The first is that it involves the characters and language of a John Le Carré novel: a former British intelligence officer communing with shadowy Muscovites identified only by letters and detailing secret meetings in exotic places, hidden payments and illegal agreements to seize the American presidency.
The second is that the political stakes are high. The dossier’s roots lie with an investment by the campaign of Hillary Clinton, picking up an effort begun by an unnamed Republican client in the primary but accelerated with the hiring of the Briton, Christopher Steele. Steele compiled the 35-page document that was ultimately published by BuzzFeed, and how and why he did so has been nailed down only recently.
The third reason people have paid so much attention to it is the unproven assertion — generally described as “salacious” — that Trump was party to a particular event in a Moscow hotel room. You already know what I’m referring to, so I won’t get into it.
That assertion is unproven — as are many of the other claims in the document. That includes the overarching claim that Russian government officials allied with Trump employees and campaign aides to help his election. But the importance of assessing that claim has led Trump supporters to dismiss the dossier and its contents out of hand and critics of the president to lift up individual statements as accurate to suggest that the overarching claim is, as well.
We decided to evaluate the claims in the dossier as best we could to guide that debate. It’s certainly the case that we may have missed something; if so, let us know.
About the dossier
The dossier is composed of 17 “company intelligence reports,” each assigned a number between 80 and 135 and most of which include the date the report was completed — although the numeric order doesn’t always match the calendar order.
Note that we can’t verify that the reports actually were from those dates. This is important because the reports do sometimes make claims that were proven to be accurate by later reporting — but we don’t know that they weren’t written after those reports and dated prior.
We do know that in late October of last year, Mother Jones’s David Corn reported having seen the dossier and its contents. BuzzFeed published the version we reviewed in early January. Any reports after that point were clearly after the fact.
It’s also worth noting that the information included in the reports is mostly unverified “humint” — intelligence gathered by talking to people. As Wired noted shortly after the dossier was published, such intelligence will usually be flagged with indicators suggesting how credible the sources and claims should be considered. The dossier lacks that.
Writing for the National Review, David Satter offered that the dossier also seemed to comport with the idea of Russian actors deliberately sharing information meant to position Russia in a particular way.
Timeline of what we know about Trump and Russia
Evaluating the claims
We will evaluate the claims in each report individually. It’s critical to note that these claims are for the most part not verified, and should not be considered as such.
Report 80. Dated June 20, 2016.
Claims: Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government had sought to “cultivate” Trump for a period of five years (that is, beginning in 2011). Report suggests that Trump was offered and declined real-estate deals and that the Russians have compromising information on both Trump and Clinton.
Analysis: Trump’s relationship with Russian interests extends back decades, during which time he may have been contacted by Russian agents. In 2011, Trump was flirting with running for president, including by attacking President Barack Obama’s nativity. By 2013, he’d partnered with a businessman named Aras Agalarov to host the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. It was Agalarov and his son Emin who were later the vehicle for orchestrating a meeting between a Kremlin-backed lawyer and Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower in June 2016.
There’s no evidence at hand that this cultivation took place, however. The dossier claims a carrot-and-stick approach to keeping Trump in line, with the carrot being those real estate deals and the stick being the “salacious” event. Subsequent reporting, though, indicates that Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen (whose name will come up again) emailed Putin aide Dmitry Peskov (whose name also will come up again) in January 2016 to ask for help in advancing a project in the capital. The deal collapsed — undercutting the idea that six months later Russia would have claimed to be trying to bolster Trump’s efforts in the city.
The report also suggests that the compromising information on Clinton was mostly in the form of recordings of comments made while traveling in Russia. (This information is said to be “controlled” by Peskov, per the report.) By this time, hackers believed to be tied to the Russian government already had accessed the Democratic National Commitee (DNC) network and the email of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, information that was discussed in later reports. Neither is mentioned in this report from late June, before either set of hacked documents was released via WikiLeaks.
Report 94. Dated July 19, 2016.
Claims: Trump campaign aide Carter Page met with the chief executive of fossil-fuel giant Rosneft, Igor Sechin, and Kremlin official Igor Diveykin, who American officials believe was in charge of collecting intelligence about the campaign. Diveykin again raised the compromising material about Clinton with Page.
Analysis: Page was in Moscow in early July, a trip that was reported at the time. He denied meeting Sechin or Diveykin last year.
This report suggests that Diveykin offered to release the compromising information on Clinton to Trump’s campaign team — an offer that we now know was made before that June meeting in Trump Tower, as well. It’s not clear why Diveykin would make this offer after having already had the opportunity to release that information to Donald Trump Jr. a month earlier.
Claims: An “ethnic Russian close associate of … Trump” says there’s a “conspiracy” of cooperating between the campaign and Moscow. The source says that Russia hacked the DNC and leaked the files to WikiLeaks to maintain “plausible deniability.”
Trump’s team had repaid Russia by sidelining Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and questioning NATO’s commitments in the Baltics.
The émigré claimed a tripartite group of actors: “Firstly there were agents/facilitators within the Democratic Party structure itself; secondly Russian émigré and associated offensive cyber operators based in the US; and thirdly, state-sponsored cyberoperatives working in Russia.” Diplomatic staff in several cities were “using the émigré ‘pension’ distribution system as cover” for communicating with Russia.
The report claimed that Trump had sought a real estate deal in St. Petersburg as well and that the campaign was comfortable with attention being focused on Russia because it distracted the media from “business dealings in China and other emerging markets” that included bribes and kickbacks.
Analysis: It’s not clear when this report was written, but the contents and context suggest that it is from late July.
Emails from the DNC were published on WikiLeaks on July 22, but some files were published by “Guccifer 2.0″ in mid-June. Before any files were released, The Washington Post had identified Russian actors as the likely culprits. It’s unlikely, then, that an outside observer wouldn’t have known what the émigré claimed about the hacks.
By late July, Trump had already publicly questioned NATO’s role. The Post also had already reported on the Trump campaign’s efforts to remove language from the party platform at the convention that would have bolstered Ukraine in its fight with Russia.
The overarching assertion in this report is the most important one: That Trump’s team and Russian actors were colluding. This, too, hasn’t been proven, and it’s not clear the extent to which the investigations of that collusion that we know exist were spurred by the dossier itself.
It’s hard to evaluate the other claims made above, but it’s clear that Trump did seek some business deal in St. Petersburg (perhaps including a reality show). There also has been reporting by the New Yorker on projects in Azerbaijan and Georgia that may have raised questions about possible bribery and corruption.
Report 86. Dated July 26, 2016.
Claims: Russia has an extensive program aimed at hacking foreign adversaries. Some examples are provided that don’t seem to be related to what happened to 2016.
Analysis: That the Russians were actively hacking Westerners is clearly true and was well-known even before the election.
Although it’s not clear how the DNC servers were accessed, it doesn’t seem to have been through the means described in this report. Podesta’s email was hacked using a phishing attack, which isn’t mentioned in this report.
Report 97. Dated July 30, 2016.
Claims: The Russian government was nervous about the attention paid to its role in leaking information, specifically the DNC emails.
The report also claims that Trump and his associates had, for at least eight years, been providing Russia with “intelligence on the activities, business and otherwise, in the U.S. of leading Russian oligarchs and their families.”
Analysis: Sourced to “a Russian émigré figure close to … Trump,” the report claims that the Kremlin “had more intelligence on Clinton” but didn’t know when it might be released. This could be a reference to the Podesta emails that were released in October.
We also fall into what might be called the “Nostradamus trap”: Retrofitting what we know now to what was written about beforehand. The vagueness of “more intelligence” makes it hard to say this is a description of the Podesta hack.
It’s also not clear how or if Trump did (or could have) provided Moscow with information on oligarchs.
Report 100. Dated Aug. 5, 2016.
Claims: Details internal dissension in Russia over blowback from the intervention efforts. Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff, is reported to be angry about the intervention efforts of Peskov and others.
Analysis: This report is largely inconsequential for our purposes.
Report 101. Dated Aug. 10, 2016.
Claims: Similar to Report 100, this document mostly details internal dynamics. It also asserts that “no new leaks [were] envisaged, as too politically risky, but rather further exploitation of (WikiLeaks) material already disseminated to exacerbate divisions.” The goal of the existing leaks was to turn “educated youth” against Clinton and toward Trump.
The Kremlin was also reaching out to other political figures, funding trips to Moscow. Those figures included Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Michael T. Flynn and Carter Page.
Analysis: Russia had already accessed Podesta’s email by this point, according to U.S. authorities, so this report seems to be claiming that those emails would not be released.
Otherwise, this information was already known. Young voters were more skeptical of Clinton than others, as evidenced by the already-concluded Democratic primary. Flynn (an adviser to Trump) and Stein visited Moscow for RT’s 10-year anniversary — a visit that was published in a press release. Page’s visit is discussed above.
Report 102. Dated Aug. 10, 2016.
Claims: This report focuses on the same “ethnic Russian” associate of Trump’s and largely discusses what the campaign hoped to do (such as turning young voters against Clinton).
Analysis: This report is largely inconsequential for our purposes.
Report 105. Dated Aug. 22, 2016.
Claims: Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych told Putin that he’d paid Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under the table, but that it was untraceable. Report cites a Trump associate claiming that the revelation of those payments was part of why Manafort left the campaign (as he did shortly before the report’s publishing date) — and part was pressure from former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Analysis: The role of the alleged payments was widely reported as a reason for Manafort’s ouster. The tension between him and Lewandowski was not unknown, and neither was the fact that Lewandowski still spoke with Trump regularly.
Report 111. Dated Sep. 14, 2016.
Claims: The Russians have further compromising material about Clinton, described as “emails” that they are considering disseminating after the Russian legislative elections in late September.
Chief of staff Ivanov was fired, which the report suggests was because of the advice he gave Putin on the issue of election intervention. The report says that a diplomat was also removed from the Washington embassy because of possible exposure from his role in the meddling.
Analysis: The claim about the emails is significant, offering one of the few indicators that Steele uncovered the existence of the Podesta hack before it became public. (The emails were published in early October.) The vagueness of the description of the material, though, might also be a reference to some other batch of information.
Ivanov’s firing was reported as a power struggle; Putin described it publicly as having been the natural conclusion of Ivanov’s term of service.
The question of the ousted diplomat is interesting. Steele writes his name as Mikhail Kulagin. In August, Mikhail Kalugin returned to Russia after six years in D.C., a move that doesn’t appear to have been reported at the time.
It was widely reported that U.S. intelligence officials had verified Steele’s claim about Kalugin — that he was an intelligence officer. Whether he was withdrawn for involvement in meddling, though, is not clear.
Report 112. Dated Sep. 14, 2016.
Claims: Deals with a business relationship involving Putin.
Analysis: This report is largely inconsequential for our purposes.
Report 113. Dated Sep. 14, 2016.
Claims: Asserts that Trump paid bribes for possible business deals in St. Petersburg, a claim that Agalarov could verify.
Analysis: As mentioned above, Trump did seek a reality show set in the city. Other business dealings are unclear.
Report 130. Dated Oct. 12, 2016.
Claims: Russia had “injected further anti-Clinton material into the ‘plausibly deniable’ leaks pipeline” that would keep emerging. Putin was angry about how the operation was progressing, though his administration had assumed direct control — to the extent that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s job might be at risk.
Analysis: By Oct. 12, the Podesta emails were dripping out. WikiLeaks — the “pipeline” apparently used for the DNC hacks as well — was publishing new materials regularly and would continue to do so. That a number of releases had already occurred would be known to most outside observers.
The report indicates that the effort to intervene on behalf of Trump originated with Lavrov’s department and eventually made its way to Putin’s team directly. This comports with January reporting about Putin having a direct hand in the effort. That said, Lavrov still holds his position.
Report 134. Dated Oct. 18, 2016.
Claims: One of the more significant reports, it again asserts that Page met with Rosneft chief executive Sechin in July. At the meeting, Sechin offered Page and Trump a 19 percent stake in Rosneft in exchange for lifting sanctions on Russia if elected.
It also asserts that Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, was playing a “key role” in the Russia-Trump relationship.
Analysis: The Rosneft claim received a lot of attention when, in January, a 19.5 percent stake in the company was sold to an unknown buyer. Later reporting, though, indicated that the buyers were companies based in Qatar and Switzerland. It was essentially a loan, and Moscow prearranged to buy back some of the company from the Qataris.
That said, Trump did seek to quickly lift some sanctions on Russia imposed after the country seized Crimea in 2014.
Update: In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee made public last November, Page admitted that, during a conversation with Andrey Baranov, head of investor relations at Rosneft, Baranov “may have briefly mentioned” the sale of a significant percentage of the firm. Asked if he’d mentioned the possibility of lifting sanctions to Baranov, Page replied, “Not directly.”
Report 135. Dated Oct. 19, 2016.
Claims: The report claims that Cohen played an important role liaising between Trump’s team and Moscow, including meeting with Russian agents to cover up Manafort’s involvement in Ukraine and Page’s interactions with the Russians.
Report 136. Dated Oct. 20, 2016.
Claims: Claims that Cohen traveled to Prague at some point in August to coordinate the relationship. There, he met with Russian agents at Rossotrudnichestvo, an agency that distributes foreign aid.
There has been no evidence presented to place Cohen in Prague.
Report 166. Dated Dec. 13, 2016.
Claims: Cohen’s trip to Prague included three colleagues and centered on how to clean up the evidence of collusion, including determining how to make final payments from both Russia and Trump to hackers.
The report also outlined that an unidentified company “and its affiliates had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic party leadership.” If Clinton won the presidency, the plan was to pay off the “Romanian hackers” and have other participants head to Bulgaria to “lay low.”
Analysis: Again, there’s no evidence Cohen was in Prague. This report claims that he was there during that last week in August or early September; USC confirmed Cohen’s visit during that first period to The Atlantic.
While it’s not clear how the DNC server was accessed, we do know that the Podesta emails were obtained through a phishing attempt, not by leveraging botnets, porn or bugs.
The Steele dossier makes a wide range of claims, many of which are rumors that couldn’t be independently verified. Many other claims involve things that would have been publicly known at the time the report was apparently drafted. Although it’s impossible to say that the dossier is entirely inaccurate (there are some glimmers of accurate predictions), it is also impossible to say that it has been broadly validated.
That unsatisfying answer has a side effect: It gives either side of the political fight all the ammo that it might want.