The Donald Trump–Russia dossier is a private intelligence dossier that was written by Christopher Steele, a former British MI6 intelligence officer. It contains unverified allegations of misconduct and ties between Donald Trump, then President-elect, and the Russian government during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the period preceding the election. The existence of the dossier was first reported on January 10, 2017. Steele went into hiding after the release of the dossier, but reappeared on March 7, 2017.
The dossier alleges that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has kompromat on Trump – damaging or embarrassing material which could be used to blackmail him, including allegations about Trump's sexual and financial activities in Russia. The dossier also states that the Russian government promoted Trump's candidacy to create divisions in Western alliances, and that during his presidential campaign, at the heat of the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, there was exchange of information and collusion between Russian officials and people associated with Trump's campaign.
The media and the intelligence community have stressed that accusations in the dossier have not been verified. Most experts have treated the dossier with caution, but in February, it was reported that some details related to conversations between foreign nationals had been independently corroborated, giving U.S. intelligence and law enforcement greater confidence in some aspects of the dossier as investigations continued. Trump himself has denounced the report, calling it "fake news" and "phony." A Russian government spokesman dismissed the dossier, saying its allegations were false. Steele's former colleagues came out in defense of his character and expertise.
The dossier was produced as part of opposition research during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The research was initially funded by Republicans who did not want Trump to be the Republican Party nominee for president. After Trump won the primaries, a Democratic client took over the funding; and, following Trump's election, Steele continued working on the report pro bono and passed on the information to British and American intelligence services.
The 35-page dossier claims that Russia is in possession of damaging or embarrassing information about Trump which could be used for purposes of blackmail to get Trump to cooperate with the Russian government. The material includes allegations about Trump's sexual and financial dealings in Russia. The dossier further alleges that Trump has been cultivated and supported by Russia for at least five years, with Putin's endorsement, with the overall aim of creating divisions between Western alliances; that Trump has extensive ties to Russia; and that there had been multiple contacts between Russian officials and people working for Trump during the campaign.
According to reports, the dossier was created as the result of an investigation initially funded by "Never Trump" Republicans and later by Democrats. In September 2015, a wealthy Republican donor who opposed Trump's candidacy in the Republican primary hired Fusion GPS, an American research firm, to do opposition research on Trump. For months, Fusion GPS gathered information about Trump, focusing on his business and entertainment activities. When Trump became the presumptive nominee in May 2016, the Republican donor withdrew and the investigation contract was taken over by an unidentified Democratic client.
In June 2016 it was revealed that the Democratic National Committee website had been hacked by Russian sources, so Fusion GPS hired Orbis Business Intelligence, a private British intelligence firm, to look into any Russian connections. The investigation was undertaken by Orbis co-founder Christopher Steele, a retired British MI6 officer with expertise in Russian matters. Steele delivered his report as a series of two- or three-page memos, starting in June 2016 and continuing through December. He continued his investigation even after the client stopped paying for it following Trump's election.
On his own initiative, Steele decided to also pass on the information to British and American intelligence services because he believed that the findings were a matter of national security for both countries. However, he became frustrated with the FBI, which he believed was failing to investigate his reports, choosing instead to focus on investigating Hillary Clinton's emails. According to The Independent, Steele came to believe that there was a "cabal" inside the FBI, particularly its New York field office linked to Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani, which blocked any attempts to investigate the links between Trump and Russia. In October 2016, he passed on what he discovered so far to a reporter from Mother Jones magazine.
Shortly after the presidential election, Senator John McCain, who had been informed about the alleged links between Kremlin and Trump, met with former British ambassador to Moscow Sir Andrew Wood. Wood confirmed the existence of the dossier and vouched for Steele. McCain obtained the dossier from David J. Kramer and took it directly to FBI director James Comey himself on December 9, 2016.
In a court filing in April 2017, Steele revealed previously unreported information that in December 2016 he gave one more report to "the senior British national security official and sent an encrypted version to Fusion with instructions to deliver a hard copy to Senator McCain." This memo, dated December 13, detailed possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. It described secret discussions between four named Trump representatives, Kremlin representatives, and associated operators/hackers about how to secretly pay the hackers who penetrated the DNC computer system and also how to cover up the operation. Although paid by the Trump organisation, the hackers were controlled by Putin's administration. "Comey has confirmed that counter-intelligence investigations are under way into possible links between Trump associates and Moscow, and CNN has reported that the FBI used the dossier to bolster its investigations."
By Fall 2016, many news organizations knew about the existence of the dossier; it has been described as an "open secret" among journalists. However, they chose not to publish information that could not be confirmed. Finally on October 31, 2016, a week before the election, Mother Jones reported that a former intelligence officer, whom they did not name, had produced a report based on Russian sources and turned it over to the FBI. The report alleged that the Russian government had cultivated Trump for years:
The "Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance." It maintained that Trump "and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals." It claimed that Russian intelligence had "compromised" Trump during his visits to Moscow and could "blackmail him."
The report further alleged that there were multiple in-person meetings between Russian government officials and individuals established as working for Trump. The former intelligence officer continued to share information with the FBI, and said in October 2016 that "there was or is a pretty substantial inquiry going on."
In October 2016 the FBI reached an agreement with Steele to pay him to continue his work, according to involved sources reported by The Washington Post. "Steele was known for the quality of his past work and for the knowledge he had developed over nearly 20 years working on Russia-related issues for British intelligence." The FBI found Steele credible and his unproved information worthy enough that it considered paying Steele to continue collecting information, but the release of the document to the public stopped discussions between Steele and the FBI.
Trump and Barack Obama were briefed on the existence of the dossier by the chiefs of several U.S. intelligence agencies in early January 2017. Vice President Joe Biden has confirmed that he and the president had received briefings on the dossier, and the allegations within.
On January 10, 2017, CNN reported that classified documents presented to Obama and Trump the previous week included allegations that Russian operatives possess "compromising personal and financial information" about Trump. CNN stated that it would not publish specific details on the memos because it had not "independently corroborated the specific allegations." Following the CNN report, BuzzFeed published a 35-page dossier that it said was the basis of the briefing, including unverified claims that Russian operatives had collected "embarrassing material" involving Trump that could be used to blackmail him. NBC reported that a senior U.S. intelligence official said that Trump had not been previously briefed on the contents of the memos, although a CNN report said that a statement released by James Clapper in early January confirmed that the synopsis existed and had been compiled for Trump.
Many news organizations knew about the document in the fall of 2016, before the presidential election, but refused to publish it because they could not independently verify the information. BuzzFeed was harshly criticized for publishing what Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan called "scurrilous allegations dressed up as an intelligence report meant to damage Donald Trump" while The New York Times noted that the publication sparked a debate centering around the use of unsubstantiated information from anonymous sources. BuzzFeed's executive staff said the materials were newsworthy because they were "in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media" and argued that this justified public release.
On January 10, 2017, CNN reported on the existence of the dossier. CNN's report did not name the author of the dossier, but revealed that he was British, at which point Steele concluded that his anonymity had been "fatally compromised". He realized it was "only a matter of time until his name became public knowledge," and, accompanied by his family, he fled into hiding in fear of "a prompt and potentially dangerous backlash against him from Moscow." The Wall Street Journal revealed Steele's name on January 11. Steele worked for Orbis Business Intelligence, Ltd. at the time the dossier was authored, and Orbis director Christopher Burrows would not "confirm or deny" that Orbis had produced the dossier.
Called by the media a "highly regarded Kremlin expert" and "one of MI6's greatest 'Russia specialists", Steele formerly worked for the British intelligence agency MI6 and is currently working for Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd., a private intelligence company Steele had co-founded in London. Steele entered the MI6 directly after his graduation from college, in 1987.
Former British ambassador to Moscow Sir Andrew Wood has vouched for Steele's reputation. He views Steele as a "very competent professional operator... I take the report seriously. I don't think it's totally implausible." He also stated that "the report's key allegation – that Trump and Russia's leadership were communicating via secret back channels during the presidential campaign – was eminently plausible"
On December 26, 2016, Oleg Erovinkin, a former KGB/FSB general, was found dead in his car in Moscow. Erovinkin was a key liaison between Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, and President Putin. Christopher Steele claimed much of the information came from a source close to Sechin. According to Christo Grozev, a journalist at Risk Management Lab, a think-tank based in Bulgaria, the circumstances of Erovinkin's death was "mysterious". Grozev suspected Erovinkin helped Christopher Steele compile the dossier on Trump and suggests the hypothesis that the death may have been part of a cover-up by the government of the Russian Federation. Mark Galeotti, Senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, who specialises in Russian history and security, rejected Grozev's hypothesis.
On March 7, 2017, as some members of Congress in the US were expressing interest in meeting with or hearing testimony from Steele, he reemerged after weeks in hiding, appearing publicly on camera and stating, "I'm really pleased to be back here working again at the Orbis's offices in London today."
Observers and experts have had varying reactions to the dossier. Generally, "former intelligence officers and other national-security experts" urged "skepticism and caution" but still took "the fact that the nation's top intelligence officials chose to present a summary version of the dossier to both President Obama and President-elect Trump" as an indication "that they may have had a relatively high degree of confidence that at least some of the claims therein were credible, or at least worth investigating further."
Vice President Biden told reporters that while he and President Obama were receiving a briefing on the extent of Russian hackers trying to influence the US election, there was a two-page addendum which addressed the contents of the Steele Dossier. Top intelligence officials told them they "felt obligated to inform them about uncorroborated allegations about President-elect Donald Trump out of concern the information would become public and catch them off-guard."
According to Paul Wood of BBC News, the information in Steele's report is also reported by "multiple intelligence sources" and "at least one East European intelligence service." They report that there is "more than one tape, not just video, but audio as well, on more than one date, in more than one place, in both Moscow and St. Petersburg." He added that "the CIA believes it is credible that the Kremlin has such kompromat—or compromising material— on the next US commander in chief" and "a joint taskforce, which includes the CIA and the FBI, has been investigating allegations that the Russians may have sent money to Mr Trump's organisation or his election campaign." On March 30, 2017, Wood revealed that the FBI was using the dossier as a roadmap for its investigation. On April 18, 2017, CNN reported that corroborated information from the dossier had been used as part of the basis for getting the FISA warrant to monitor former Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page during the summer of 2016.
Former Los Angeles Times Moscow correspondent Robert Gillette wrote in an op-ed in the Concord Monitor that the dossier has had at least one of its main factual assertions verified. On January 6, 2017, the Director of National Intelligence released a report assessing "with high confidence" that Russia's combined cyber and propaganda operation was directed personally by Vladimir Putin, with the aim of harming Hillary Clinton's candidacy and helping Trump. Gillette wrote: "Steele's dossier, paraphrasing multiple sources, reported precisely the same conclusion, in greater detail, six months earlier, in a memo dated June 20."
Susan Hennessey, a former National Security Administration lawyer now with the Brookings Institution, stated: "My general take is that the intelligence community and law enforcement seem to be taking these claims seriously. That itself is highly significant. But it is not the same as these allegations being verified. Even if this was an intelligence community document—which it isn't—this kind of raw intelligence is still treated with skepticism." Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes wrote that "the current state of the evidence makes a powerful argument for a serious public inquiry into this matter."
Former CIA analyst Patrick Skinner said that he is "neither dismissing the report nor taking its claims at face value," telling Wired: "I imagine a lot more will come out, and much will be nothing and perhaps some of it will be meaningful, and perhaps even devastating." Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov writes that while "many of the report's elements appear hastily compiled", and there were many "shaky" claims, the document "rings frighteningly true" and "overall ... reflects accurately the way decision-making in the Kremlin looks to close observers." Soldatov writes: "Unverifiable sensational details aside, the Trump dossier is a good reflection of how things are run in the Kremlin – the mess at the level of decision-making and increasingly the outsourcing of operations, combined with methods borrowed from the KGB and the secret services of the lawless 1990s."
Newsweek published a list of "13 things that don't add up" in the dossier, writing that the document was a "strange mix of the amateur and the insightful" and stating that the document "contains lots of Kremlin-related gossip that could indeed be, as the author claims, from deep insiders—or equally gleaned" from Russian newspapers and blogs. Former UK ambassador to Russia Sir Tony Brenton stated that certain aspects of the dossier were inconsistent with British intelligence's understanding of how the Kremlin works, commenting: "I've seen quite a lot of intelligence on Russia, and there are some things in [the dossier] which look pretty shaky."
On February 10, 2017, CNN reported that some communications between "senior Russian officials and other Russian individuals" described in the dossier had been corroborated by multiple U.S. officials. Sources told CNN that some conversations had been "intercepted during routine intelligence gathering", but refused to reveal the content of conversations, or specify which communications were detailed in the dossier. CNN was unable to confirm whether conversations were related to Trump. U.S. officials said the corroboration gave "US intelligence and law enforcement 'greater confidence' in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier as they continue to actively investigate its contents".
According to Business Insider, the dossier alleges that "the Trump campaign agreed to minimize US opposition to Russia's incursions into Ukraine". In July 2016, the Republican National Convention made changes to the Republican Party's platform on Ukraine: initially they proposed providing "lethal weapons" to Ukraine, but the line was changed to "appropriate assistance". J. D. Gordon, who was one of Trump's national security advisers during the campaign, said that he had advocated for changing language because that reflected what Trump had said.
Trump called the dossier "fake news" and criticized the intelligence and media sources that published it. During a press conference on January 11, 2017, Trump denounced the unsubstantiated claims as false, saying that it was "disgraceful" for U.S. intelligence agencies to report them. Trump refused to answer a question from CNN's senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta on the subject and called CNN "fake news." In response, CNN said that it had published "carefully sourced reporting" on the matter which had been "matched by the other major news organizations," as opposed to BuzzFeed's posting of "unsubstantiated materials." James Clapper described the leaks as damaging to US national security. This also contradicted Trump's previous claim that Clapper said the information was false; Clapper's statement actually said the intelligence community has made no judgement on the truth or falsity of the information.
Russian press secretary Dmitry Peskov insisted in an interview that the document is a fraud, saying "I can assure you that the allegations in this funny paper, in this so-called report, they are untrue. They are all fake." The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, called the people who leaked the document "worse than prostitutes" and referred to the dossier itself as "rubbish." Putin went on to state he believed that the dossier was "clearly fake," fabricated as a plot against the legitimacy of President-elect Donald Trump.
Some of Steele's former colleagues expressed support for his character, saying "The idea his work is fake or a cowboy operation is false – completely untrue. Chris is an experienced and highly regarded professional. He's not the sort of person who will simply pass on gossip."
Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen, in a denial of some allegations, said "I'm telling you emphatically that I've not been to Prague, I've never been to Czech [Republic], I've not been to Russia. The story is completely inaccurate, it is fake news meant to malign Mr. Trump." Cohen said that between August 23–29 he was in Los Angeles. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "A Czech intelligence source told the Respekt magazine that there is no record of Cohen arriving in Prague by plane, although the news weekly pointed out he could have traveled by car or train from a nearby EU country, avoiding passport control under Schengen zone travel rules."
Among journalists, Bob Woodward called the dossier a "garbage document," while Carl Bernstein took the opposite view, noting that the senior-most U.S. intelligence officials had determined that the content was worth reporting to the president and the president-elect.
Aleksej Gubarev, chief of technology company XBT and a figure mentioned in the dossier, sued BuzzFeed for defamation on February 3, 2017. The suit, filed in a Broward County, Florida court, centers on allegations from the dossier that XBT had been "using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct 'altering operations' against the Democratic Party leadership." In the High Court of Justice, Steele's lawyers said that their client did not intend for the memos to be released, and that one of the memos "needed to be analyzed and further investigated/verified."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded to CNN's reporting of the partial corroborations by saying, "We continue to be disgusted by CNN's fake news reporting."
On March 2, 2017, media began reporting that the Senate may call Steele to testify about the Trump dossier.
On March 27, 2017, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley asked the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate an inquiry into Fusion GPS, who retained Steele to write the dossier. Fusion GPS was previously associated with pro-Russia lobbying activities due to sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act. Grassley's committee made direct inquiries of Fusion GPS: "When political opposition research becomes the basis for law enforcement or intelligence efforts, it raises substantial questions about the independence of law enforcement and intelligence from politics." The other basis for Grassley's concern is the fact that Fusion GPS was working as a pro-Russia lobbyist at the same time it had retained Steele to research and write the Trump dossier. Grassley was concerned that the FBI was improperly using the dossier as the basis for an investigation into Russian influence of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
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