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UK diplomats met, talked Brexit with Trump aide linked to Russia probe

More details emerge of controversial meetings between UK foreign office officials and George Papadopoulos.

George Papadopoulos, LinkedIn, fair use.

A Trump aide who has admitted lying to the FBI about his Russian links met a Foreign Office minister and discussed Brexit with a team leader of the British Embassy in Washington, just weeks before the US presidential election.

George Papadopoulos had three separate meetings with British Foreign Office officials in September 2016, we can reveal for the first time. Last October it emerged that Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his Russian connections.

On September 10 2016, Papadopoulos discussed Brexit, UK/US relations, US foreign policy and the presidential campaign during an official meeting with an unnamed team leader of the British Embassy in Washington.  

Less than a week later, on September 16, the head of the UK’s then North America Department met the Trump aide at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London. The meeting covered “a number of current affairs issues” but no minutes were taken or briefing prepared, according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) response from the FCO.

The FCO disclosure reveals further details of the extent of Papadopoulos’s contacts with senior UK officials. Also, in September 2016, Papadopoulos met with Tobias Ellwood, at the time a Foreign Office Minister, while Ellwood was in New York for the UN General Assembly. The FCO describes the meeting as “informal” and says it has no further information. Ellwood has since been appointed as a Minister for Defence.

Tom Brake MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Brexit, called for the UK government to publish a complete account of the meetings.   

“With investigations into Mr Papadopoulos' contacts with Russia of global interest, anything less than total transparency about UK meetings with him will leave a nagging doubt about their purpose and impact,” said Brake.

The meetings further undermine Trump campaign claims that Papadopoulos was a just junior aide and also raise questions about the extent of contact between Papadopoulos and British officials in the run-up to the presidential elections. Former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo described Papadopoulos as little more than a “coffee boy”.

SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes said: “This is a strange development on a number of levels: why were senior FCO officials meeting with someone whom the current American President has described as a ‘low level volunteer’; and how on earth these senior FCO officials thought it appropriate to discuss Brexit with someone who’s primary role seems to have been facilitating contact between Trump Tower and the Kremlin?”

Papadopoulos is at the centre of the on-going Mueller investigations into links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The Greek American was living in London when he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, with a brief to focus on US-Russia relations.

Papadopoulos boasted that he was connected to people who could organise a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. After it emerged in October 2017 that Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about the extent of his Russian connections, Trump described Papadopoulos as a “young, low level volunteer” - despite Papadopoulos featuring in a photo taken at a national security meeting and tweeted by Trump in March 2016. That same month Trump described Papadopoulos as an “excellent guy” when unveiling him as a foreign policy advisor.

Papadopoulos had strong links to Britain. In May 2016, before Wikileaks released hacked Democratic National Convention emails, Papadopoulos told Alexander Downer, Australia's top diplomat to the UK, about Russia's “dirt” on Clinton while they were drinking at The Kensington Wine Rooms in London, according to the New York Times. Australian officials informed their American counterparts of Papadopoulos' conversation with Downer. The FBI began scrutinising the Trump campaign's Russia ties after that.

In London, Papadopoulos also met Joseph Mifsud, a ‘professor’ at Stirling University. Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to a ‘female Russian national’. Papadopoulos wrongly called her ‘Putin’s niece’ in emails sent back to the campaign. Papadopoulos kept the Trump campaign up to date on his links with the Kremlin. “The Russian government has an open invitation by Putin for Mr Trump to meet him when he is ready,” Papadopoulos told his superiors in late April 2016.

Alok Sharma MP, a Foreign Office minister until June 2017, met with Mifsud “a couple of times”, the Observer revealed last year.     

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “As you would expect, in the run up to an election we seek to build links with figures in both the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. This type of outreach is normal diplomatic business”.  

In November 2017, a parliamentary written question was submitted to find out more details about Papadopoulos’ visit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 2016. In response, a FCO minister confirmed that the “then Head of the FCO’s North American Department held a brief introductory meeting with George Papadopoulos, one of the Trump campaign’s named foreign policy advisors, in September 2016. A written record of this meeting was not produced.” No further details of the meeting were provided.

Tom Brake MP said: “With yet more evidence of informal and unminuted talks between Mr Papadopoulos and the UK government emerging, it is time the UK government published a complete account of these meetings and their content.”

SNP Martin Docherty-Hughes MP also commented on the lack of minutes: “Given that one of the primary duties of our diplomatic service is to listen to the views of those they meet and communicate this to the Her Majesty’s Government, that no notes were taken is especially surprising: it now remains to be seen whether there was similar contact with other figures in the Trump team.”

Duncan Hames, Director of Policy at Transparency International UK, said: “Recently, we’ve noticed Whitehall becoming less inclined to be open about the work of government. From obstructive responses to information requests to delayed publication of spending decisions, departments aren’t living-up to the Government’s commitment to transparency. Given the historic significance of the decisions being made on our behalf, it’s more important than ever that government is open and accountable to its citizens.”

“Only last December, the prime minister argued that ‘the sunlight of transparency…helps ensure the highest standards of public life amongst senior government representatives’. Yet without complete and accurate records of their meetings, the public are left in the dark about what’s being done in their name”.

See the full freedom of information disclosure here.

About the authors

Peter Geoghegan is investigations editor of openDemocracy's main site. He can be found on Twitter @PeterKGeoghegan.


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