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Australian diplomats may have provided the United States with the key information that led the FBI to initiate the Russia probe now being headed by special counsel Robert Mueller, The New York Times reports, citing four anonymous current and former U.S. officials.
George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, told the Australian diplomat Alexander Downer that Russia had damaging information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the Times reported this weekend. The May 2016 conversation happened while the two were drinking heavily at the upscale Kensington Wine Rooms in London, the Times said.
Australian officials informed the U.S. about the conversation two months later, after the hacked emails became public, the newspaper said. According to the report, the information from the Australians was influential in the FBI's July 2016 decision to open the inquiry into Russian meddling in the election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign.
The Times' report contradicts President Donald Trump's claims that the Russia probe was spurred by information found in an unsubstantiated dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele. Trump has called the dossier a "pile of garbage." In December, he posted a message on Twitter claiming the dossier was used "as the basis for going after the Trump Campaign!"
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI and has since been cooperating with Mueller's investigators.
An attorney for Papadopoulos did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC. The White House declined to comment to NBC News about the Times' report but said it is "continuing to cooperate with the Special Counsel in order to help complete their inquiry expeditiously."
Trump and members of his team have sought to play down the role that Papadopoulos held in the campaign, with the president calling him a "young, low level volunteer."
Papadopoulos' fiancee, Simona Mangiante, disputed that account in a December interview with ABC News. Mangiante said Papadopoulos' cooperation with Mueller would "make a big difference" in the Russia probe, and she called Papadopoulos "the first domino in Russia-gate."
The special counsel's office declined a request for comment from CNBC.
Read the full report at The New York Times here.