Nine months after its first appearance, the set of intelligence reports known as the Steele dossier, one of the most explosive documents in modern political history, is still hanging over Washington, casting a shadow over the Trump administration that has only grown darker as time has gone by.
It was reported this week that the document’s author, former British intelligence official, Christopher Steele, has been interviewed by investigators working for the special counsel on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Senate and House intelligence committees are, meanwhile, asking to see Steele to make up their own mind about his findings. The ranking Democrat on the House committee, Adam Schiff, said that the dossier was “a very important and useful guide to help us figure out what we need to look into”.
The fact that Steele’s reports are being taken seriously after lengthy scrutiny by federal and congressional investigators has far-reaching implications.
How the Trump dossier came to light: secret sources, a retired spy and John McCain
Originally commissioned by a private firm as opposition research by Donald Trump’s Republican and then Democratic opponents, they cite a range of unnamed sources, in Russia and the US, who describe the Kremlin’s cultivation over many years of the man who now occupies the Oval Office – and the systematic collusion of Trump’s associates with Moscow to help get him there.
The question of collusion is at the heart of the various investigations into links between Trump and Moscow. Even a senior Republican, Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, admitted this week it was an open question.
Burr said his committee needed to talk Steele himself to assess the dossier properly and urged him to speak to its members or staff. According to an NBC report on Friday, Steele had expressed willingness to meet the committee’s leaders.
In his remarks this week, Burr said his committee had come to a consensus in supporting the conclusions of a US intelligence community assessment in January this year that Russian had conducted a multi-pronged campaign to interfere in the 2016 election, in Trump’s favour.
It is a finding that echoes the reports that Steele was producing seven months earlier. Trump has called the assessment a “hoax”, but there is no sign the three agencies that came to that conclusion, the CIA, FBI and NSA, have had any second thoughts in the intervening months.
“Many of my former CIA colleagues have taken [the Steele] reports seriously since they were first published,” wrote John Sipher, a former senior officer in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service on the Just Security website.
“This is not because they are not fond of Trump (and many admittedly are not), but because they understand the potential plausibility of the reports’ overall narrative based on their experienced understanding of both Russian methods and the nature of raw intelligence reporting.”
Sipher emphasised the “raw” nature of the reports, aimed at conveying an accurate account of what sources are saying, rather than claiming to be a definitive summary of events. There are spelling mistakes and rough edges. Several of the episodes it described remain entirely unverified.
But as every passing month brings more leaks, revelations in the press, and more progress in the investigations, the Steele dossier has generally gained in credibility, rather than lost it.
Trump Tower meeting
One of the more striking recent developments was the disclosure of a meeting on 9 June 2016 in Trump Tower involving Trump’s son, Donald Jr, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with a Russian lawyer closely tied to the government, Natalia Veselnitskaya.
After the meeting was first reported on 8 July this year, the president’s son claimed (in a statement dictated, it turned out, by his father) that it had been about adoptions of Russian children by Americans.
The next day that was exposed as a lie, with the publication of emails that made it clear that Veselnitskaya was offering damaging material on Hillary Clinton, that an intermediary setting up the meeting said was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump”.
“If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer,” Donald Trump Jr replied.
Just 11 days after that meeting – but more than a year before it became public – Steele quoted a source as saying that “the Kremlin had been feeding Trump and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton”, for several years.
A later report, dated 19 July 2016, said: “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 cooperation between them and the Russian leadership.”
The report said that such contacts were handled on Trump’s end by his then campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who participated in the 9 June Trump Tower meeting.
Manafort has denied taking part in any collusion with the Russian state, but registered himself as a foreign agent retroactively after it was revealed his firm received more than $17m working as a lobbyist for a pro-Russian Ukrainian party. He is a subject of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and in July the FBI raided his home in Virginia.
Other key protagonists in the Steele dossier have surfaced in subsequent disclosures and investigation. Two of them, an Azeri-Russian businessman Araz Agalarov and his son Emin, are described in emails released by Donald Trump Jr as offering to serve as intermediaries in passing on damaging material on Clinton and is reported to have help set up the Trump Tower meeting.
Another key figure in the Steele dossier is Carter Page, an energy consultant who Trump named as one of his foreign policy advisors. Steele’s sources describe him as an “intermediary” between Manafort and Moscow, who had met a Putin lieutenant and head of the Russian energy giant, Rosneft, and a senior Kremlin official, Igor Diveykin.
Page denied meeting either man on his trips to Moscow, which he has said were for business purposes and not connected to his role in the Trump campaign.
Nonetheless, he has become a focus of investigation: it was reported in April that that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued an order last year for his communication to be monitored. To obtain the order, investigators would have to demonstrate “probable cause” to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power. Page has said he welcomed the news of the order as it demonstrated he was being made a scapegoat of the investigation.
Elsewhere, a Steele memo in September 2016 mentions a “Mikhail Kulagin” who had been withdrawn from the Russian embassy in Washington because of his “heavy involvement in the US presidential election operation”.
There was no diplomat of that name at the mission, but there was a Mikhail Kalugin; five months later, it emerged that he had left the embassy in August 2016.
McClatchy reported he was under investigation for his role in Russia’s interference in the campaign. The BBC reported that the US had identified Kalugin as a spy.
More recently, there has been a slew of revelations about the role of disinformation spread by Russians and other eastern Europeans posing as Americans on social media. The New York Times reported that hundreds and possibly thousands of Russian-linked fake accounts and bots on Facebook and Twitter were used to spread anti-Clinton stories and messages.
Facebook disclosed that it had shut down several hundred accounts that it believes were fabricated by a Kremlin-linked Russian company to buy $100,000 in ads that often promoted racial and other divisive issues during the campaign.
This week, Facebook handed over to Congress 3,000 ads bought by a Russian organisation during the campaign, and it was reported that many of those ads, some of them Islamophobic, were specifically targeted on swing states, Michigan and Wisconsin.
A Steele memo from August 2016 states that after Russia’s hand had been discovered in the hacking of Democratic party emails and passing them to WikiLeaks for publication, another avenue of influence would be explored.
The memo says “the tactics would be to spread rumours and misinformation about the content of what already had been leaked and make up new content”.
The Russian official alleged by Steele’s sources to be in charge of the operation, Sergei Ivanov – then Putin’s chief of staff – is quoted as saying: “The audience to be targeted by such operations was the educated youth in America as the PA [Russian Presidential Administration] assessed that there was still a chance they could be persuaded to vote for Republican candidate Donald Trump as a protest against the Washington establishment (in the form of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton).”
The Steele dossier said one of the aims of the Russian influence campaign was to peel off voters who had supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and nudge them towards Trump.
Evidence has since emerged that Russians and eastern Europeans posing as Americans targeted Sanders supporters with divisive and anti-Clinton messages in the summer of 2016, after the primaries were over.
There are other details in the Steele dossier that have echoed in subsequent news reports, but there are also several claims and accounts for which no supporting evidence has emerged.
The startling claim that Trump was filmed with prostitutes while staying at a Moscow hotel in November 2013, when he was staging the Miss Universe contest there, has not been substantiated in any way.
Nor has the allegation that Trump’s lawyer and vice-president of the Trump Organisation, Michael Cohen, travelled to Prague in August 2013 to conspire with a senior Russian official. In a letter to the House intelligence committee, Cohen said he never went to Prague and took issue with a string of other claims in the dossier.
It has however emerged that Cohen was involved in exploring a real estate deal in Moscow for the Trump Organisation while the campaign was in full swing. He has been summoned to appear in open hearing before the Senate intelligence committee later this month.
The Steele dossier, its author and the firm who hired him, Fusion GPS, have become favoured targets for Trump’s loyalists on Capitol Hill. They point to the fact that the genesis of the documents was a paid commission to find damaging facts about Trump.
But the dossier has not faded from view. Instead, it appears to be growing in significance as the investigations have gathered pace.