Hockey discussed Downer's Russia revelations with FBI

The ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey personally steered Australia's dealings with the FBI on explosive revelations of Russian hacking during last year's presidential campaign in a sign of how politically sensitive the Australian government regarded the bombshell discovery, Fairfax Media understands.

It is also understood there is now annoyance and frustration in Canberra that the High Commissioner to Britain Alexander Downer has been outed through leaks by US officials as the source of information that played a role in sparking an FBI probe into the Trump campaign's dealings with Moscow.

Fairfax Media has confirmed independently that the conversation first reported by The New York Times took place. In May 2016, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told Mr Downer over drinks at an upscale London wine bar that the Russians had a dirt file on rival candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of hacked Democratic Party emails.

It is understood Joe Hockey was involved in discussions with the FBI. Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick

It is understood Joe Hockey was involved in discussions with the FBI. Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick

Mr Downer conveyed the conversation to Canberra via an official cable, though apparently not immediately - perhaps because he did not take the 28-year-old adviser's claims altogether seriously until the hacked emails were released by Wikileaks in late July.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is planning a trip to the United States in February, Fairfax Media understands. Mr Turnbull said on Monday he was "not at all" worried that Australia's role in sparking the investigation that has become a consuming headache for Mr Trump would damage his relationship with the President. Beyond that he refused to comment.

Mr Hockey is believed to have been involved in discussions with the FBI, indicating the Australian government was keenly alive to its political sensitivity, given it raised the possibility that one side of a presidential campaign was colluding with a foreign power against the other side.

Former officials and experts have said Australia dealt with the fraught situation correctly and had little choice but to share information of this nature with its closest ally. Serving and former officials also said Canberra had every right to be annoyed that Mr Downer's involvement had been made public.

Andrew Shearer, a senior national security and foreign affairs adviser to former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, said Mr Downer and the Australian government appeared to have handled the matter "entirely appropriately".

Australian High Commissioner to Britain, Alexander Downer. Photo: Alastair Grant

Australian High Commissioner to Britain, Alexander Downer. Photo: Alastair Grant

"Given the febrile political environment in Washington DC, particularly when it comes to anything relating to Russian election interference and the [Robert] Mueller investigation, it's regrettable but not terribly surprising that details of Downer's encounter with Papadopoulos have become public," said Mr Shearer, now with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Another CSIS expert, Michael Green, who was previously a senior White House national security official under George W. Bush, said Mr Downer's dramatic appearance at the centre of the case "gives this story of Trump campaign collusion with Russia a new level of credibility that will be problematic for the White House".

"Trump has attacked sources like this in the past, and it would not be surprising if he did so this time, though I think the US-Australia alliance and intel relationship can easily weather this," he said.

Mr Trump has furiously rejected suggestions of collusion between his campaign and the Russians to undermine his opponent. Along the way, he has launched unprecedented attacks on the FBI itself, while he and his supporters have dismissed the genesis of the probe as being a dossier compiled by a British former spy paid by Mr Trump's political rivals.

The Downer story is significant because it suggests the original probe was instead sparked by a tip-off from a trusted ally.

The Russia probe is now being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller, a widely admired former FBI director. It is regarded as very unlikely the leak to The New York Times came from Mr Mueller or anyone connected to him.

It remains uncertain precisely the degree to which Australia's reporting of the Downer-Papadopoulos conversation sparked the original investigation, given US authorities were getting information also from other friendly governments and from within the US.

Mr Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now co-operating as a witness.

Some Trump advisers and Republicans have dismissed him as an insignificant player in the campaign, though there are numerous reported instances of his having played a significant role.

TheNew York Times reported there was no evidence that he told anyone else in the Trump campaign about the Russian hacking.

This story Hockey discussed Downer's Russia revelations with FBI first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.