Alexander Downer named as crucial link in US investigation into Russian interference

An explosive report out of Washington has placed Australia's high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, in a crucial chain of events that prompted American authorities to investigate Russian interference in the US election.

The New York Times revealed Mr Downer was told by a young Donald Trump aide that Moscow had "political dirt" on Hillary Clinton, then the presumptive Democratic nominee for US President, during a boozy rendezvous in London in May 2016.

It was another two months before that information reached US diplomats, the paper reported, raising questions about why Mr Downer - a former Opposition leader and Howard government minister - did not have the intelligence passed on sooner.

The Australian government went to ground on Sunday after the revelations were published, saying through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that no comment would be made because the matters were subject to ongoing US investigations. Labor also declined to comment.

According to the Times, Mr Downer met George Papadopoulos - a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign who would later admit to lying to the FBI about Russian links - at the upmarket Kensington Wine Room for a "night of heavy drinking".

The exact contents of the conversation were not known. But two months later, when stolen Democratic National Committee emails were published by WikiLeaks, Australian officials reportedly informed their US counterparts of Mr Papadopoulos' disclosures.

That information backed up intelligence from other sources and led the FBI to open a secret investigation into Russian meddling in the US election - a probe now led by special counsel Robert Mueller that has focused on the involvement of the Trump campaign.

Sunday's revelations about the Australian tip-off helps answer questions about what prompted the FBI's probe in July 2016.

Mr Downer did not respond to calls on Sunday, but one of his predecessors as high commissioner, former senator Richard Alston, said there was nothing unusual about Mr Downer's meeting with Mr Papadopoulos.

"We all mix with interesting people at times," he said. "You do follow leads, and I don't find anything particularly odd about that. You don't necessarily know that someone's a low-level lackey until you've met them, or even afterwards."

The Times reported the meeting came about through a series of connections involving an Israeli diplomat who introduced Mr Papadopoulos to an Australian counterpart. It said the story was sourced from four current and former American and foreign officials.

John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, said Mr Downer would not have taken the revelation lightly and it was "highly likely he would have written a cable or made a phone call".

But it was also likely Australian officials would have wanted to know more - or needed a clear reason - before passing the information on to the Americans, he said.

"Australia is not renowned for meddling with US politics or for dobbing people in in US politics. You tread very, very warily," Professor Blaxland said. "It would be highly unusual for Alexander Downer to act on something like that unless he had pretty good reason."

Mr Alston said intelligence officials would have been responsible for decisions about informing the Americans, not Mr Downer.

"You tell those people and then you leave it up to them. You don't ask whether they've passed it on - they probably wouldn't tell you anyway," he said. "They guard their independence quite jealously. They certainly don't share strategies and things like that with diplomats, even the high commissioner. They do their own thing."

Tom Switzer, a US politics expert, executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies think tank and a friend of Mr Downer, said the revelations amounted to more circumstantial evidence about the Trump camp's links to Moscow and it was "not a good day for Trump".

"Downer's well known in conservative circles in America and I think Papadopoulos probably just thought he'd drop in to say g'day," Mr Switzer said. "He probably fancied himself as a bit of a player when he wasn't actually that big a deal.

"Downer might have smelled a rat and thought this guy's just a bit of a dodgy character. ... Downer's done everything right."

Mr Switzer said he had not discussed the matter with Mr Downer.

In April, the Turnbull government extended Mr Downer's posting in London. He will be replaced by former attorney-general George Brandis, most likely after February, giving time for Senator Brandis to make a valedictory speech.

On Twitter, many Americans told Mr Downer he was a "hero" and had helped to save democracy in the US. In domestic politics, Mr Downer is best known for his disastrous run as leader of the Liberal opposition in 1994, his encounter with a pair of fishnet stockings and his nearly 12 years as foreign minister in the Howard government.

This story Alexander Downer named as crucial link in US investigation into Russian interference first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.