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The Steele dossier, explained

Republican senators want the author of the “pee tape” document arrested.

Javier Zarrracina/Vox

Devin Nunes’ controversial memo has put Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who worked during the 2016 campaign cycle on compiling a dossier alleging the existence of a conspiracy between Donald 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 not the case that subsequent investigation has vindicated the dossier’s claims or 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 chair 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’s 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 of 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 swiftly changed 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.

Officials were 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 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 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: There was, in fact, a multifaceted 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 reached the same conclusion, and even though Trump personally continues to dispute this, people he has appointed to top intelligence jobs agree that it’s true.

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 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’s, 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 because 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 that, on their surface, 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 met with Igor Diveykin (a Russian intelligence official) and Igor Sechin (the CEO of Rosneft). In some sense, this confirms Steele’s reporting, in that the broad strokes of Page’s testimony are similar to some of the things Steele said. But in another sense, Page is testifying that Steele got key facts wrong.

The most one can really say has been confirmed about the Steele dossier is that a) there was in fact a Russian effort to help Trump, and b) the Trump camp clearly knew more about it than they said publicly. Given those conclusions, it’s certainly possible that the other stuff Steele alleges is also true, but virtually none of the particulars have been verified.

Conversely, one striking thing about what’s been reported over the past year is how much actual Trump-Russia contact Steele didn’t find out about. The dossier doesn’t mention Natalia Veselnitskaya, for example, a Russian lawyer with very real Kremlin links who really did hold a meeting at Trump Tower with key Trump campaign officials to discuss a deal involving dirt on Hillary Clinton being swapped for concessions on sanctions. Emin Agalarov and Rob Goldstone, who helped set the meeting up, aren’t mentioned either.

George Papadopolous, a former Trump campaign staffer who has pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI and appears to be a key figure in the Mueller investigation, doesn’t come up in the dossier. Nor are Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner important figures in it. These revelations certainly can be seen as bolstering the dossier’s overall thesis of a Trump-Russia conspiracy, but they can also be seen as undermining Steele’s credibility, as he appears to have missed some genuine significant events.

Last but by no means least, the Mueller inquiry has been conducted thus far with a remarkably high degree of secrecy. Nobody had any idea Manafort was about to be indicted until he was indicted, and nobody knows what kind of cooperation Michael Flynn is offering.

It certainly might be the case that Mueller could eventually reveal charges along the lines of what’s in the dossier — we wouldn’t know one way or the other — but so far, nothing we’ve seen from the investigation really either confirms or debunks its main arguments.

The dossier became the centerpiece of a conservative counternarrative

On January 3, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) — a key House conservative — rolled out a tweetstorm asking 18 questions about the FBI and Russia, many of them centering on the dossier.

Jordan, joined by another leading House conservative, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-SC), has also called for Trump to fire Jeff Sessions so he can put a new attorney general in place who would oversee (and presumably quash) the Russia investigation. This is part of a broader conservative effort to discredit the Mueller investigation, which in turn is part of a broader conservative counternarrative on the whole Russia scandal.

The dossier plays a key role in this theory. It’s long been known that Steele shared many of his findings with the FBI before the election. There were also reports that the FBI planned to pay Steele to do more work, and that the dossier’s allegations helped justify the FISA warrant to wiretap former Trump adviser Carter Page.

Given the fact that the Clinton campaign and DNC were behind the dossier, some conservatives wondered if in fact the entirety of the Trump/Russia investigation that has embroiled the White House in fact stemmed from Steele’s (bogus, they believe) allegations, used as a pretext by anti-Trump elements of the “deep state” to surveil and entrap people close to him. Back in November, the theory made it to the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, courtesy of columnist Kim Strassel, who wrote:

It is fair to ask if the entire Trump-Russia narrative—which has played a central role in our political discourse for a year, and is now resulting in a special counsel issuing unrelated indictments—is based on nothing more than a political smear document. Is there any reason to believe the FBI was probing a Trump-Russia angle before the dossier? Is there any collusion allegation that doesn’t come in some form from the dossier?

Strassel, however, turned out to be wrong. The New York Times reported in December, and the Nunes memo confirmed in February, that the FBI began investigating Trump associates’ ties to Russia for a reason having nothing to do with the dossier.

Specifically, they opened the investigation after receiving a tip from the Australian government that George Papadopoulos, after a night of drinking heavily, told Australia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom that he knew Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton. (Papadopoulos has since admitted in a guilty plea that, a few weeks before this, a Russian-connected source had told him that the Kremlin had incriminating emails about Clinton.)

The Nunes memo did confirm that the Justice Department partly relied on the Steele Dossier’s information to get a FISA warrant targeting Page in October 2016. But at that point Page had been gone from the Trump campaign for nearly a month. And so far, none of the charges or filings in Mueller’s investigation appear to have anything to do with Page, or from information learned while surveilling him.

The dossier doesn’t actually seem that important

In the end, the dossier was a major media story a year ago, but should have faded in significance over time as both journalistic and law enforcement inquiries have shed light on a much more solid — but substantially different in detail — version of the Trump-Russia saga.

Instead, it’s come to have a second life as Republicans have changed their minds about Trump. Initially, many in Congress viewed the president-elect somewhat warily and, in particular, were concerned on the merits that he might abandon the GOP’s traditionally hawkish posture toward Russia.

After a year in office, it’s now clear that whatever did or didn’t happen over the course of the campaign, Trump is not, in fact, going to implement the kind of pro-Russian foreign policy he campaigned on.

Consequently, congressional Republicans who once supported the idea of investigating the Trump-Russia nexus have basically flipped around and are now primarily investigating the investigators — with the dossier now serving as an exhibit for the defense rather than the prosecution.