George Papadopoulos, whose London networking triggered the FBI to unleash “Crossfire Hurricane” at the Trump campaign, was the wrong man.
“The report completely vindicates me and shows that I was clearly set up now that we know all the characters in my story were Western operatives,” Papadopoulos told The Washington Times, citing special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Democratic Party-financed dossier writer Christopher Steele falsely told the FBI of a massive Trump-Russia election conspiracy. FBI agents interviewed Papadopoulos in early 2017 as if he owned the keys to the kingdom — how Donald Trump and Moscow colluded. Convivial agents urged the campaign volunteer to fill them in on the new president’s Kremlin capers.
But in a microcosm of the entire three-year FBI investigation, the agents went down the wrong alley. Two judicial entities have cleared Papadopoulos of election interference. He weathered at least two FBI-placed spies, physical surveillance, search warrants, interrogations, threats and possibly wiretaps.
A U.S. District Court judge first cleared him at his 2018 sentencing. He had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the circumstances of meeting a London professor.
“I don’t have any reason to believe and I don’t think there’s any reason in the record to conclude that Mr. Papadopoulos had any desire to aid Russia in any way, to do anything that was contrary to the national interest,” said Judge Randolph D. Moss, a Barack Obama appointee.
Then came Mr. Mueller’s final report and a one-sentence verdict among its 448 pages: “No documentary evidence, and nothing in the email accounts or other communications facilities reviewed by the Office, shows that Papadopoulos shared this information with the Campaign.”
The “information” was gossip from London-based professor Joseph Mifsud, who had just visited Moscow. The Maltese man of mystery told the 20-something Trump adviser on April 26, 2016, that Moscow owned “dirt” on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands” of emails.
As Mr. Mueller concluded, Papadopoulos didn’t go running to Trump Tower with the news. Neither did he try to obtain emails or any other “dirt.” He was furiously networking Europe to try to set up a Kremlin-Trump meeting that never happened.
He thought Mr. Mifsud might be referring to the much-discussed 30,000 emails that Mrs. Clinton ordered destroyed from her days as secretary of state. It was Papadopoulos who volunteered to FBI interrogators that Mr. Mifsud broached the email topic.
None of his Mifsud contacts amid London’s nexus of diplomats and think tanks would have mattered, except for one. A month later, Papadopoulos sipped a glass of wine with Alexander Downer, the Australian ambassador to the United Kingdom, who was accompanied by his aide, Erika Thompson.
She arranged for the increasingly in-demand Papadopoulos to meet her boss at a wine bar on May 10, 2016. It would become the most momentous chitchat in Trump-Russia history. Papadopoulos said the former Australian foreign minister spent most of the encounter bashing candidate Trump.
Afterward, Mr. Downer filed an intelligence report that said, according to the Mueller report: “Papadopoulos suggested to a representative of a foreign government that the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton.”
The ‘bottle blonde’ and ‘the Walrus’
After WikiLeaks dumped its first huge batch of Russian-stolen Democratic Party emails on July 22, 2016, the Aussie government sent Mr. Downer’s Papadopoulos cable to Washington.
The FBI by then knew the Russian military was hacking Democratic computers in 2015 and 2016. Papadopoulos did not.
On July 31, 2016, FBI agent Peter Strzok, whose text messages revealed a deep dislike of candidate Trump and a vow to “stop” him, used Mr. Downer’s words to open “Crossfire Hurricane.”
A day before the WikiLeaks disclosures, Mr. Strzok texted a colleague, “Trump is a disaster. I have no idea how destabilizing his Presidency would be.”
Papadopoulos wrote in his memoir, “Deep State Target,” that his wacky meeting with Mr. Downer didn’t happen that way, just like so many other strange encounters once he became something of a Trump celebrity in London.
“In [Mr. Downer’s] version of events, he asks me a question about Russia and Trump. I then tell him that the Russians have a surprise or some damaging material related to Hillary Clinton. I have no memory of this. None. Zero. Nada,” Papadopoulos wrote. “In my version of events, Downer brusquely leaves me and Erika at the table, and we go our separate ways. I remember feeling completely disappointed by the meeting and pissed off about being treated so rudely.”
He added: “The most widely reported sequence of events is that within forty-eight hours of our meeting, Downer sends a cable to Australian intelligence reporting my alleged remark. With that single act, he upends my life.”
Papadopoulos said he believes Mr. Mifsud and Mr. Downer were acting as Western agents to spy on him.
He has reason to be suspicious.
At least two known FBI informants — Cambridge University professor Stefan Halper and his supposed research assistant, Azra Turk — tried to coax him into admitting to Russian election meddling. Mr. Halper also established conversations with Trump volunteer Carter Page.
After being named in “Deep State Target,” Ms. Turk, likely a pseudonym, was identified by The New York Times as an FBI informant.
“Azra Turk is a vision right out of central casting for a spy flick,” Papadopoulos wrote of their first get-together over a drink in a London hotel in September 2016. “She’s a sexy bottle blonde in her thirties, and she isn’t shy about showing her curves — as if anyone could miss them. She’s a fantasy’s fantasy.”
Later, he talked with Mr. Halper, who had invited him to London on a ruse of writing a policy paper. Energy consulting was Papadopoulos’ professional life outside of campaign volunteering.
“Stefan Halper is a morbidly obese seventy-three-year-old American,” Papadopoulos later wrote. “His girth has earned him an unflattering nickname in the intelligence community: The Walrus.”
The Maltese professor
In London, Papadopoulos developed a track record for encountering female assistants.
Mr. Mifsud introduced him to his aide, Russian Olga Polonskaya, the “niece of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.” Papadopoulos said he believes she too was a plant.
The Mueller report suggests that Mr. Mifsud and Ms. Polonskaya had a romantic relationship.
By October 2017, Papadopoulos found himself in federal court pleading guilty to lying to the FBI when he met agents without an attorney in Chicago on Jan. 27, 2017. He had lied about whether he started on the campaign when he first met Mr. Mifsud, and the Mueller team said he lied about the extent of his communications.
At his 2018 sentencing, the prosecutor said the falsehoods hamstrung its chances of conducting a thorough interview with Mr. Mifsud when they encountered him a month later in a Washington hotel lobby.
Mr. Mueller wanted the judge to harshly punish Papadopoulos with a six-month prison term. The judge sentenced Papadopoulos to two weeks in a minimum-security prison.
Papadopoulos said ego, not a strategy to harm the investigation, motivated him to downplay Mr. Mifsud.
“Was that a mistake? Maybe, but that is the truth!” he wrote in his memoir. “Mifsud was an embarrassment to me. Everything he told me turned out to be smoke and mirrors. The man fabricated Putin’s niece for me, and I fell for it! Can you imagine how stupid I felt about the whole thing?”
Who is Professor Mifsud? To read the Mueller report, he is connected to Russia. Case closed.
The report’s 12-line, one-paragraph profile has him linked to an unidentified Russian, a former employee of the Internet Research Agency, the now-indicted St. Petersburg firm that carried out anti-Clinton social media trolling. Some words are redacted, but it appears that this Russian is linked to a Facebook account used by the Russian front DCLeaks, now defunct.
Mr. Mueller notes that Mr. Mifsud taught at the London Academy of Diplomacy. There, the profile ends, skirting Mr. Mifsud’s considerable Western professional ties.
Mr. Mifsud and his aide bragged to Papadopoulos about substantial connections with senior Russian officials. But they never produced a single contact, including a promised meeting with the Russian ambassador in London.
Among Mr. Mifsud’s Western ties:
⦁ In March 2016, Papadopoulos first met Mr. Mifsud impromptu at Link Campus University, a for-profit college in Rome that instructs NATO intelligence personnel.
⦁ Mr. Mifsud was associated with the London Center of International Law Practice, the group that offered Papadopoulos a job.
⦁ Mr. Mifsud was photographed at a reception with Boris Johnson, a former British foreign secretary.
⦁ Mr. Mifsud traveled to Washington to take part in State Department and diplomat conferences. A D.C. hotel is where the FBI found him in February 2017.
To make his argument that Mr. Mifsud is a Western agent, Papadopoulos recalls the blank faces of two FBI agents in his hometown of Chicago when he brought up the professor and the emails.
“They don’t blink,” he said. “They don’t budge. It was as if I’d told them two plus two equals four or that the sky is blue. So what else is new, George? I will never forget the lack of response or interest as long as I live. It’s as if they already knew what Mifsud told me.”
Soon after his exit from Washington, the professor disappeared. An Italian newspaper reported that he is in hiding in Rome.
Stephan Roh, a Moscow-linked Swiss lawyer, told The Daily Caller news site that he last saw Mr. Mifsud in May 2018 at his law office in Zurich to sign a power of attorney.
Mr. Roh also has suggested that Mr. Mifsud was acting as a Western agent, possibly for the FBI.
If Mr. Roh’s suggestion is true, then Mr. Mueller, a former FBI director with expansive access to bureau secrets, would have known this. It is doubtful that he would have thrown up smoke screens to make Mr. Mifsud appear to be a Russian spy.
In contrast, his report completely ignores Mr. Halper, a known FBI informant, as well as Ms. Turk.
The Mueller team said in one court filing that they wanted to have Mr. Mifsud arrested. An FBI agent asked Papadopoulos to go back to London, wear a wire and try to entrap Mr. Mifsud. Papadopoulos refused.
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, is suspicious about why Mr. Mueller left out references to Mr. Mifsud’s Western contacts. He sent a letter this month to intelligence chiefs asking for their files.
“If he is in fact a Russian agent, it would be one of the biggest intelligence scandals for not only the United States, but also our allies like the Italians and the Brits and others,” Mr. Nunes told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “Because if Mifsud is a Russian agent, he would know all kinds of our intelligence agents throughout the globe.”
Downer v. Papadopoulos
Papadopoulos insists that Mr. Downer, the Australian diplomat who “upended” his life, was a spy.
On Twitter, he says Mr. Downer is lying, though gives him credit for at least not alleging that he spoke of emails.
Mr. Downer gave a detailed narration Thursday on Sky News Australia’s “The Bolt Report”: “There was no suggestion from Papadopoulos nor in the record of the meeting that went back to Canberra, there was no suggestion there was collusion between Donald Trump or Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians. All we did was report what Papadopoulos said.
“And that was the thought that Russians may release information, might release information, that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign at some stage before the election. Now he didn’t have to tell me that.
“I didn’t go to the meeting thinking he was going to even mention Russia in that context like the election campaign. I had no idea what he would say. He chose to say that to me. And he apparently says he said it also to the Greek foreign minister a week or two later. I have no idea why he was blabbering this. But if you say that sort of thing to somebody who is a part of the [Western] intelligence community — I mean, I would regard myself as a warrior for the Western alliance.
“If it had drawn to my attention that the Russians might be hacking into the campaigns of major candidates in Western elections and then using that information to try to influence the outcome of those elections, that would really worry me. I mean, Russia is not a friendly power when it comes to Western interests. And if they’re hacking into our elections, that’s something we should try to stop. I don’t know why he told me this. But he did and we reported it and the rest is history. But there’s no defense for him saying it’s some sort of weird conspiracy. I mean it’s what he told me.”
Papadopoulos finds it interesting that Andrew Napolitano, a retired judge and Fox News legal analyst, said on the network on May 9, 2016 — one day before his drink with Mr. Downer — that Russia possessed 20,000 Clinton emails.
Mr. Napolitano said, “We learn that there’s a debate going on in the Kremlin between the Foreign Ministry and the intelligence services about whether they should release the 20,000 of Mrs. Clinton’s emails that they have hacked into and received and stored.”
Papadopoulos said the Mueller report has the date wrong for this history-making meeting. It was May 10, not May 6 as in the report.
Before the April 26, 2016, conversation with Mr. Mifsud, media were speculating that Russia may have hacked Mrs. Clinton’s State Department emails on her home server, according to research by The Washington Times. This gives credence to Papadopoulos’ assertions that when Mr. Mifsud talked of “thousands” of emails, it could have registered with him as State Department emails.
For example, on NPR in 2015, Aarti Shahani, a former National Security Agency official, said: “Hackers from Russia or China could have targeted Clinton, sent her innocent-looking emails with malicious software attached to break in. The FBI’s ability to investigate depends on how the data was removed.”
McClatchy news service said in a September 2015 article, “Technology experts say using a private server exposed her to possible breaches and hacks by China, Russia or other foreign countries — intercepts she would not necessarily have known about.”
On Fox News’ “Hannity” in 2015 was a discussion on the same topic:
Mr. Hannity: “So what are the odds that Putin, the Chinese or somebody else hacked into that server?”
Mr. Napolitano: “Well, we already know that her most frequent emailer, her good friend nicknamed ‘The Prince of Darkness,’ Sid Blumenthal, had his emails hacked. And we already know that she emailed with Mr. Blumenthal more than anyone else. So the chances of bad guys having her confidential, classified emails are pretty high.”
Papadopoulos points to one other bit of good news in the Mueller report. The special counsel cleared the Trump supporter of being a foreign agent for Israel, a close U.S. ally. One of the Mueller teams’ interrogation weapons was to threaten subjects with prosecution under the little-enforced Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).
Said the report: “Finally, the Office investigated whether one of the above campaign advisors — George Papadopoulos — acted as an agent of, or at the direction and control of, the government of Israel. While the investigation revealed significant ties between Papadopoulos and Israel (and search warrants were obtained in part on that basis), the Office ultimately determined that the evidence was not sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction under FARA.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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