Comments made by a former Trump campaign adviser during an alleged night of heavy drinking and gossiping – not the Steele dossier – prompted the FBI investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to the The New York Times.
Then-Trump adviser George Papadopoulos allegedly made the comments to a key Australian diplomat while partying at an upscale London night club in May of 2016, according to the Times report. Papadopoulos reportedly knew that Russia had thousands of damaging emails about Hillary Clinton. And the emails had the potential to ruin her presidential bid.
Although Papadopoulos was viewed by some as insignificant, he was clearly more than a "coffee boy," the report states.
“Interviews and previously undisclosed documents show that Mr. Papadopoulos played a critical role in this drama and reveal a Russian operation that was more aggressive and widespread than previously known.” The Times report states. “They add to an emerging portrait, gradually filled in over the past year in revelations by federal investigators, journalists and lawmakers, of Russians with government contacts trying to establish secret channels at various levels of the Trump campaign."
Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller in the investigation.
What exactly did he say?
It’s not clear exactly what and how much Papadopoulos allegedly said to the Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, the Times reported. But two months later, leaked Democratic emails were published online. Australian officials noticed and passed along the information to “current and former American and foreign officials.”
The hacked emails and the revelation a Trump campaign member may have had inside information about it "were driving factors that led the FBI to open an investigation in July 2016 into Russia’s attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump’s associates conspired," according to the report.
President Donald Trump, Republicans in Congress and other supporters have said the Steele dossier prompted the FBI investigation. They have also pointed to alleged corruption in how the FBI has handled the document.
Why wasn't this investigated sooner?
A variety of information was coming in, yet some members of the FBI questioned how aggressively it should investigate the Russia ties at a time so close to the election, according to the report. Interviews and subpoenas could cause the investigation to become public. That could not only influence the election but possibly tip off Russia, which may try to cover its tracks, the Times noted. Also, there wasn't enough time to complete the investigation before the election.
Critics disagreed, saying that possible foreign interference in a presidential election was so serious it should not have been ignored.