foreign government over $US25 million, was resurfaced last year by Washington DC-based outlet The Hill after Mr Downer's role in the FBI probe was revealed.

The money was initially allocated to the Clinton Foundation but later routed through an affiliate called the Clinton Health Access Initiative for a four-year project to provide drugs and screening to AIDS patients in Papua New Guinea and Asia.

Mr Downer and former President Bill Clinton jointly signed a memorandum of understanding in February 2006 pledging the money. The Hill reported the project won praise for helping thousands of patients but also drew criticism from auditors about "management weaknesses" and inadequate budget oversight.

The link was seized on last year by Republicans, but a spokesman for Ms Clinton called it "pathetic". "An Australian diplomat learned that one of his nation's most important allies was under attack by an adversary, Russia," Nick Merrill said at the time.

"He notified US law enforcement, which is exactly what you would hope an ally would do. The idea that this has anything to do with his government deciding a decade earlier to partner on HIV/AIDS work with the Clinton Foundation, or the fact that as a United Nations envoy, he met with Secretary Clinton at the State Department, is laughable."

Mr Merrill added that the "conspiracies being peddled by the right are no more than a pathetic and sustained effort to distract from the fact that we have a President who refuses to defend his own country against widespread attacks on American democracy".

At the time, DFAT also issued a statement defending the grant and its "strong outcomes" in fighting HIV-AIDS. "The funding provided to the Clinton Foundation and its affiliate was used solely for agreed development projects," DFAT said.

In 2016, Australia finally ceased donating to the Clinton Foundation after more than $88 million worth of taxpayer-funded contributions over 10 years. Asked why the Clinton Foundation was chosen as a recipient, DFAT said all funding was "solely for agreed development projects" and Clinton charities had "a proven track record" in helping developing countries.

 

 

Former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. Picture: Fox News
Former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. Picture: Fox News

THE 'TWO LOVERS'

That Mr Trump had his sights set on Australia is not news - he has been talking about it for at least six months. In May, he told reporters he had "declassified everything" for Mr Barr to look into the origins of the counterintelligence probe into his 2016 campaign.

"He's going to look at a lot of documents," Mr Trump said.

"Some he might find interesting. Maybe he'll find none interesting. But for over a year, people have asked me to declassify. What I've done is declassified everything. He can look. I hope he looks at the UK and I hope he looks at Australia, and I hope he looks at Ukraine. I hope he looks at everything. Because there was a hoax that was perpetrated on our country. It's the greatest hoax probably in the history of our country and somebody has to get to the bottom of it. We'll see.

"This is about finding out what happened. What happened and when did it happen, because this was an attempted take-down of the president of the United States, and we have to find out why did somebody write a text message - the two lovers - that if she loses, we have an insurance policy. An insurance policy to take down the president. We're going to find out what happened and why it happened."

The "two lovers" referred to by Mr Trump were former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and Special Agent Peter Strzok, who were involved in the Russia investigation and later worked on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team.

Mr Strzok was removed from the Mueller probe after numerous anti-Trump text messages between the pair were discovered, most famously one from Mr Strzok to Ms Page discussing an "insurance policy" in the "unlikely event" Mr Trump was elected.

The August 15, 2016 text message came about two weeks before the FBI officially launched its counterintelligence investigation. The pair later testified to Congress that the discussion was about how forcefully to push the investigation for fear of compromising a source, given the polls suggested Ms Clinton was the overwhelming favourite.

"The point, the analogy I am drawing is, you know, you're unlikely to die before you're 40, but nevertheless, many people buy life insurance," Mr Strzok said.

"The similarity is that, regardless of what the polls are saying, that Secretary Clinton is the favourite to win, however likely or not it is who's going to win, just like life insurance, you have to take into account any potential possibility. And it was simply - it was simply, you need to do your job based on something, regardless of whether it's highly likely or not?"

 

 

frank.chung@news.com.au



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