Christopher Steele, the former British spy whose claims about Donald Trump’s ties with Russia hold center stage in Washington right now, drives Republicans crazy. They have recommended that the Department of Justice open a criminal investigation into his work. They released a formerly classified memo by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that vilifies him — and now they are holding back a Democratic brief that tries to correct the record. Their Fox News minions have promised damning new revelations about Steele’s perfidy on a near-weekly basis. (Sebastian Gorka called the Nunes memo “one hundred times bigger” than the causes of the American Revolution — hyperbole that seems to have embarrassed even his friends.)
Yet, try as they might, Steele continues to haunt them. You sense it in the tone of frustration and anxiety. “There’s nothing to see here,” they keep insisting. And insisting. And insisting.
What is it about Steele that possesses them so? Could it be that his findings from the summer of 2016 — when the world was still wondering why Trump kept saying such nice things about Russia’s Vladimir Putin — proved so extraordinarily prescient?
Long before the U.S. intelligence community arrived at its conclusion that the Russians were trying to influence the presidential election, Steele had already sussed out the basic ingredients of the campaign. In June 2016, he already knew about ties between the Kremlin and Trump aides (specifically Carter Page and Paul Manafort), and he knew that Russian hackers had stolen documents from the Democratic National Committee that they planned to use against Hillary Clinton. Former CIA agent John Sipher has noted that several of Steele’s early assertions “turned out to be stunningly accurate.”
Last Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) rebuked her Republican colleagues for recommending the criminal probe of Steele. She accused them of trying to undermine the FBI and the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and of attacking Steele as a way of “deflecting attention from collusion and obstruction of justice investigations.” And then she added, almost as an afterthought: “Not a single revelation in the Steele dossier has been refuted.” Ouch!
Republicans keep trying to squeeze Steele into a role they think will neutralize him: the grubby Washington political operative, the kale-eating liberal hypocrite. Fox News, citing the thoroughly discredited Nunes memo, called Steele “more blabbermouth than Bond,” and “the spy who couldn’t keep his mouth shut.” The criminal referral from Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) claimed that Clinton associates were “feeding him” information when he was compiling his memo.
But they struggle to make the characterization stick — probably because their version of reality is so at odds with everything we know about Steele’s life and career. We know that he spent two decades as an officer in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, sometimes known as “MI6”), where he enjoyed the highest esteem from his own bosses as well as his counterparts in the U.S. intelligence community. We know that he spent long stints in Russia, where he built up his knowledge of the country and language and cultivated a wide-ranging network of contacts. At one point he ran the SIS Russia Desk.
And we know that one of his SIS jobs included collaborating with British colleagues and the U.S. in the war on terror. This is a man who put his own life on the line for the sake of his country’s close alliance with the United States — a man who, in July and October 2016, correspondingly saw it as a matter of duty to approach old colleagues in the FBI when he realized he had stumbled onto a breathtaking threat to U.S. national security.
We also know that Steele investigated the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was assassinated — allegedly by the Kremlin — with a deadly radioactive poison in London in 2006. Steele knows only too well what happens to people who get in Putin’s way. Yet even this awareness didn’t divert him from his path as he began to expose the Trump-Russia nexus. There was a reason why he and his family went into hiding when his name was first made public last year.
The risks are real. Some Moscow-watchers have followed the grim fates of a number of senior Russian officials who were likely involved in Operation Donald Trump. In early 2017, Oleg Erovinkin, an aide to Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin (arguably the second-most powerful man in Russia), mysteriously died in the back of his car. (Steele’s reporting offers considerable detail about Page’s links with Rosneft, Russia’s energy giant.) After Steele took his reporting to the FBI, two key officials in the cyber department of the FSB (Russia’s security service, and a successor of the KGB), as well as another cybersecurity expert, were arrested and spirited away. They haven’t been heard from since.
This, too, suggests just how high the stakes are — so much higher than the world of Washington’s petty partisan crusades. This is the world of Kremlin intrigue, where mysterious deaths are a common tool of statecraft. This is the world that Christopher Steele had to plumb, at considerable personal risk to himself, to chart Trump’s illicit entanglements.
That the Republicans are so determined to destroy Steele’s reputation certainly isn’t making life easier for him. Happily, he doesn’t have to do much to prevail against them. He merely has to endure. The truth will find a way. The members of Trump’s party who are smart enough to understand this must be terrified.