Why the Discredited Dossier Does Not Undercut the Russia Investigation

  • In Politics
  • 2021-12-01 13:29:46Z
  • By The New York Times
 Former President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on July 11, 2021.
Former President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on July 11, 2021.  

WASHINGTON - Former President Donald Trump and his allies have stepped up an effort to conflate the so-called Steele dossier with the Russia investigation following the indictment of a researcher for the document on charges that he lied to the FBI about some of its sources.

Trump and his supporters have long sought to use the flaws of the dossier to discredit the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election - and the nature of numerous links between Russia and the Trump campaign - as a "hoax."

But the available evidence indicates that the dossier was largely tangential to the Russia investigation. Here is a look at the facts.

What was the Steele dossier?

It was a series of memos about purported Trump-Russia links written by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, during the 2016 campaign.

It cited unnamed sources who claimed there was a "well-developed conspiracy of coordination" between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and that Russia had a blackmail tape of Trump with prostitutes. In addition to giving his memos to his client, Steele gave some to the FBI and reporters. BuzzFeed published 35 pages in January 2017.

Many things that were not immediately apparent about the dossier have since become clearer. It grew out of a political opposition research effort to dig up information about Trump funded by Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic Party. Their law firm, Perkins Coie, contracted with a research firm called Fusion GPS, which subcontracted research about Trump business dealings in Russia to Steele. Steele in turn hired Igor Danchenko, the recently indicted researcher, to canvass for information from people he knew, including in Europe and Russia.

What was the Russia investigation?

It was a counterintelligence and criminal inquiry into the Russian operation to manipulate the 2016 presidential election by hacking and anonymously dumping Democratic emails and by spreading propaganda using fake accounts on American social media platforms. The scrutiny of Russia's activities included examining the nature of links between Trump campaign associates and Russians to see if there was any coordination.

The FBI launched the investigation in July 2016, and a special counsel, Robert Mueller, eventually took over. His March 2019 report detailed "numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign" and established that "the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts." He did not charge any Trump associate with a criminal conspiracy.

Was the dossier a reliable source of information?

No. It has become clear over time that its sourcing was thin and sketchy.

No corroborating evidence has emerged in intervening years to support many of the specific claims in the dossier, and government investigators determined that one key allegation - that Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen, had met with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign - was false.

When the FBI interviewed Danchenko in 2017, he told the bureau that he thought the tenor of the dossier was more conclusive than was justified. For example, Danchenko portrayed the blackmail tape story as rumors and speculation that he was not able to confirm. He also said a key source had called him without identifying himself, and that he had guessed at the source's identity. The indictment accuses Danchenko of lying about that call and of concealing that a Democratic Party-linked public relations executive was his source for a claim about Trump campaign office politics.

Did the FBI open the investigation because of the dossier?

No. Trump and his allies have insinuated that the FBI based the Russia investigation on the dossier. But when counterintelligence agents launched the effort July 30, 2016, they did not yet know about the dossier. An inspector general report established that Steele's reports reached that counterintelligence team Sept. 19, 2016.

The basis for the investigation was instead that WikiLeaks had disrupted the Democratic National Convention by releasing Democratic emails believed to have been stolen by Russian hackers, and that an Australian diplomat said a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser had bragged to him about apparent outreach from Russia involving an offer to help the campaign by anonymously releasing information damaging to Clinton.

Did the FBI take any investigative step based on the dossier?

Yes. The FBI took the dossier seriously based on Steele's reputation, and used some of it - without independent verification - for a narrow purpose that led to a dead end and became a political debacle. It included several claims from Steele's memos in applications to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser with ties to Russia. In 2019, the Justice Department's inspector general sharply criticized the FBI for numerous flaws in those wiretap applications.

While the dossier-tainted wiretap of Page has received significant attention, it was a small part of the overall investigation, which issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search-and-seizure warrants, obtained more than 230 orders for communications records, made 13 requests to foreign governments under mutual legal assistance treaties, and interviewed about 500 witnesses. Page was not charged with a crime, and only a handful of the 448 pages in the Mueller report focus on him.

Did investigators rely on the dossier for their findings?

No. The Mueller report does not present claims from the dossier as evidence, and many of the issues focused on by investigators did not come up in the dossier.

The dossier makes no mention, for example, of a July 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Russians and senior campaign officials including Donald Trump Jr., who eagerly accepted the request for a meeting after being told they were bringing dirt on Clinton.

Nor does the dossier mention that in August 2016, Konstantin Kilimnik - described in the 2019 Mueller report as having "ties to Russian intelligence" and in a partly declassified, bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report in 2020 as a "Russian intelligence officer" with possible ties to Russia's election interference operations - flew to the United States to meet with Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Investigators established that the two had discussed whether Trump, if elected, would bless a peace plan effectively allowing Russia to control eastern Ukraine, and that Manafort had shared internal polling data and campaign strategy information with Kilimnik, which the Treasury Department later said he passed on to a Russian spy agency. (The government has not declassified evidence for its escalating accusations about Kilimnik.)

The Senate report said Manafort's "willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services" represented a "grave counterintelligence threat."

Did Mueller rely on the dossier for any criminal charges?

No. The special counsel investigation led to indictments of 34 people and three companies. Many of those indicted - like Kilimnik - reside abroad and have not faced trial. Mueller obtained nine guilty pleas or jury convictions, including half a dozen close Trump associates. None of those indictments cited the dossier as evidence.

The fact that Mueller did not obtain sufficient evidence to charge Trump associates with conspiracy is subject to disputed interpretations that overlap with the debate over the dossier's significance. Trump supporters frame the lack of conspiracy charges as proof there was no collusion. By combining this with the false premise that there would not have been any Russia investigation without the Steele dossier, they portray Trump as a victim of a hoax.

Beyond pointing out that there is a range of cooperation and coordination that falls short of the legal definition of "conspiracy," Trump skeptics argue that Mueller never definitively got to the bottom of what happened in part because of Trump's efforts to impede the investigation - like dangling a pardon before Manafort to keep him from cooperating.

What was the main impact of the dossier?

Beyond its narrow role in facilitating the FBI's wiretap of Page, the dossier's publication had the broader consequence of amplifying an atmosphere of suspicion about Trump.

Still, the dossier did not create this atmosphere of suspicion. Trump's relationship with Russia had been a topic of significant discussion dating back to the campaign, including before the first report that Russia had hacked Democrats and before Steele drafted his reports and gave some to reporters.

Among the reasons: Trump had said flattering things about President Vladimir Putin of Russia, kept bringing on advisers with ties to Russia, had financial ties to Russia, publicly encouraged Russia to hack Clinton, and at his nominating convention, the party dropped a plank that called for arming Ukraine against Russian-backed rebels. In March 2017, the FBI publicly acknowledged that it was investigating links between Russia and Trump campaign associates.

© 2021 The New York Times Company


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