One rainy night in May 2016, a Trump campaign advisor named George Papadopoulos walked into a posh wine bar in affluent West London.
- Alexander Downer denies recording the meeting or having any ulterior motive
- George Papadopoulos alleges that Mr Downer told him he “hated” Barack Obama
- Mr Downer says that accusing him of being part of an international conspiracy is “a little bit sad”
The meeting at the Kensington Wine Roomswas only meant to be a drink with Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK, Alexander Downer.
But the one-hour meeting set off a chain of events leading to an investigation into the President of the United States and a running dispute between the pair about exactly what happened that night.
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Their disagreement became so acrimonious that Mr Papadopoulos titled a chapter in his book The Devil From Down Under, in which he lists his accusations against Mr Downer.
Did they get drunk? Was it wine or gin and tonic? Was one spying on the other? And did they discuss “damaging material” about Hillary Clinton, held by the Russians?
For the first time, both Mr Papadopoulos and Mr Downer tell their side of the story.
It’s up to you who you believe.
Why did they meet?
The meeting was arranged by Erika Thompson, an Australian who was a political counsellor at Australia’s London High Commission and whose partner worked at the Israeli embassy.
He suggested that Mr Downer should meet Mr Papadopoulos.
But the pair have a different interpretation of just how innocent the origin of their meeting was.
“I had no idea what he wanted to talk about and quite frankly, an invite by an ambassador is very peculiar,” Mr Papadopoulos said.
His feeling intensified when Mr Downer pulled out his phone.
“What I believe he was doing was spying on me. It’s as if I was there being interrogated and profiled by an intelligence officer — and that’s exactly what I left that meeting thinking,” he said.
“I’m having a very unpleasant meeting with a bizarre diplomat and I’m having one drink with him and I can’t wait to leave this meeting.”
Mr Downer recalls a much more casual and amicable evening.
“We just arranged to have a drink with him on the way home one evening,” he said.
“I wasn’t recording him. I wouldn’t as a diplomat record meetings that I had with people — that would be very unprofessional.
“If I was playing with my phone during the meeting, it would have been because I was checking my SMS messages and my emails which I don’t think you should do during a meeting, but occasionally I do.
“It was perfectly friendly. There was nothing untoward about it at all. He seemed a nice enough guy, he was perfectly friendly.”
What did they drink?
The Kensington Wine Rooms has a selection of over 150 wines, but Mr Downer and Mr Papadopoulos didn’t order a bottle.
“I wasn’t too impressed with the wine and so I ordered a gin and tonic,” explained Mr Papadopoulos.
Their drinks order might be the only thing the men can agree on. Mr Downer said he also had a single gin and tonic.
“The New York Times claimed that it was an alcohol-fuelled evening,” he said.
“In the imaginary land that people on the Twittersphere live in, there are suggestions that we were all rolling drunk or that I had very cunningly got Papadopoulos drunk. Impossible.”
What was the gossip on world leaders?
Just days before the meeting The Times of London had interviewed Mr Papadopoulos, who used the opportunity to admonish then-prime minister David Cameron for his criticisms of Mr Trump. According to Mr Papadopoulos, it was the first thing on Mr Downer’s mind at the meeting.
“Within probably 30 seconds of me sitting down he’s basically attacking me, telling me that his good friend David Cameron should be left alone,” Mr Papadopoulos said.
“If my memory serves me well I think we did talk a little bit about Cameron,” Mr Downer said.
“My advice to him I think was that he should go easy on criticising David Cameron. Might be wrong about that, that’s my recollection.”
Then-president Barack Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton were also on the agenda.
“He told me he’s very pro-Clinton, and he hates Obama,” alleged Mr Papadopoulos.
“I don’t have an opinion of Barack Obama as a personality although he’s obviously very clever and very articulate,” Mr Downer said.
“He was quite a poor president — he was a very disappointing president.
“I think Hillary Clinton’s a very smart and engaging woman.
“I could have said that. I mean I can’t remember saying it, but I could have said it.”
The moment that set off an international investigation
It wasn’t until towards the end of the meeting that the pair had a brief exchange that would set off one of the biggest sagas in presidential history.
It was about Mr Trump’s prospects in the looming election.
“I asked him whether he thought Donald Trump would be able to defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election,” said Mr Downer.
“He said he was confident he could.”
“He said one of the reasons was that the Russians might release some information which could be damaging to Hillary Clinton.”
Mr Downer and Erika Thompson decided after the meeting this was concerning enough that they should send a cable back to Canberra about the exchange.
The cable outlined that Mr Papadopoulos claimed to be aware of a Russian attempt to discredit Mrs Clinton.
Mr Papadopoulos denies all of this.
“I have absolutely no memory of ever talking to him about that,” he said.
That cable was eventually passed on to US intelligence, providing part of the impetus for an investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign and its ties to Russia.
Mr Papadopoulos might dispute telling Mr Downer about the emails, but he does remember being told about the Clinton emails about two weeks before the meeting.
He also admitted he told Greece’s Foreign Minister about the damaging emails about two weeks later.
He maintains that does not mean he told the Australian diplomat too.
“There’s nothing illegal about spreading rumours, okay?” he said.
“So there’s no reason for me to be hiding it if I really did tell him [Downer] that.”
Mr Downer thought the discrepancy was galling.
“I mean, come on,” he said. “I mean honestly, the guy needs to get his story better together than this.”
A diplomatic crisis or a conspiracy theory?
In Mr Papadopoulos’s version of events, Mr Downer was part of an operation designed to trigger an investigation into the Trump campaign to undermine the candidate before he reached office.
“The President of the United States is privy to classified information that neither I or you, or others have, and he’s calling it a conspiracy and a coup against him,” Mr Papadopoulos said.
“There’s a big diplomatic crisis brewing right now between our two countries.”
Mr Downer, who is now executive chairman of the International School of Government at King’s College in London, said the theories spouted by Mr Papadopoulos are impossible.
“This sort of idea that there is a kind of a ASIS-ASIO-MI6-MI5-FBI-CIA-Ukrainian Government conspiracy to bring down the Trump administration, that this is treason, that I should be in Guantanamo Bay… I mean it’s a little bit sad that people take that kind of thought seriously,” he said.