Fusion GPS Pleads the Fifth
One of the centerpieces of the investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is the Steele Dossier. The document, a piece of human intelligence compiled by Christopher Steele during the presidential election, outlines a series of allegations regarding the conduct of both the Trump campaign and the Russian government not just during the 2016 election but also going back several years to 2011, when the dossier says Trump began feeding information to the Russian government.
As The New York Times reported in October 2017, the dossier originated from an investigation started during the Republican primary campaigns by the conservative news outlet The Washington Free Beacon and its backer, Republican donor Paul Singer. The publication hired the private research firm Fusion GPS in October 2015, but stopped funding the project once Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee. In April 2016, Mark Elias, the lawyer for both the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, picked up the contract; after news of the DNC hack emerged in June 2016, Fusion GPS hired Steele’s firm Orbis Business Intelligence.
Steele, a former MI6 agent, filed his first report to the private-investigation firm Fusion GPS on June 20, 2016. The first dispatch mainly concerned the Russian Federal Security Service, commonly known as the FSB, and its cyber operations, and makes no mention of the Trump campaign. The first allegation of an “extensive conspiracy between Trump’s campaign team and the Kremlin” came in Steele’s second report, in which Steele wrote that there is an “agreed exchange of information established in both directions” that “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.” Steele also wrote that a “TRUMP associate admits Kremlin behind recent appearance of DNC e-mails on WikiLeaks, as means of maintaining plausible deniability,” information that did not become public until the next day.
The FBI reportedly received parts of the dossier not only before the public learned of it in January 2017, but also before Steele filed his final report on October 19, 2016. Early in August 2016, FBI agents in Rome reportedly received a copy of Steele’s first two reports. The dossier’s existence was first reported more than two months later, on October 31, when David Corn of Mother Jones wrote that “a former senior intelligence officer for a Western country who specialized in Russian counterintelligence … provided the bureau with memos, based on his recent interactions with Russian sources, contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump—and that the FBI requested more information from him.” By December 2016, the completed document had made its way to Senator John McCain, who turned it over to FBI Director James Comey on December 9.
On December 26, Oleg Erovinkin, a former executive of the Russian oil company Rosneft and an intelligence agent with the KGB and later the FSB, was found dead from a reported heart attack in the back of his car in Moscow. Erovinkin, who had also reportedly been a key liaison between the head of Rosneft Igor Sechin and Putin, was also suspected of being one of Steele’s sources for the dossier.
The Steele Dossier remained the subject of heated speculation going into 2017 and the beginning of Trump’s presidency. On January 10, 2017, CNN reported that the FBI had briefed both Trump and Obama on the dossier the previous week. That evening, BuzzFeed News became the first publication to publish the full dossier, noting that, though the allegations contained within remained unverified, the document had “been circulating among elected officials, intelligence agents, and journalists for weeks. The publication soon met with pushback from Trump, who tweeted that it was “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”; Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, who called it “ridiculous on so many levels” and said that “the person who created this did so from their imagination or did so hoping that the liberal media would run with this fake story;” and Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who described the entire narrative surrounding Russia’s interference in the election as “groundless accusations which are not supported by anything.” The next day, at his first press conference since the election, Trump again denied the allegations in the dossier, specifically rebutting its claims regarding kompromat by saying, “I’m also very much of a germaphobe.”
Since Robert Mueller was appointed as Special Counsel on May 17, 2017, the Steele Dossier has reportedly become a central focus of the investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. During the summer of 2017, Mueller’s team reportedly interviewed Steele, who remains in hiding since the publication of the dossier. During his talks with Mueller, Steele reportedly may have discussed an as-of-yet unpublished memo in which his source (reportedly a senior Russian official) alleges that the Kremlin attempted to block Trump’s nomination of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State, instead advocating for “Trump to appoint someone who would be prepared to lift Ukraine-related sanctions.” On August 22, the co-founder of Fusion GPS, the firm that hired Steele, spoke behind closed doors with the Senate Judiciary Committee; the company later pleaded the Fifth rather than testify before the House Intelligence Committee.