What you need to know about Christopher Steele, the FBI and the Trump 'dossier'
— Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Jan. 7, 2018
Graham and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on Jan. 5 referred Christopher Steele, the author of the "dossier" alleging ties between President Donald Trump and Russia, for a criminal investigation by the Justice Department. The move is an unexpected twist in the saga over the document, which was gossiped about in journalistic circles during the 2016 presidential election until a version was published by BuzzFeed shortly before Trump's inauguration.
The referral was vague about the reasons because the two lawmakers are relying on classified information. A committee aide said a concern arose because of a discrepancy between the classified documents and assertions made by Steele in a London court filing about his contacts with reporters. Graham and Grassley cited a law that prohibits individuals from making false statements to the federal authorities, so it's reasonable to assume that the files in question concern Steele's communications with the FBI. The aide said the committee is trying to make some of the information in question available to the public.
During an appearance on "Meet the Press," Graham called Steele "an informant" for the FBI and accused him of "shopping this dossier all over the world."
All of this may be confusing to readers, so here's what we know about Steele, Fusion GPS and the FBI.
As we have explained before, Fusion GPS was started by a group of former Wall Street Journal reporters, notably investigative reporter Glenn R. Simpson. The firm says it "provides premium research, strategic intelligence, and due diligence services to corporations, law firms, and investors worldwide."
Fusion in 2015 began investigating Trump under a contract with the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website financially supported by GOP megadonor Paul Singer. That assignment ended once Trump was on track to win the nomination but in April 2016, Fusion was hired by the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee to keep funding the research. (Marc E. Elias, a lawyer representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC, retained the firm.)
In early June, Fusion hired Steele, a former British intelligence officer with ties to the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community, to examine Trump's ties in Russia. The dossier is actually several memos, based on conversations with Russian sources, that were written between June and October of 2016.
On June 14, The Washington Post reported that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the DNC. Six days later, Steele finished his first memo.
"Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years," Steele's memo began. "Aim, endorsed by [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, has been to encourage splits in division in western alliance." The memo further claims that Trump and "his inner circle" have accepted "a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin" and that Russia had enough compromising material on Trump to blackmail him.
Steele, by his own account, was sufficiently alarmed by what he had been told by his Russian sources that in early July he sought out a contact in the FBI, located in Rome, to supply the memo and other information. "Near the start of July on his own initiative — without the permission of the U.S. company that hired him - he sent a report he had written for that firm to a contact at the FBI," David Corn of Mother Jones reported in October 2016, before the election, without identifying Steele as his source.
The response from his FBI source was "shock and horror," Steele told Corn. But something else was going on at the FBI at the time — an interview with Clinton on July 2 about her controversial email server, and then the announcement on July 5 by then-FBI Director James Comey that no charges would be brought against Clinton or her aides about the email matter. The FBI leadership was further distracted by the political fallout from the Clinton decision, including having to prepare for testimony on Capitol Hill.
Then three things happened:
-Trump foreign-policy adviser Carter Page traveled to Moscow July 7-8 and made a speech criticizing U.S. policy toward Russia that echoed Putin's views. He emailed the Trump campaign about his insights from the trip. On July 19, Steele completed a report on Page's Moscow trip, alleging various meetings with Russian officials, including that Page met with Igor Diveykin, Putin's deputy chief for internal policy, for a discussion of "kompromat" on Clinton that might be given to the Trump campaign. (Page has denied the allegations made by Steele, referring often to the "dodgy dossier.")
-WikiLeaks on July 22 released 20,000 emails that had been hacked from the DNC, a move that had signs of Russian handiwork and was already under investigation by the FBI. The embarrassing inside look at Democratic Party operations led to the resignation of the DNC chair.
- The Australian government notified U.S. authorities about a drunken conversation that a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, had had with an Australian diplomat in May. Papadopoulos claimed the Russians had "political dirt" on Clinton.
In other words, from two different sources, the FBI receives reports of Trump campaign officials being aware that Russia has compromising material on Clinton — just as Russia appears to have attacked Clinton with the release of damaging emails.
A "few weeks" after Steele's initial approach to the FBI, "the bureau asked him for information on his sources and their reliability and on how he had obtained his reports," Corn reported in a January 2017 article. "He was also asked to continue to send copies of his subsequent reports to the bureau."
In other words, by the end of the July, the leadership of the FBI was paying attention. Whether Steele's initial approach to the FBI was as important as other elements - such as the DNC hack or the Australian communication — is unclear.
Simpson and Peter Fritsch, another Fusion GPS founder, wrote in a recent commentary that they did not believe Steele's reporting was the trigger for the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling: "As we told the Senate Judiciary Committee in August, our sources said the dossier was taken so seriously because it corroborated reports the bureau had received from other sources, including one inside the Trump camp," apparently referring to the report on Papadopoulos.
Sometime in this summer period, the FBI obtained a secret court order to monitor the Page's communications, after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, Russia. According to CNN, Steele's reports were part of the justification used to win approval of the court order, though the FBI apparently corroborated the information as part of its investigation. Page has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Some reports have claimed that the FBI did not obtain the court order until after Trump campaign cut ties with Page. Page, however, did not announce until Sept. 26 that he was taking a leave of absence because of negative news reporting on his Russia connections. Such a late approval of the FISA order does not fit with the timeline, but it conveniently suggests the FBI did not obtain a court order on a Trump adviser when he was active in the campaign.
Indeed, four days earlier, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — had issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election. On Oct. 7, the Obama administration issued a statement blaming Russian government for "the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations."
Meanwhile, at the direction of Fusion, at the end of September Steele began briefing reporters from The Post, the New York Times, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN, according to a court filing in London regarding a defamation suit stemming from the BuzzFeed publication of the dossier. In mid-October, he had further meetings with the Times, the Post and Yahoo News. Finally, the filing says, Fusion directed him to have a Skype conversation with Corn of Mother Jones in late October.
"No copies of the pre-election memoranda were ever shown or provided to any journalists by, or with the authorization of, the Defendants," the filing says, referring to Steele and his consulting firm. "The briefings involved the disclosure of limited intelligence regarding indications of Russian interference in the US election process and the possible co-ordination of members of Trump's campaign team and Russian government officials."
Corn, in his initial article, quoted from Steele's memos but does not say how he obtained them.
Steele's last report for Fusion was submitted on Oct. 20. The Post reported that the FBI had reached an agreement with Steele to pay him to continue his work after the election but the arrangement fell apart after his research became public. He may have been reimbursed for some travel expenses.
Steele also provided a copy of his dossier to a national security official in Britain and to an associate of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who in turn gave it to Comey. Presumably it was not newsworthy at that point to the FBI director.
The Bottom Line
Steele was not being paid as an informant when he was in communication with the FBI but he was certainly informing officials about his reports. Whether he was "shopping" the material is a matter of opinion, but clearly at the direction of Fusion, Steele tried to interest reporters in his findings on Russia and Trump. The referral of Steele to the Justice Department remains a mystery, and we will update this column as more information becomes available.
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