U.S. Investigation Into Trump's Russia Ties Began With One Drink, And Then Another, Report Says

The ongoing FBI effort to determine if then-Republican candidate Donald Trump colluded with Russia to discredit his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, and secure the U.S. presidency may have begun with a drunken night in London.

The New York Times published Saturday a new report alleging that Trump's former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, spilled insider knowledge of Russia possessing information that could disparage Clinton while he was out on the town with Australia's most senior diplomat in the U.K., High Commissioner Alexander Downer, in May 2016.

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The article, based on what the newspaper said were four current and former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the role that the Australians played, said it was unclear exactly what Papadopoulos may have told the Downer that night at the Kensington Wine Rooms, but claimed it was this conversation that led Australian officials to contact the FBI when thousands of emails were released weeks later from hacked Democratic National Convention servers.

Papadopoulos, who pled guilty in October to making false statements "about the timing, extent and nature of his relationships and interactions with certain foreign nationals whom he understood to have close connections with senior Russian government officials," has since become a cooperating witness and has been considered a key figure in the investigation into Trump.

GettyImages-899197350 Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts with attendees after a ceremony to bestow state awards on military personnel who fought in Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 28, 2017. President Donald Trump and Putin were intially viewed as political allies, but the ongoing investigation into their potential collusion prior to the U.S. presidential election has complicated their relationship. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The report claimed that Papadopoulos first came into contact with Russian officials and was later informed about the emails by a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud. Prior to this, former Trump campaign aide Sam Clovis reportedly informed Papadopoulos during his job interview that Trump would make mending the U.S.-Russia relationship, which had suffered greatly under former President Barack Obama, a priority. Clovis has denied telling this to 29-year-old Papadopoulos, but shortly after he got the position in March 2016, Papadopoulos traveled to Italy and allegedly met with Mifsud, who supposedly had ties to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

When Mifsud realized Papadopoulos was involved in Trump's campaign, the professor may have then attempted to use the new connection to try and set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the campaign trail, Trump had expressed an admiration for the Russian leader and a desire to meet him in person. Mifsud reportedly introduced him to Ivan Timofeev, a program director for the Valdai Discussion Club, at which Putin speaks every year. Timofeev apparently alerted the Russian Foreign Ministry.

When Papadopoulos brought the news to Trump, the Republican candidate reportedly passed it off to Jeff Sessions, The New York Times cited participants in the meeting as saying. Sessions, who became the attorney general in February, omitted this conversation while being questioned by Congress. He later said this was because he didn't recall the meeting.

In April, Trump delivered a foreign policy speech that was reportedly edited by Papadopoulos and included a call for better relations with Russia. Papadopoulos reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry, saying this was "the signal to meet," according to The New York Times.

RTSYLXR Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) sits next to retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (L) as they attend an exhibition marking the 10th anniversary of RT (Russia Today) television news channel in Moscow, Russia, December 10, 2015. Flynn was later named national security adviser to Trump, but resigned shortly after it came to light he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia officials. On December 1, Flynn pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

The meeting never came to be. Two months after the alleged encounter between Papadopoulos and Downer in London, the Australian government reportedly reached out to U.S. authorities about something Papadopoulos had said. If true, this may be what prompted the FBI's investigation, now headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, into Trump's ties to Russia, as opposed to a former U.K. spy's unverified, controversial dossier detailing Trump's alleged illicit and lewd activities that would put him in a position to be blackmailed by Russia.

Trump and his allies have expressed the view that it was this 35-page dossier, the contents of which they have denied, that began FBI investigation into Trump. The Trump administration has also downplayed the role Papadopoulos played in the campaign, referring to him a "volunteer" and a "coffee boy" with no significant influence.