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Opinion Trump allies seek to tie Kerry’s State Department to the Steele dossier

The Russia probe got its start with a drunken conversation, an ex-spy, WikiLeaks and a distracted FBI. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

As part of their broad effort to distract from the Trump-Russia investigation and undermine its foundation, President Trump’s allies in Congress seek any way to discredit the now famous “dossier” authored by former British spy Christopher Steele, including by tying it or him to the Obama administration. Their latest target for guilt by association is the State Department under John Kerry.

The suggestion by Trump allies is that somehow Kerry’s State Department was involved in the compilation or distribution of the dossier, an allegation for which there is zero direct evidence. While it’s true that Steele did have connections to Kerry’s State Department, they were focused on Russia and Ukraine, not Trump or any other Americans, two former senior State Department officials who were directly involved told me.

By the time Kerry was briefed on the dossier’s allegations, he was among the last to hear about them and did not do anything with the information, the officials said.

Regardless, congressional investigators are “looking into a possible Obama State Department role in the collection and dissemination” of the Steele dossier, according to a Jan. 16 piece in the Washington Examiner by Byron York.

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York refers to a new book that reports that Steele built ties to Kerry’s State Department after the Ukraine crisis broke out in 2014 by sharing “more than a hundred reports on Russia and Ukraine” that he had authored for a private client.

York then reports the “dossier investigations on Capitol Hill” are looking at whether Steele prepared other Trump-related reports besides the dossier and whether those reports “made their way” to the State Department.

“They’re also seeking to learn what individual State Department officials did in relation to Steele, and whether there were any contacts between the State Department and the FBI or Justice Department concerning the anti-Trump material,” York wrote.

Set aside for a moment that the congressional investigations were set up to uncover Russia’s interference in our election, not as “dossier investigations.” If Kerry’s State Department is their new target, the “dossier investigations” are likely going to be very disappointed with what they find.

From 2014 through 2016, Steele did send periodic reports containing his own intelligence and analysis of Russia and Ukraine to Kerry’s State Department, officials confirmed to me. The connection was through State Department official Jonathan Winer, who was the U.S. special envoy for Libya from 2013 through 2016.

Winer had a prior friendship with Steele and passed on Steele’s analysis as a courtesy to the State Department’s Europe bureau, led at that time by Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland. The State Department received approximately one Steele report a month, a couple dozen in total, officials said.

“We read them as one of dozens of data streams from government and non-government sources we used to understand events,” one senior former State Department official said. “It had nothing to do with Americans at all. It was all about political decision-making in Russia and Ukraine on Crimea and Donbas.”

The Europe bureau did not accept them as fact but found them to be informative and sometimes helpful. The State Department never tasked Steele, paid him or even worked with him directly, the official said. It’s not uncommon for private consulting or intelligence reports to be consumed by State Department officials. Winer declined to comment.

Kerry didn’t hear Steele’s name in connection with Trump until late 2016, another former senior State Department official said. In late September or early October, Winer prepared a two-page summary of information compiled from the series of Steele memos on Trump-Russia connections commonly referred to as the “dossier.”

Winer’s two-page summary was briefed to Kerry in early autumn, the official said. By that time, Kerry’s staff had determined that the dossier was already in the FBI’s possession. As such, Kerry took no action, according to the official.

Kerry’s State Department officials have already recounted this information to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Kerry himself talked to Senate investigators in the middle of last year.

It is unclear whether other officials were contacted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team or other investigators. Senate Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee Republicans have been leading the effort to investigate the dossier and Steele.

There’s nothing nefarious about the State Department accepting material from Steele from 2014 to 2016. At that time, he was a well-respected former intelligence official from an allied country with deep experience in Russia. Officials couldn’t have known that Steele would become controversial for reporting on Trump, because that hadn’t happened yet.

Investigators will likely find that Kerry and his State Department are not connected to the dossier in any way that’s relevant to the Trump-Russia investigation. But in the process, they are likely to succeed in sowing more confusion into the effort to get to the bottom of what Russia did in 2016.