After Mueller report: What ever happened to the ‘Steele dossier’?

Why We Wrote This

A 2016 dossier of alleged intelligence about the Trump campaign and Russia is getting renewed attention, partly because it’s barely mentioned in the Mueller report. But with dueling partisan narratives, it’s worth looking at what that does and doesn’t mean.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talks to reporters about the report by special counsel Robert Mueller in Washington on March 25. Senator Graham, an ally of President Donald Trump, has said his committee will investigate the actions of the Justice Department in the Russia investigation, including the FBI's use of a dossier compiled by British spy Christopher Steele.

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The notorious “Steele dossier,” based on information-gathering by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele, is back in the news. Partly that’s because it is mentioned so little in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The dossier spins an array of assertions that don’t appear to be true. Trump, in its depiction, was a Manchurian candidate; someone bought and paid for by Russia and totally under its control. Mr. Trump had moles of his own inside the Hillary Clinton campaign. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had met “Kremlin representatives” in Prague in August 2016.

None of this is in the Mueller report. Yet, if the dossier personifies to Republicans their “witch hunt” view of the Russia probe, there’s also another side to the story. The bare-bones themes – that Russia was interfering in American politics, that the Kremlin favored Donald Trump in the election, that there was communications and interplay between Trump figures and Russia – remains largely accurate.

“The more useful document at this time is the Mueller report,” says politics expert Chris Edelson at American University.

Secret meetings between Trump campaign officials and Kremlin-linked figures. A covert Russian operation to elect Donald Trump. Russian attempts to sow discord in the United States and between the U.S. and its Western allies.

Mueller report details? Yes – but also bullet points from the notorious “Steele dossier,” a group of memos based on information from confidential Russian sources and composed in 2016 by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele.

The Steele dossier is getting renewed attention in Washington in the wake of last week’s release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Partly that’s because it’s barely mentioned in Mr. Mueller’s work. The special counsel didn’t confirm many of the dossier’s most sensational specific assertions.

Partly it’s because some of the dossier’s general points were echoed by Mr. Mueller, including its conclusion that figures connected to Mr. Trump met clandestinely with Russian government-linked officials during the presidential campaign.

But mostly the Steele dossier’s renewed prominence is due to the fact that both Trump supporters and critics claim it as a symbol of their preferred interpretation of today’s fraught political moment. To Trump defenders it is a hoax, the “witch hunt” made concrete, and a corrupt document that launched a corrupt investigation. To the president’s detractors it is a credible guide to the outline of the Russia probe’s inquiries and nothing more.

Is it disinformation or a distraction?

“The more useful document at this time is the Mueller report,” says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government and a fellow at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

Origins of the dossier

The Steele dossier might more accurately be called the Steele dossiers. It is group of more than a dozen individual memos composed by Christopher Steele between June and December 2016, based on conversations with Russian sources. Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence official, did this work under contract with the U.S. research firm Fusion GPS. The project began as opposition research into Donald Trump funded by a Republican opponent. But a law firm connected to the Hillary Clinton campaign was paying for the investigation by the time Mr. Steele became involved.

The memos consist of raw, unverified intelligence, not vetted and finished conclusions. Their bare bones structure – that Russia was interfering in American politics by computer hacking and other means, that the Kremlin favored Mr. Trump in the 2016 election, that there were communications and interplay between Trump figures and Russia – remains largely accurate.

But on this foundation the intelligence in the dossier spins a grandiose array of assertions that don’t appear to be true and in isolation might seem preposterous and lurid. Trump, in its depiction, was a Manchurian candidate, someone bought and paid for by Russia and totally under its control. He was being blackmailed by the Kremlin, which had collected incriminating information on his personal behavior during Russian trips, including tapes of bizarre liaisons with prostitutes. Retired Russians in the U.S. were running secret communications channels for this affair. Romanian hackers were attacking Democrats, and Trump had moles of his own inside the Clinton campaign.

Campaign manager Paul Manafort was using foreign policy adviser Carter Page as an intermediary with Russia, according to information in the dossier. Mr. Page attended secret meetings in Moscow. Meanwhile, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had met “Kremlin representatives” in Prague in August 2016.

None of this is in the Mueller report. Mr. Mueller’s investigation and intense FBI vetting did not confirm it. The few mentions of the dossier in the Mueller report are in volume two, which deals with questions of obstruction of justice, and refer to discussions of the dossier as a whole. There is one that describes a text from a Russian businessman to Michael Cohen that cryptically says, “Stopped flow of tapes.” The businessman had been told the tapes were fake, according to Mr. Mueller.

Less than two weeks before Mr. Trump’s presidential inauguration, BuzzFeed published the full text of the Steele dossier, despite the fact that it contained raw, unchecked intelligence. Page 23 of the Mueller report’s second volume documents internal White House reaction to this event. Incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus “recalled that when the intelligence assessment came out, the President-Elect was concerned people would question the legitimacy of his win.”

How ‘intelligence’ can be inaccurate

Why was the dossier inaccurate in many of its specifics? Mr. Steele’s sources could have been inaccurate or exaggerating what they knew. They might have inadvertently pumped up things they’d heard secondhand, as in a giant game of telephone. (After all, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Page were both communicating with Russians, though not to the extent or purpose that the dossier described.)

It’s also possible the dossier is shot through with purposeful misinformation disseminated by Russian agents. Mixing the true with the false is a classic Kremlin disinformation tool. It keeps foes off balance and guessing. It confuses and divides. In that sense the dossier might have been part of what it describes.

To Trump supporters it is the tainted source from which a tainted investigation flowed. They question in particular its provenance. Paid for by Clinton money, it was a distorted document used by the FBI as “evidence” to illegally obtain a series of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants to eavesdrop on Trump campaign official Carter Page, some Republicans believe.

“How could you use a dossier four different times to get a warrant against an American citizen when it’s a bunch of garbage?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on April 22.

A document drawn up by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee last year disputes this assertion, noting that the FISA court application for Mr. Page’s warrant noted that the dossier derived from a partisan source, that it contained information from other sources, and that Mr. Page had first drawn the FBI’s attention in 2013. The bureau at that time warned him it had information that Russia had targeted him as a potential U.S. asset.

The Justice Department’s inspector general is currently reviewing the dossier, Mr. Page, the FISA court, and the FBI to determine if improper behavior occurred. Attorney General William Barr has said he will evaluate the FBI’s overall actions in relation to Christopher Steele and his memos.

The president himself continues to cite the dossier as evidence that he has been treated unfairly by the investigation into Russian interference with American politics.

“I think they were spying on the Trump campaign. You can’t say it any better than that,” President Trump said on Mr. Hannity’s Fox show on April 25th.

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