Report: Papadopoulos' comments to Australian diplomat key factor in Russia probe

Last Updated Dec 30, 2017 6:46 PM EST

In May 2016, then-Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told Australia's top diplomat in Britain at a London bar that Russia had political dirt on rival Hillary Clinton, according to a report published Saturday in The New York Times

Two months after Papadopoulos' conversation with Alexander Downer, when emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails emerged online, Australian officials passed the information concerning Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, the Times reports, citing four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians' role. It was that information, the Times reports, that was a factor in the beginning of the FBI's investigation of Russian election meddling and any ties to Trump associates. 

A former U.S. official with knowledge of the intelligence collected during the campaign told CBS News the information provided by Australia way key to U.S. investigators in realizing Russia might be attempting to interfere significantly in the U.S. presidential election. U.S. intelligence was seeing lots of different intelligence related to Russian meddling in the U.S. election. 

The former official said Russia always meddles in U.S. presidential elections, so the U.S. was watching. But the intelligence provided from Australia was important because it suggested Russians were possibly connected to the stolen emails and the Clinton campaign, and the information from Australia helped from the picture that started the FBI investigation. 

It's unclear exactly what Papadopoulos divulged to the Australian after he was informed roughly three weeks earlier that Russia had thousands of emails that would damage Clinton, according to the report. Papadopoulos had met with Downer because of a series of connections that begin with an Israeli Embassy official who had introduced the Trump campaign adviser to another Australian diplomat, according to the Times. It's also unclear why Australian officials did not immediately pass along the information to the FBI.

Ty Cobb, attorney for the president, sent the following statement in regards to the Times story: "Out of respect for the Special Counsel and his process, we are not commenting on matters such as this. We are continuing to fully cooperate with the Special Counsel in order to help complete their inquiry expeditiously."

The FBI investigation into Russian election meddling began in July 2016, and was eventually taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller in May 2017, shortly after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. During the campaign, Papadopoulos offered to set up a meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That suggestion did not come to fruition. 

It wasn't until October 2017 that Papadopoulos -- who the Trump administration has passed off as unimportant to the campaign -- would go from a little-known former Trump campaign worker to a well-known figure associated with the Russia probe. On Oct. 5, his guilty plea over lying to the FBI about his contacts with foreigners was unsealed. 

Mr. Trump and other administration officials have expressed hope for the Russia probe to conclude quickly, although that does not appear likely. 

CBS News' Arden Farhi contributed to this report. 

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.