There are two Trump-Russia ‘conspiracies’. In one, the US President is bought or blackmailed by the Kremlin. In the other, the FBI and the intelligences agencies — the ‘deep state’ — commit a monstrous abuse of power to try to overturn the election result. The first conspiracy is described in the ‘dossier’ written by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele; the second, in a series of memos and leaks over the past week, from Congressional Republicans defending Donald Trump.
They accuse Steele of setting out to destroy Trump for money. They want to see him prosecuted for ‘lying’ to the FBI about his contacts with journalists. They say the FBI used Steele’s information to get a surveillance warrant from the US secret intelligence court without telling the court he was being paid by the Democrats. They support the President’s claim that the Obama administration broke the law to spy on his campaign: ‘Obama tapped my phones!’ The real collusion, they say, was not between Trump and Russia, but between Clinton loyalists in the FBI.
I have spoken to a number of people with first-hand knowledge of how the dossier was compiled. Almost all, for various reasons, must remain anonymous, but here is their account of what happened. It is the case for Steele’s defence.
When Christopher Steele began investigating Trump and Russia, in June 2016, he thought he would be looking for financial connections. He set about asking his contacts if the Kremlin had funded Trump in any way. He was taken aback when he received intelligence of a bizarre incident. One of his informants spoke about Trump being filmed watching prostitutes urinate on a bed once used by the Obamas in the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow. This was the now notorious story of the ‘pee tape’.
This supposedly took place in 2013, when Trump visited Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant. Steele eventually collected ‘multiple sources’ in Russia for the Ritz-Carlton story. They left him in no doubt that it was true. He says that explaining exactly why risks revealing their identities; that could be very bad for them or their families. He didn’t think his sources were telling an elaborate, sordid — yet irresistible — lie on behalf of Russian intelligence. Why would they bother? Back then, no one thought Trump could actually win the presidency.
And the ‘motivation behind it added up’ — a subject’s motivation was always a key question for an intelligence officer: Trump was obsessed with Obama’s legacy; his presidential run may have been prompted by the public humiliation Obama heaped on him at a White House correspondents’ dinner in 2012 (Trump had to sit there, a tight smile on his face, while Obama mocked him); the Obamas’ bed had a touch of Trump’s wit about it. Steele became convinced that the Russians could blackmail Trump with sexual kompromat —— comprising material. He also believed that he had found the financial connections he had originally been looking for, as well as evidence of troubling contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence.
President Trump’s defenders in Congress say Steele was always out to get him. Staff working for the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, have produced a memo saying Steele once told a senior US official he ‘was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president’. But Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow, said Steele didn’t start out this way. ‘He came to see me because he was troubled… It was obvious that he was shocked. He’d discovered things he’d never expected to hear. It was like a bad film.’ Wood told Senator John McCain of Steele’s concerns; McCain handed the dossier to the FBI director.
It was a series of reports, the first completed on 20 June 2016. Steele had been contracted to write it a few weeks earlier by a Washington research company, Fusion GPS. Initially, the company worked for an anti-Trump Republican billionaire, who dropped out in spring 2016 as it became obvious that Trump would win his party’s nomination. Fusion GPS needed a new benefactor and eventually found one, a lawyer for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Fusion GPS was either still looking for that new client or had only just signed him when it engaged Steele. Either way, Steele did not know where its fees came from. He steadily wrote his reports. Most of them — setting down the allegations about weird sex, tainted money and Russian influence in the Trump campaign — were completed by August 2016. Only then did he learn the identity of his ultimate client, the Clinton campaign.
That’s important because the Nunes memo accuses Steele of having ‘anti-Trump financial and ideological motivations’. It says that the FBI ‘ignored or concealed’ this background when it asked the intelligence court for a warrant to surveil a Trump aide called Carter Page. Steele’s friends point out that the reports are not kind to Hillary Clinton either. His Russian sources describe her as a hypocrite, saying one thing in private, another in public. Steele was paid $160,000 for the dossier but he is offended by the idea that he would sacrifice a ‘30-year reputation’ for a few thousand dollars in fees. ‘He’s honest and professional,’ said Wood. ‘And he was trying to build up a business that depends on people believing you and believing your information.’
Steele had been cooperating with the US government for years, either giving some of his political reporting to the State Department or helping the FBI. In early July 2016, an FBI agent visited Steele at his office in London to learn what he had found. Steele had another meeting, with a large team from the FBI, in Rome in October. Two Republican senators , ‘Chuck’ Grassley and Lindsey Graham, have called for Steele to be investigated for ‘lying’ to the FBI in those encounters, an offence that can carry a sentence of five years if convicted.
The senators seem to believe — their letter to the Justice Department is heavily redacted — that Steele told the FBI he had not spoken to any journalists. They point to documents submitted by him for a court case in London confirming that he briefed several US news organisations, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. ‘It appears that either Mr Steele lied to the FBI or the British court,’ the senators say. ‘There is substantial evidence suggesting that Mr Steele materially misled the FBI about a key aspect of his dossier efforts, one which bears on his credibility.’
But Steele’s meeting with the FBI in July took place before he had briefed the US journalists, which was in September. Neither he nor his associates have any recollection of the Bureau raising the issue at either meeting, including the one in October. Anyway, the FBI was not their client; Steele was volunteering information, he thought: any contacts with journalists were his business. Steele’s supporters say he is open to such attacks because he gave his entire Russia file to the FBI and it handed the whole thing to the Congressional committees investigating Trump-Russia, albeit after several months of wrangling. Parts of that file are now being selectively leaked to smear Steele, they believe, fearing that his sources in Russia could be exposed in this process.
Trump’s defenders — in Congress and elsewhere — are concentrating on procedural issues rather than the substance of the dossier’s allegations. They say that’s because those allegations are lies. Trump’s critics say it is because the allegations are true. Trump himself has said both that he doesn’t necessarily believe that Russia interfered in the election — and that Russia was behind Steele’s dossier.
He is right that no proof of the dossier’s incendiary claims has yet been published; the dossier’s defenders are right that nothing has been disproved. They believe that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is making progress in substantiating some of the claims — but there’s no proof of that either. A plot to put a Russian agent in the White House; or one to overturn the election result? American voters can still pick their conspiracy theory.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent.