The Steele dossier on Trump and Russia, explained
Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) made the first criminal referral from congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election on Friday in a surprising way.
They requested charges not against anyone involved in the underlying crimes committed, but against Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who worked during the 2016 campaign cycle on compiling a dossier alleging the existence of a conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government.
That brings the Steele dossier — yes, this is the document alleging the existence of a “pee tape” that the Russians may have used to blackmail Trump — to a strange point. Its origins of liberal hopes of exposing a massive conspiracy that would bring Trump down have led to its current status as the center of a conservative conspiracy theory that’s supposed to bring Robert Mueller down.
The allegations in the dossier played essentially no role in either the GOP primary or the general election, and, contrary to the dueling myths of left- and right-wing conspiracy theorists, it is neither the case that subsequent investigation has vindicated the dossier’s claims nor is it the case that the Trump investigation is primarily based on those claims.
It’s a piece of ephemera whose waxing and waning reputation and varied political valence says more about the shifting politics of Trump and Russia than anything else.
Fusion GPS hired Christopher Steele to investigate Trump
Fusion GPS, the company that created the dossier, was co-founded in 2011 by Glenn Simpson, Peter Fritsch, and Thomas Catan — three former Wall Street Journal journalists who were part of a larger 21st century trend of experienced reporters adapting to the changing economic climate by leaving the field in favor of various forms of “strategic intelligence” or research for hire.
The company’s extremely terse website describes it as simply providing “premium research, strategic intelligence, and due diligence services to corporations, law firms, and investors worldwide.”
As a DC-based firm, some of their work has been political. A 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed revealed that Fusion GPS worked for Democrats doing opposition research on Mitt Romney. According to Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti and chairman Michael Goldfarb, the firm was were engaged early in the 2016 cycle “to provide research on multiple candidates in the Republican presidential primary.”
Later, in April 2016, Marc Elias — a top Democratic campaign lawyer — retained Fusion GPS through his firm of Perkins Coie on behalf of both Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Perkins Coie, at Elias’ behest and with the bills ultimately paid by Clinton and the DNC, continued to fund Fusion’s work through the end of October 2016, though the people involved say that neither the campaign nor the DNC was aware of the details of Fusion’s work.
Fusion, in turn, subcontracted with Christopher Steele, a retired MI-6 officer with considerable expertise on Russian matters, to use his contacts in Moscow to find what he could about Trump’s connections to the Russian government. That work led to the compilation of Steele’s dossier, written up in the style of an intelligence report and based on unnamed sources, that contained a variety of serious charges against Trump.
Steele’s dossier circulated in the media during the fall of 2016, but news organizations largely failed to verify any of its key claims. Steele also shared the document with the FBI, where it was apparently taken at least somewhat seriously in light of Steele’s record as an intelligence professional, and the existence of the dossier was subsequently revealed by David Corn in Mother Jones on October 31.
The Steele dossier became a big deal during the transition
Corn’s story did not play a particularly large role in what remained of the election campaign, and though the Clinton campaign certainly threw some Russia-related charges at Trump the issue was not a centerpiece of her message.
That began to swiftly change in the wake of Trump’s unexpected victory. The Obama administration had to an extent downplayed what it knew about Russia’s election-related activities during the course of the campaign, trying to keep partisan politics separate from a national security issue and also reasonably confident that Clinton would win. Once she lost, the calculus changed to an extent and the administration began to pull back the curtain on the extent of Russian activism around the election.
But to say that the Russian government invested resources in boosting Trump’s fortunes is not to say that Trump was a pawn of the Kremlin.
The notion that Trump was in some sense in cahoots with the Russians had, however, been widely bandied-about in a range of contexts for months — we know now that back in June of 2016, even House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was joking that Trump was on Putin’s payroll — and was part of liberals’ desperate fantasy that a group of rogue “Hamilton Electors” would somehow step in and block Trump from taking office.
It was in this context that Buzzfeed decided to bring the public in on what had been circulating for a while in media circles and publish the full dossier on January 10, 2017. The dossier, compiled by a credible person though lacking any kind of independent verification, charged that Trump was in fact under the influence of Russian intelligence services, who had both a longstanding relationship with the president-elect and had also compiled salacious blackmail material on him.
The Steele dossier makes six major collusion claims, none proven
One core claim of the Steele dossier, contentious during the course of the 2016 campaign but widely agreed-upon now, is simply that there was, in fact, a multi-faceted Kremlin-directed influence campaign aimed at boosting Trump’s electoral fortunes. An official US Intelligence Community assessment released in January says that was the case, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigations have the same conclusion, and even though Trump personally continues to dispute even this though people he has appointed to top IC jobs agree that it’s true.
But the dossier of course goes well beyond that, to make six major claims about Trump’s ties to Russia that really haven’t been borne out by any subsequent reporting or investigation that we know of.
1) Trump had cooperated with Russian authorities for years.
A core claim of the dossier is that Russia “had been feeding Trump and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents,” including Clinton, for “several years” before 2016 and that in exchange Trump’s team fed the Kremlin intelligence on Russian oligarchs and their families “for at least eight years.”
The premise of this theory, that many Russian nationals have bought Trump-branded properties and thus he might be in a position to offer useful information to Russian authorities, is clearly correct but nothing like it has been shown to be true.
2) Trump is vulnerable to Russian blackmail on sexual matters.
The dossier states that during a trip to the Moscow Ritz Carlton, Trump hired prostitutes to “perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him”, “defiling” the presidential suite bed in which the Obamas had previously slept with the implication being that Russian intelligence taped this and that it was one of several forms of “kompromat” the Russians have on Trump.
Nothing like this has been proven.
3) There was a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between Trump and Russia.
Steele describes a Trump/Russia “conspiracy,” managed by Paul Manafort, with Carter Page serving as intermediary until Manafort’s firing in August 2016 after which point Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen played an increasingly large role in managing the “Kremlin relationship.”
This is broadly similar to some things that have been demonstrated later, but totally different in the details.
4) Trump’s team knew and approved of Russian plans to deliver emails to Wikileaks, and offered them policy concessions in exchange.
The dossier claims that Trump and his campaign team had “full knowledge and support” of Russia’s leak of the DNC emails to Wikileaks, and that in return, Trump’s team “had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue.”
This is obviously a subject of ongoing investigation, but none of the various conversations about Russian dirt on Clinton that have come to light so far demonstrate what the dossier claims.
5) Carter Page played a key role in the conspiracy.
The dossier says that according to an “ethnic Russian associate” of Trump, Carter Page had “conceived and promoted” the idea that the DNC emails to Wikileaks should be leaked during the Democratic convention, “to swing supporters of Bernie Sanders away from Hilary Clinton and across from Trump.” It also says Page met senior Russian official Igor Diveykin to talk kompromat on Clinton, and met with Igor Sechin to discussion financial payoffs to Page and others via the privatization of the Russian company Rosneft.
Page has denied under oath having met either Diveykin or Sechin and there’s no indication he had anything to do with the timing of the Wikileaks release.
6) Michael Cohen played a key role in the conspiracy.
The dossier says that after Paul Manafort was fired, Cohen traveled to a European Union country (later reports claim it was the Czech Republic) in late August or early September to meet with Russian officials, and that the meeting took place under the cover of a Russian NGO, Rossotrudnichestvo. One topic of this meeting was “coverup and damage limitation,” around Manafort’s Ukrainian work and efforts to “prevent the full details of Trump’s relationship with Russia being exposed.” According to the dossier, after August, Cohen continued to manage Trump’s relations with Russia, but after this point contacts were made to Russia’s “trusted agents of influence” instead of officials. Cohen also supposedly discussed how to make “deniable cash payments” to hackers working under Kremlin direction, and how to cover up those operations.
Cohen’s purported proof that he’s never been to Prague — showing a passport that lacks a Czech Republic stamp — is unconvincing since he could have traveled to Prague via another Schengen Area country and might have multiple passports. But none of this has been proven.
The claims in the Steele dossier might be true
A number of articles have been published in recent months which, on their surface, seem to feature journalists claiming that the core contentions of the Steele dossier have been proven.
Much of this is questionable framing.
Bertrand’s article, for example, cites Page testifying to Congress that he met with Rosneft’s head of investor relations and briefly with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich as supporting key portions of the Steele dossier. What the dossier actually says, however, is that Page pet with Igor Diveykin (a Russian intelligence official) and Igor Sechin (the CEO of Rosneft).