Our stunning role in Trump case
SOMETHING astonishing happened yesterday.
While you were busy enjoying New Year's Eve, Australia was getting dragged into a global scandal by the unlikeliest of people - Alexander Downer.
Mr Downer, the former Liberal Party leader and foreign minister who is currently Australia's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, appears to have played a critical role in the FBI's decision to investigate Russian meddling in the US election.
That investigation went on to haunt Donald Trump, who fired FBI director James Comey for refusing to curtail it, and is now dealing with a special counsel probe into potential collusion between Russia and his presidential campaign.
So, how exactly did Mr Downer get himself caught up in this mess?
According to an explosive report in The New York Times, he was enjoying "a night of heavy drinking" at the Kensington Wine Rooms in London in May 2016 when a foreign policy adviser to Mr Trump's campaign, George Papadopoulos, started oversharing.
Mr Papadopoulos told Mr Downer that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.
When damaging emails from the Democratic National Committee finally started to leak online two months later, Australian officials relayed the information from Mr Downer's drunken encounter to their American counterparts.
"The information that Mr Papadopoulos gave to the Australians answers one of the lingering mysteries of the past year: What so alarmed American officials to provoke the FBI to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign months before the presidential election?" The New York Times writes.
"It was not, as Mr Trump and other politicians have alleged, a dossier compiled by a former British spy hired by a rival campaign. Instead, it was first-hand information from one of America's closest intelligence allies."
The information Mr Downer shared was critical. It revealed an adviser to Mr Trump's campaign had knowledge of Russia's attempts to damage Hillary Clinton long before those efforts became public.
And while Australia alerted the United States to that fact as soon as the stolen emails appeared online, the Trump campaign - and Mr Trump himself - persistently downplayed suggestions Russia was undermining his opponent.
Mr Downer's surprising role in the investigation adds another twist to Australia's already complicated relationship with the American president. Famously, Mr Trump had a testy phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last year in which he blew up about a refugee deal between the two countries.
Their personal relationship has grown warmer since the embarrassing details of that phone call were leaked to the media.
Mr Trump probably won't appreciate Mr Downer's intervention, but the Australian has earned himself some admirers in the US. They've even dug up that wonderful photo of him in fishnets.
Meanwhile, what happened to Mr Papadopoulos? Well, he isn't having such a great time.
The investigation led by Robert Mueller quickly caught up with him. Last year he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and became a co-operating witness, and in the process, admitted to some incriminating facts:
• After joining the Trump campaign, he was approached by people connected to the Russian government, including a professor, a contact from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a woman he believed was related to Vladimir Putin
• Mr Papadopoulos aided these Russians' efforts to set up a secret meeting between Mr Trump and Vladimir Putin
• He was told the Russians had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, supposedly "thousands of emails", long before the public knew
• Mr Papadopoulos informed at least two senior people in the Trump campaign about his connections, including a "campaign supervisor", who encouraged him to travel to Russia in pursuit of an "off-the-record" meeting. The document does not identify these campaign officials by name, and the trip never happened
• When he was interviewed by the FBI, Mr Papadopoulos lied about the extent of his relationship with the Russian contacts and the timing of his conversations with them.
So, to summarise, Mr Papadopoulos actively sought to foster a relationship between the Trump campaign and people he knew to be representatives of the Russian government, with the aim of obtaining incriminating information about Ms Clinton. And other (unidentified) campaign officials knew about it.
Mr Papadopoulos was arrested on July 27 last year and signed his plea deal on October 5. Interestingly, it was sealed from the public for nearly a month. Why?
Back when his guilty plea was revealed, USA Today's Brad Heath noticed a crucial passage in a court filing from Mr Mueller's office which could give us the answer:
"Defendant has indicated that he is willing to co-operate with the government in its ongoing investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Public disclosure of the defendant's initial appearance, however, would significantly undermine his ability to serve as a proactive cooperator. In addition, public disclosure of the defendant's arrest and the accompanying criminal charges may alert other subjects to the direction and status of the investigation."
Let's translate that from legalese to English. After his arrest in July, Mr Papadopoulos appears to have been co-operating with the Mueller investigation. He is referred to as a "proactive cooperator", a term which generally means someone who is doing undercover work - such as wearing a wire. And the Mueller team was worried that revealing his guilty plea would tip off other "subjects" in the investigation.
The fact that his plea was eventually unsealed suggests that was no longer a concern. Either Mr Mueller got what he wanted, or there was nothing to get.
It's difficult to know the extent to which Mr Downer's information helped Mr Mueller's investigation, but it certainly didn't hurt. The special counsel was able to corner Mr Papadopoulos at least in part thanks to Australia's intervention.
In fact, Australia may have helped spark the entire investigation.
This revelation could have deep ramifications for our relationship with the United States - Mr Trump has been known to hold a grudge - and it places us at the centre of a global controversy that will only grow larger in 2018.
But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said today he isn't worried the report about Downer's role.
"The relationship is in excellent shape and the connections between Australia and the United States are so diverse, numerous, so strong, and indeed our relationship through the State Department is excellent as well," he said.