The Russia Connection
The Steele Dossier: A Retrospective
The dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele remains a subject of fascination—or, depending on your perspective, scorn. Indeed, it was much discussed during former FBI Director Jim Comey’s testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 7. Published almost two years ago by BuzzFeed News in January 2017, the document received significant public attention, first for its lurid details regarding Donald Trump’s pre-presidential alleged sexual escapades in Russia and later for its role in forming part of the basis for the government’s application for a FISA warrant to surveil Carter Page.
Our interest in revisiting the compilation that has come to be called the “Steele Dossier” concerns neither of those topics, at least not directly. Rather, we returned to the document because we wondered whether information made public as a result of the Mueller investigation—and the passage of two years—has tended to buttress or diminish the crux of Steele’s original reporting.
The dossier is actually a series of reports—16 in all—that total 35 pages. Written in 2016, the dossier is a collection of raw intelligence. Steele neither evaluated nor synthesized the intelligence. He neither made nor rendered bottom-line judgments. The dossier is, quite simply and by design, raw reporting, not a finished intelligence product.
In that sense, the dossier is similar to an FBI 302 form or a DEA 6 form. Both of those forms are used by special agents of the FBI and DEA, respectively, to record what they are told by witnesses during investigations. The substance of these memoranda can be true or false, but the recording of information is (or should be) accurate. In that sense, notes taken by a special agent have much in common with the notes that a journalist might take while covering a story—the substance of those notes could be true or false, depending on what the source tells the journalist, but the transcription should be accurate.
With that in mind, we thought it would be worthwhile to look back at the dossier and to assess, to the extent possible, how the substance of Steele’s reporting holds up over time. In this effort, we considered only information in the public domain from trustworthy and official government sources, including documents released by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office in connection with the criminal cases brought against Paul Manafort, the 12 Russian intelligence officers, the Internet Research Agency trolling operation and associated entities, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos. We also considered the draft statement of offense released by author Jerome Corsi, a memorandum released by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Ranking Member Adam Schiff related to the Carter Page FISA applications and admissions directly from certain speakers.
These materials buttress some of Steele’s reporting, both specifically and thematically. The dossier holds up well over time, and none of it, to our knowledge, has been disproven.
But much of the reporting simply remains uncorroborated, at least by the yardstick we are using. Most significantly, the dossier reports a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between [Trump and his associates] and the Russian leadership,” including an “intelligence exchange [that] had been running between them for at least 8 years.” There has been significant investigative reporting about long-standing connections between Trump, his associates and Kremlin-affiliated individuals, and Trump himself acknowledged that the purpose of a June 2016 meeting between his son, Donald Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-connected lawyer was to obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. But there is, at present, no evidence in the official record that confirms other direct ties or their relevance to the 2016 presidential campaign. With that caveat, here are excerpts from the dossier that correspond with details contained in official documents.
The dossier reports:
Over the period March-September 2016 a company called [redacted] and its affiliates had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct “altering operations” against the Democratic Party leadership. Entities linked to one [redacted] were involved and he and another hacking expert, both recruited under duress by the FSB, [redacted] were significant players in this operation.
Additionally, it reports:
the Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing email messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), to the Wikileaks platform. The reason for using Wikileaks was "plausible deniability" and the operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of Trump and senior members of his campaign team.
The indictment of 12 officers of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU) corroborates these allegations from Steele’s sources. In particular, the indictment alleges:
3. Starting in at least March 2016, the Conspirators used a variety of means to hack the email accounts of volunteers and employees of the U.S. presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton (the “Clinton Campaign”), including the email account of the Clinton Campaign’s chairman.
4. By in or around April 2016, the Conspirators also hacked into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (“DCCC”) and the Democratic National Committee (“DNC”). The Conspirators covertly monitored the computers of dozens of DCCC and DNC employees, implanted hundreds of files containing malicious computer code (“malware”), and stole emails and other documents from the DCCC and DNC.
5. By in or around April 2016, the Conspirators began to plan the release of materials stolen from the Clinton Campaign, DCCC, and DNC.
6. Beginning in or around June 2016, the Conspirators staged and released tens of thousands of the stolen emails and documents. They did so using fictitious online personas, including “DCLeaks” and “Guccifer 2.0.”
7. The Conspirators also used the Guccifer 2.0 persona to release additional stolen documents through a website maintained by an organization ([Wikileaks]), that had previously posted documents stolen from U.S. persons, entities, and the U.S. government. The Conspirators continued their U.S. election-interference operations through in or around November 2016.
The indictment further alleges:
On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, wrote to a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, “thank u for writing back … do you find anyt[h]ing interesting in the docs I posted?” On or about August 17, 2016, the Conspirators added, “please tell me if I can help u anyhow … it would be a great pleasure to me.” On or about September 9, 2016, the Conspirators, again posing as Guccifer 2.0 referred to a stolen DCCC document posted online and asked the person, “what do u think of the info on the turnout model for the democrats entire presidential campaign.” The person responded, “[p]retty standard.”
Trump advisor Roger Stone publicly acknowledged that he had communicated with Guccifer 2.0 and was likely the unnamed individual to whom the indictment refers.
While the GRU indictment does not provide any additional detail on communications between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and Guccifer 2.0 or Wikileaks, the draft statement of offense for Jerome Corsi does. Corsi, an author connected to Stone, publicly released the draft statement on Nov. 27, 2018.
The document states:
CORSI said that in the summer of 2016 an associate ([Roger Stone]) who CORSI understood to be in regular contact with senior members of the Trump Campaign, including with then-candidate Donald J. Trump, asked CORSI to get in touch with [Wikileaks] about materials it possessed relevant to the presidential campaign that had not already been released.
[A]fter [Stone] asked CORSI to get in touch with [Wikileaks], CORSI did not decline the request as he stated in the interview. Instead, CORSI contacted an individual who resided in London, England (“overseas individual”) to pass on [Stone’s] request to learn about materials in [Wikileaks’] possession that could be relevant to the presidential campaign. CORSI thereafter told [Stone] that [Wikileaks] possessed information that would be damaging to then-candidate Hillary Clinton and that [Wikileaks] planned to release damaging information in October 2016.
a. On or about July 25, 2016, [Stone] sent an email to CORSI with the subject line, “Get to [Wikileaks founder Julian Assange].” The body of the message read: “Get to [Assange] [a]t Ecuadorian Embassy in London and get the pending [Wikileaks] emails … they deal with [the Clinton Foundation], allegedly.” On or about the same day, CORSI forwarded [Stone’s] email to the overseas individual.
b. On or about July 31, 2016, [Stone] emailed CORSI with the subject line, “Call me MON.” The body of the email read in part that the overseas individual should see [Assange].”
c. On or about August 2, 2016, CORSI responded to [Stone] by email. CORSI wrote that he was currently in Europe and planned to return in mid-August. CORSI stated: “Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps. One shortly after I’m back. 2nd in Oct. Impact planned to be very damaging …. Time to let more than [Clinton Campaign chairman John Podesta] be exposed as in bed w enemy if they are not ready to drop HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton.] That appears to be the game hackers are now about. Would not hurt to start suggesting HRC old, memory bad, has stroke -- neither he nor she well. I expect that much of next dump focus, setting stage for Foundation debacle.”
In sum, the official record connects Russian intelligence—behind the guise of Guccifer 2.0—to Wikileaks and, to a lesser extent, to Stone. It also connects Corsi and Stone to Wikileaks. It does not, however, corroborate the statement in the dossier that the Russian intelligence “operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of Trump and senior members of his campaign team.” Put another way, Mueller and his team have not yet alleged or asserted in public filings that individuals associated with the Trump campaign knew that Guccifer 2.0 was a Russian intelligence cover and that the documents in Wikileaks’s possession came from Russian government hackers.
To date, the communications that draw the clearest line between the Russian government, hacked documents and the Trump campaign are detailed not in court filings, but rather in emails between Donald Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone, a British-born former tabloid reporter and entertainment publicist. Trump Jr. released this correspondence in July 2017. In those emails, Goldstone wrote:
The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with [Aras Agalarov, an Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire property-developer] this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.
This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin [Agalarov].
Donald Trump Jr. responded, "… [I]f it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer."
Aras Agalarov is connected, in the dossier, to Trump’s interest in Russian real estate:
Two well-placed sources based in St. Petersburg … knew Trump had visited St. Petersburg on several occasions in the past and had been interested in doing business deals there involving real estate. The local business/political elite figure reported that Trump had paid bribes there to further his interests but very discreetly and only through affiliated companies, making it very hard to prove.
The two St. Petersburg figures cited believe an Azeri business figure, Araz Agalarov (with offices in Baku and London) had been closely involved with Trump in Russia and would know most of the details of what the Republican presidential candidate had got up to there.
Another report in the dossier adds a layer: “The Kremlin’s cultivation operation on Trump also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far, for reasons unknown, Trump had not taken up any of these.”
That leads us to the material in the criminal information and sentencing memorandum for Michael Cohen—Trump’s former attorney—filed by the Special Counsel’s Office in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. These documents relate to Cohen’s false statements to Congress regarding attempted Trump Organization business dealings in Russia. The details buttress Steele’s reporting to some extent, but mostly run parallel, neither corroborating nor disproving information in the dossier. They do, however, contradict the president’s many public statements on the matter.
The statement of information explains Cohen’s role in pursuing a deal to get a Trump-branded building in Moscow, in the midst of the presidential campaign. In July 2016, in an interview with a local TV news affiliate in Florida, then-candidate Trump said: “I mean I have nothing to do with Russia. I don’t have any jobs in Russia. I’m all over the world but we’re not involved in Russia.” But, as the statement of information in Cohen’s case reveals, Cohen and others within the Trump Organization were actively working on the Trump Tower Moscow project as late as June 2016:
- The Moscow Project was discussed multiple times within the [Trump Organization] and did not end in January 2016. Instead, as late as approximately June 2016, COHEN and [Felix Sater, a Russian-American businessman and associate of President Trump] discussed efforts to obtain Russian governmental approval for the Moscow Project. COHEN discussed the status and progress of the Moscow Project with [Trump] on more than the three occasions COHEN claimed to the Committee, and he briefed family members of [Trump] within the Company about the project.
- COHEN agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project and took steps in contemplation of [Trump’s] possible travel to Russia. COHEN and [Sater] discussed on multiple occasions traveling to Russia to pursue the Moscow Project.
- COHEN asked [Trump] about the possibility of [Trump] traveling to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project, and asked a senior campaign official about potential business travel to Russia. (Emphasis added.)
Later, the document reports, "in or around January 2016, COHEN received a response from the office of [Dmitry Peskov], the Press Secretary for the President of Russia, and spoke to a member of that office about the Moscow Project."
Thus, the statement of information from Mueller’s office details substantial efforts by the Trump Organization to engage in business in Russia and to coordinate with the Russian government. But it does not allege election-related outreach. Additional details on that front, do, however, come in the special counsel’s sentencing memorandum:
The defendant also provided information about attempts by other Russian nationals to reach the campaign. For example, in or around November 2015, Cohen received the contact information for, and spoke with, a Russian national who claimed to be a “trusted person” in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level.” The defendant recalled that this person repeatedly proposed a meeting between [Trump] and the President of Russia. The person told Cohen that such a meeting could have a “phenomenal” impact “not only in political but in a business dimension as well,” referring to the Moscow Project, because there is “no bigger warranty in any project than consent of [Putin].” Cohen, however, did not follow up on this invitation.
The footnote accompanying the above text explains, "The defendant explained that he did not pursue the proposed meeting, which did not take place, in part because he was working on the Moscow Project with a different individual who Cohen understood to have his own connections to the Russian government."
While this builds on the general theme from the Steele dossier of Russian interest in helping Trump’s campaign, it does not indicate that this was a two-way street. Even with the additional detail from the Cohen documents, certain core allegations in the dossier related to Cohen—which, if true, would be of utmost relevance to Mueller’s investigation—remain largely unconfirmed, at least from the unredacted material. Specifically, the dossier reports that there was well-established, continuing cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin; that Cohen played a central role in the coordination of joint efforts; and that he traveled to Prague to meet with Russian officials and cut-outs. At most, one could speculate—and it would be just speculation—about what Mueller’s team means when they say Cohen “provided the [Special Counsel’s Office] with useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with [Trump Organization] executives during the campaign.”
On Cohen’s substantial role in a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin related to the election, the dossier states:
[A] Kremlin insider highlighted the importance of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, in the ongoing secret liaison relationship between the New York tycoon’s campaign and the Russian leadership. Cohen’s role had grown following the departure of Paul Manafort as Trump’s campaign manager in August 2016. Prior to that Manafort had led for the Trump side.”
According to the Kremlin insider, Cohen now was heavily engaged in a cover up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of Trump’s relationship with Russia being exposed.
Additionally, according to the dossier, Cohen attended one or more meetings with Russian interlocutors in Prague in late August 2016, accompanied by three colleagues. Steele’s sources indicated that Cohen met with Russian Presidential Administration Legal Department officials to discuss how to:
contain further scandals involving Manafort’s commercial and political role in Russia/Ukraine and to limit the damage arising from exposure of former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, Carter Page’s secret meetings with Russian leadership figures the prior month.” The overall objective had been “to sweep it all under the carpet and make sure no connections could be fully established or proven.”
The reporting continues:
One of their main Russian interlocutors was Oleg Solodukhin operating under Rossotrudnichestvo [a Russian federal government agency that conducts cultural exchange activities] cover.… [T]he agenda comprised questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the Trump team more generally.
Again, the current public official record does not affirmatively corroborate the assertion that Cohen spearheaded, even for a short time, efforts by the Trump team to obtain unlawful election assistance from the Russian government. But neither does the absence of such detail mean that the dossier is false. For what it’s worth, Cohen strenuously denied ever traveling to Prague, though that denial preceded his guilty plea and (spotty) cooperation with the government.
Paul Manafort makes a few appearances in the dossier, including those described above. One report from July 2016 says:
Speaking in confidence to a compatriot in late July 2016, Source E, an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump, admitted that there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between them and the Russian leadership. This was managed on the Trump side by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was using foreign policy advisor, Carter Page, and others as intermediaries.
Elsewhere, Steele reports that former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “confided in Putin that he did authorize and order substantial kick-back payments to Manafort as alleged but sought to reassure him that there was no documentary trail left behind which could provide clear evidence of this.”
The official record supports this second allegation: Manafort’s work for, and bankrolling by, Yanukovych is at the core of the criminal charges against him—conduct he has admitted. The superseding indictment filed by Mueller’s office in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia goes into extensive detail about Manafort’s ties to Yanukovych and other Ukrainian political and business interests, but in short:
- Defendant PAUL J. MANAFORT, JR. (MANAFORT) served for years as a political consultant and lobbyist. Between at least 2006 and 2015, MANAFORT, through companies he ran, acted as an unregistered agent of a foreign government and foreign political parties. Specifically, he represented the Government of Ukraine, the President of Ukraine (Victor Yanukovych, who was President from 2010 to 2014), the Party of Regions (a Ukrainian political party led by Yanukovych), and the Opposition Bloc (a successor to the Party of Regions after Yanukovych fled to Russia in 2014).
- MANAFORT generated tens of millions of dollars in income as a result of his Ukraine work. From approximately 2006 through 2017, MANAFORT, along with others including Richard W. Gates III (Gates), engaged in a scheme to hide the Ukraine income from United States authorities, while enjoying the use of the money.
Manafort’s ties to Ukraine are relevant to the Russia investigation, as most readers will know, because he worked closely with an individual—Konstantin Kilimnik, a named co-conspirator in the superseding indictment against Manafort and a star player in Mueller’s submission last week regarding Manafort’s breach of his plea deal—suspected of ties to Russian intelligence. Manafort and Kilimnick worked on behalf of pro-Russian parties and lobbied within the United States to advance what were not merely Ukrainian interests, but Russian interests as well. Among those interests, according to the dossier, were “sidelin[ing] Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue,” “deflect[ing] attention away from Ukraine,” and building political support in the U.S. for “lift[ing] Ukraine-related western sanctions against Russia.”
The Kremlin also pursued that last interest through, among others, Trump’s campaign advisor and first national security advisor, Michael Flynn. Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to one count of making materially false statements to the FBI, in violation of 18 USC § 1001(a), and is due to be sentenced on Dec. 18. Among the things he lied about to the Special Counsel’s Office were his discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the Trump administration’s intent to lift sanctions:
During the interview, FLYNN falsely stated that he did not ask Russia’s Ambassador to the United States (“Russian Ambassador”) to refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed on Russia. FLYNN also falsely stated that he did not remember a follow-up conversation in which the Russian Ambassador stated that Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of FLYNN’s request.
The dossier does not allege significant communications between Flynn and Kremlin-affiliated individuals during the campaign—as it does for Manafort, Cohen and Carter Page—but does remark upon Flynn’s visit to Moscow in December 2015. Steele reports:
[A] Kremlin official involved in US relations commented on aspects of the Russian operation to date. Its goals had been three-fold—asking sympathetic US actors how Moscow could help them; gathering relevant intelligence; and creating and disseminating compromising information (‘kompromat’). This had involved the Kremlin supporting various US political figures, including funding indirectly their recent visits to Moscow. S/he named a delegation from Lyndon Larouche; presidential candidate Jill Stein of the Green Party; Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page; and former DIA Director Michael Flynn, in this regard and as successful in terms of perceived outcomes.
The redacted addendum to the sentencing memorandum filed by Mueller’s team in Flynn’s case explains that Flynn has cooperated extensively with the Special Counsel’s Office and provided information relevant to at least three different investigations: one criminal investigation, about which all information is redacted; the special counsel’s investigation into interactions between Russian government figures and the Trump campaign; and a third, completely redacted investigation. With respect to the special counsel’s investigation, the addendum notes that Flynn “assisted the [Special Counsel’s Office’s] investigation on a range of issues, including interactions between individuals in the Trump Transition Team and Russia,” and other topics which are redacted. This indicates that the relevant information Flynn is providing to Mueller’s team is not limited to the post-election discussions about sanctions relief about which he previously lied.
Notably absent from the dossier is any reference to George Papadopoulos, another Trump campaign foreign policy advisor who pleaded guilty last fall to lying to the FBI about his contacts during the campaign with individuals tied to the Russian government and recently served a 12-day sentence after proving himself unhelpful to the Special Counsel’s Office. (He was sentenced to 14 days but was released two days early, prior to a weekend.) The statement of offense asserts that over the first half of 2016, Papadopoulos had multiple in-person interactions and email communications with several individuals connected to the Russian government or whom Papadopoulos believed were connected to the Russian government, including a London-based professor, later identified as Joseph Mifsud; a female Russian national who was introduced as a relative of Russian president Vladimir Putin; the Russian ambassador in London; and an individual claiming to be affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In April 2016, Papadopoulos learned from the professor that the Russians possessed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, in the form of thousands of her emails. Over the course of approximately five months, strongly encouraged by his contacts, Papadopoulos aggressively pursued a meeting between Trump and/or senior campaign officials with Russian government officials. He communicated the idea and his progress on a number of occasions to various high-ranking Trump campaign officials. When interviewed by the FBI in January 2017 in the course of its investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election, Papadopoulos lied about the extent, timing and nature of his communications with these individuals.
Again, Papadopoulos is not mentioned in the Steele dossier. We revisit his case because it resonates with one of the themes of the dossier, which is the extensive Russian outreach effort to an array of individuals connected to the Trump campaign. Steele’s sources reported on alleged interactions between Carter Page and Russian officials, but Papadopoulos’s conduct would have fit right in. In any event, Papadopoulos is noteworthy as the first figure in the Trump campaign—as far as we know—approached and informed by Russian proxies that the Russian government had obtained Clinton’s emails.
To conclude, we return to Carter Page, about whom there is a great deal in the dossier. We will not recount the details here because the allegations have not been corroborated in filings by Mueller’s team. The only nod at confirmation we have from an official source is a heavily-redacted memorandum from the House intelligence committee minority. In it, Ranking Member Schiff describes the FBI’s wholly independent basis for investigating Page’s long-established connections to Russia, aside from the Steele dossier, and emphasizes that the Justice Department possessed information “obtained through multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele’s reporting” with respect to Page.
As we noted, our interest is in assessing the Steele dossier as a raw intelligence document, not a finished piece of analysis. The Mueller investigation has clearly produced public records that confirm pieces of the dossier. And even where the details are not exact, the general thrust of Steele’s reporting seems credible in light of what we now know about extensive contacts between numerous individuals associated with the Trump campaign and Russian government officials.
However, there is also a good deal in the dossier that has not been corroborated in the official record and perhaps never will be—whether because it’s untrue, unimportant or too sensitive. As a raw intelligence document, the Steele dossier, we believe, holds up well so far. But surely there is more to come from Mueller’s team. We will return to it as the public record develops.