RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
More than a year ago, the FBI opened an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. In the months that have followed, that story and its many twists and turns have dominated headlines. FBI Director James Comey started the year overseeing that investigation. But by the end, he had been fired, and Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the probe.
So far, the investigation has resulted in two indictments and two guilty pleas - one from George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign. According to reporting by The New York Times today, Papadopoulos may have been, quote, "the improbable match that set off a blaze that has consumed the first year of the Trump administration." Here to explain more is The New York Times' Mark Mazzetti. Welcome.
MARK MAZZETTI: Thanks, Ray.
SUAREZ: What you and your colleagues have been reporting gets at the heart of the question - what provoked the FBI to open investigation into the Trump campaign in the first place? What have you learned?
MAZZETTI: Well, as you said, this story has consumed a lot of us for the entire year. And one of the lingering mysteries has been, what exactly set this investigation off? Why did the FBI in July, 2016, decide to open this investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia? What we reported today was one of the most critical factors was information that George Papadopoulos, the campaign aide, gave to the top Australian diplomat while drinking in May of 2016. They were at a bar in London, and George Papadopoulos revealed that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. And the Australian, Mr. Downer - his name is Alexander Downer - eventually passed that information to the Americans. And the FBI, two months later, launched an investigation.
SUAREZ: So this meeting happens in London in the spring of 2016. Why did it take until January 2017 for the FBI or the Department of Justice to question Papadopoulos?
MAZZETTI: That's a very good question. Clearly, they knew Papadopoulos was a key figure in this investigation they had just launched. Did they put him under some kind of surveillance? What measures did they take once they opened the investigation? We don't know now what they were doing in that timeframe. And as you said, it wasn't until January of this year that they questioned him for the first time. He gives untruthful answers and that then leads them to charge him with lying.
SUAREZ: What have you learned from the latest trove of previously undisclosed emails and documents about Papadopoulos' communications with the Russians?
MAZZETTI: We learn a lot about his communications with the Russians, particularly people around a mysterious London professor named Joseph Mifsud. In April of 2016, a couple weeks before he revealed this information to the Australian, Papadopoulos gets information from Mifsud, the professor, basically saying the Russians have dirt on Hillary. Before that, Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to another mysterious Russian who he had introduced as Putin's niece. Now, Putin doesn't have a niece. So this individual - we still don't have a clear picture of her role or what exactly she does. But she met Papadopoulos, and they exchanged multiple, you know, Skype messages, other kinds of communications.
SUAREZ: We have less than half a minute left. How does this line up with the Trump administration's characterization of Papadopoulos as a low-level figure in the campaign - a coffee boy, as one staffer put it?
MAZZETTI: Yes, that's been the line. He was a coffee boy. He was a low-paid - you know, unpaid volunteer. What we show is he actually was more central to the campaign. He helped broker a significant meeting between Trump and the president of Egypt. So he remained influential throughout the campaign.
SUAREZ: Thank you. Mark Mazzetti is the Washington investigations editor for The New York Times.
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