As the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election continues, more and more attention has focused on the infamous Russia dossier on Donald Trump compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
NPR has not detailed the contents of the dossier because it remains unverified, but journalist Jane Mayer has written a cover story about its origins for The New Yorker. Although Trump and his allies have sought to portray the 35-page dossier as Democratic-funded propaganda, the work that led to its creation initially started with Republicans themselves.
A GOP financier approached the private intelligence firm Fusion GPS to begin work researching Trump, but then discontinued that support. Later, after it was clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee, a law firm connected to the Clinton campaign began funding the work. Mayer says that Steele never knew precisely for whom he was ultimately working.
“The argument being made by the Republicans these days in Congress is that it was a huge conspiracy of the Clinton campaign with Christopher Steele,” Mayer says. “But, in fact, if you really go back and look at the facts, Christopher Steele didn’t know for months that he was working for the Clinton campaign — and the Clinton campaign never learned that Christopher Steele was on their payroll until it was in the press.”
In her latest article, Mayer describes how the dossier was compiled and why so little was done about its findings during the campaign — even after Steele shared his information with the FBI.
She also reports on a short memo written in November 2016 alleging that a Russian source claimed to Steele that Moscow had intervened to block Trump from nominating Mitt Romney as secretary of state because he was perceived as being unfriendly to Russian interests.
If that memo is true, Mayer says: “It would be an unbelievable interference by a foreign power in picking and shaping [and] influencing the choice of the top foreign policy person in this country. It would mean that there was interference by Russia not just during the election but since the election, after the election, over a president.”
There are no indications of how Russia might have exerted the influence about which one person boasted to Steele, according to Mayer. Romney declined to comment to Mayer. Mayer reports that the White House denied Romney was ever a first choice for secretary of state and it “declined to comment about any communications that the Trump team may have had with Russia on the subject.”
On how the project of researching Trump’s ties to Russia was started by a Republican financier
There are so many bizarre twists and turns in this story. … This whole project of looking at Trump’s ties to Russia starts, really, going back to 2015, but it’s funded by a Republican New York financier named Paul Singer, who dislikes Trump and wants to knock him out. So he hires this firm, Fusion GPS — it’s a private eye firm in Washington that also does business intelligence — and says, “Can you look into Trump’s ties to Russia?” Everybody could see there was something hinky about this, but nobody knew exactly what was going on.
So Fusion starts doing this research for a Republican to try to knock out Trump in favor of other Republican nominees. But when it becomes clear to Paul Singer, who is paying them through something called the Free Beacon — it’s a foundation [and news organization] he’s set up, he’s paying for this opposition research on Trump — and when it’s clear to him that Trump’s going to get the nomination, he sort of pulls the plug and says, “I’m out,” and stops funding the research.
So Fusion GPS, the firm that was doing the research, had gotten some very damning leads and they’re thinking, “Somebody ought to be interested in this,” and so they then go to the Hillary Clinton campaign and say, “You know what? We found out some pretty weird things about Donald Trump and Russia. Would you like us to now do this research and continue it on your behalf?” And the Clinton campaign says, “OK.” So [the campaign] then sign[s] on Fusion GPS and it’s that point when Fusion then turns to this Englishman, Christopher Steele.
On Steele not initially knowing he was doing research for the Clinton campaign
Christopher Steele’s very English, OK? So he’s really not a part of our American political scene. He’s a British expert on Russia living in London, and he’s contacted by his friend Glenn Simpson at Fusion GPS whose firm is in Washington. They’ve worked together on other cases in the past, and Glenn Simpson says to him, “I’ve got these leads on Donald Trump and I can’t get any further. I’m hitting kind of a dead end. Would you be interested in helping? Do you think you might be able to do this job?”
Steele says, “Sure, I’d be interested in looking into it.” But he thinks he’s working for Fusion GPS. He knows they have what they refer to as an “ultimate client,” but the ultimate client, he’s told, is a law firm. That is true. It’s a law firm named Perkins Coie, but Perkins Coie is actually the law firm for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and for the DNC. And it’s the DNC and Clinton and the Clinton campaign who are paying for this research, but they never tell Christopher Steele this in the beginning. At least for months he doesn’t know it. He’s not an idiot, so he can obviously figure out that he’s doing some kind of research — that he’s looking at Trump in a negative light and he can deduce that it’s likely for the presidential campaign; he just doesn’t know specifically who.
On Steele going to the FBI once he sees troubling connections between Russia and Trump
He decided to do it almost at the very beginning. As soon as he got back information from his Russian sources, which would’ve been in the end of June 2016, he took a look at it and was shocked. It was devastating stuff about the possibility that Russia could blackmail Trump, possibly, and that there were all these ties going back and forth between various Trump people and the Kremlin. He looks at this material and he thinks he needs to go to the FBI right away, and by July 5 he went to the FBI. …
He meets with an FBI agent who he’s known in the past. He has said elsewhere that the reaction of the FBI agent was “shock and horror,” but there seems to be a lag after that meeting [on] July 5 where nothing really happens at the FBI right away.
On what Steele did next, since he felt the FBI wasn’t doing enough
By late July, August, he is beginning to feel — he’s getting more and more information from his Russian sources that is looking like there is some kind of serious wheeling-dealing going on between the Trump campaign officials and Russian figures. And so he’s getting more and more worried about it, and he tells a friend who works at the State Department that he’s very concerned and the friend, named Jonathan Winer, takes it up through channels through the State Department. He meets with Steele, does a synopsis of this dossier with some of the most devastating information and eventually takes it all the way up to [Secretary of State] John Kerry. …
[Kerry] puts it in a safe and says, “This looks political. We shouldn’t get involved. Tell him to take it to the FBI.” The campaign is raging at this point. … And nobody in the Obama administration wants to be accused of interfering in some way. There are laws against it, something called the Hatch Act that bars people in federal office from using their offices to affect elections.
So they steer clear. … Steele is trying to get someone to pay attention and more and more his hair is on fire, but he can’t get anybody to take action. He’s already dealing with the FBI, that’s where they’re telling him to go. And the FBI doesn’t seem to be paying much attention.
On the CIA briefing intelligence committee members of the House and Senate before the election
In that meeting, which takes place in September, finally, by then the CIA is convinced that the … Russians are interfering in the election and not just playing to create chaos, which was the first theory, and to kind of undermine the idea of democracy. … But the CIA becomes convinced by the very end of the summer that the Russians are actually trying to help Trump, which is what Steele has been saying all the way along.
So the CIA then briefs the top leadership in Congress in both the House and the Senate and the intelligence committee members of this, and Obama is hoping that he can get these leaders on both the Republican side and the Democratic side to sign some kind of statement denouncing it and telling the public about it and warning everybody, all the election officials in all the states that are going to deal with the upcoming presidential election. But the Republicans, particularly Mitch McConnell, refuse to sign on to a bipartisan statement and [McConnell] won’t sign anything that specifically mentions the Russians. He says he doesn’t believe it and he just won’t do it.
This is a real problem for Obama, because he had been wanting to have a bipartisan statement so that he and other Obama administration officials wouldn’t be accused of playing politics with this thing, this bombshell having to do with Russia, but McConnell refuses to sign it, and so the Republicans won’t do it and so at that point Obama just decides not to say anything.
On why the news that Russia hacked the DNC’s email got lost in the cycle
They thought it was going to be kind of blockbuster news, that these top officials come out and say, “Russia is interfering in our election. We think Russia has hacked these emails that are from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.” And on any normal news day it would’ve gotten huge attention, I think, but it was the most abnormal of news days.
That was the same day and the same afternoon, in fact, that The Washington Post broke the story of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape that had him saying lewd things about women, wanting to grab them by their crotches, or whatever, and that made incredible news.
And then, almost instantaneously, WikiLeaks starts to release more emails that sort of changes the subject. WikiLeaks starts releasing John Podesta’s emails from the Clinton campaign and everybody jumps onto that and starts becoming fascinated by the private things that John Podesta, the chairman of the Clinton campaign, was saying to everybody else in the campaign, juicy gossip. And in all of that, the idea that the intelligence community is trying to warn the country of, which was that the Russians were behind this hacking, gets kind of lost.
On Steele being vilified by some Republicans in Congress
Because this dossier is part of the basis of the FBI investigation … he’s become a target of the Republicans who want to sort of stop the whole line of inquiry into Trump and Russia. So Trump has denounced it as “fake news” and has said it’s a “witch hunt,” and I suppose the person who they think is at the heart of this witch hunt is Steele. And so there’s been kind of an effort on the part of some of the Republican leadership in Congress to villainize him and among other things they’ve suggested he may have lied to the FBI about his contacts with the press, which makes him vulnerable to potential felony charges, lying to the FBI. …
If coming forward and trying to tip off American authorities to something that might be dangerous results in vilification, public trashing of your reputation and humongous legal fees, who’s going to want to come forward and tell this country anything?
On Steele and his business partner debating whether or not to keep the lascivious allegations in the dossier on Trump
[As soon as the infamous lascivious allegation comes in as part of] Steele’s investigation, he takes one look at it and calls in his partner Chris Burrows in the office, who also takes a look at it, and they’re these two tough spies who have seen it all and they both realize that this is trouble. It’s going to be accusing a potential president of the United States of this sort of perverted behavior, but also, more importantly, of behavior that has made him subject to blackmail and possibly giving the Russians leverage over him, that it’s a terrible situation potentially and politically unbelievably damaging.
So Burrows, who is a little older than Steele, thinks maybe they should leave it out and just stick with the other information they have. And he just thinks the impact may be very difficult to deal with. But Steele — it’s interesting, it’s part of his character — he says, “Well, I don’t think we should cherry-pick it and take out the things we don’t like, because it will distort the information and the information is the information and we need to leave in the whole thing … because otherwise you’re not really giving the full picture.” And he also says, “I think it’s important, because if it’s possible that a potential president of the United States could be blackmailed by Russia then people have got to know that.”
Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Martina Stewart adapted it for the Web.