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Opinion The GOP’s spin on the Russia probe doesn’t add up

President Trump and his allies like to claim that the real “Russia collusion” story involves Justice Department and FBI officials, investigators hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and Russians who were feeding them information.

After reviewing scores of documents and messages released by Trump supporters in Congress, I find that this GOP counter-narrative doesn’t add up. It doesn’t undermine the credibility of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — or the guilty pleas and convictions he has racked up. And it doesn’t discredit Mueller’s key witnesses.

Yet the GOP’s evidence does reveal some puzzling interconnections among major players in the Russia probe. The FBI and the Justice Department were sometimes conducting negotiations with the same people they were also investigating for possible wrongdoing. The contacts between private investigators and government officials were occasionally incestuous.

The most intriguing example of overlapping relationships involves three key players who were represented by a little-known but ubiquitous American lawyer named Adam Waldman. This unlikely trio includes Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who once did business with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort; Christopher Steele, a British former MI6 officer who wrote the famous dossier alleging connections between Trump and Russia; and Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, which released Clinton campaign and other Democratic emails that U.S. intelligence agencies say were hacked by Russia.

In early 2017, Waldman was passing urgent messages to prominent officials on behalf of Deripaska, Steele and Assange, once mentioning all three in the same text.

Waldman is a character Hollywood couldn’t invent, who for 20 years has been using his charm and legal savvy to make connections, which he then pyramids into other connections. Deripaska, Steele and Assange have been clients, but he has also represented Hollywood star Johnny Depp. He’s friendly with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), but also with GOP grandee C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel for President George H.W. Bush. He has worked closely with Democratic former assistant attorney general Joel Klein and with the prominent D.C. law firm Wilmer Hale.

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If you think of a clever, upwardly mobile hero in a 19th-century novel — Phineas Finn in Trollope’s “Palliser” novels, for example, or Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” you get a sense of Waldman’s combination of charm and ambition. (As a personal disclosure, I should note that I’ve known Waldman since the 1990s.)

Waldman wouldn’t talk for the record about his contacts, citing attorney-client privilege. But he doesn’t challenge the accuracy of a series of texts and emails about his activities that have been published by columnist John Solomon in the newspaper the Hill, whose scoops haven’t gotten much attention from mainstream media outlets.

How do the pieces of the Deripaska-Steele-Assange narrative fit together?

In the texts and emails, supplemented by my own reporting, Deripaska emerges as a complex figure who was, in effect, playing both sides of the street in his dealings with Moscow and Washington. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked at an open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with FBI Director Christopher A. Wray in February if “Steele was employed either directly or indirectly, by Oleg Deripaska at the time he was writing the so-called ‘Steele dossier.’ ” Wray wouldn’t respond in open session but answered “there might be more we could say there” in a classified hearing.

A knowledgeable source, who requested anonymity to speak freely about sensitive legal matters, tells me that Deripaska’s lawyers had indeed hired Steele in 2012 to gather information for a British court case involving the oligarch’s aluminum business. (Deripaska’s lawyer, Paul Hauser, didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

The texts illuminate Steele’s assiduous efforts on Deripaska’s behalf, in the months before the former MI6 officer began compiling the dossier, and also, the pair’s connections to Waldman.

The earliest Steele reference to Waldman in the documents is a Jan. 12, 2016, text from Steele to Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr, in which Steele notes: “I heard from Adam Waldman yesterday that OD [Oleg Deripaska] is applying for another official US visa.” Steele said that “Agency guys” (presumably the CIA) had told Waldman that the U.S. government’s “stance on [Deripaska] is softening,” which he termed a “positive development.”

Steele followed with more upbeat texts to Ohr on Feb. 8 and Feb. 21, 2016. “Our old friend OD apparently has been granted another official visa,” says one. “We reckon . . . that the forthcoming OVD [Deripaska] contact represents a good opportunity for the USG,” says another.

The background to these messages is fascinating. Steele and Ohr, both Russia specialists, had known each since the late 2000s. In September 2015, the knowledgeable source tells me, Steele and Ohr helped arrange a meeting in New York between Deripaska and FBI officials. This was at the time of the U.N. General Assembly meeting, and Deripaska was traveling as part of the Russian official delegation.

The FBI quizzed Deripaska about Russian oligarchs, Kremlin politics and organized-crime issues, sources tell me. The meeting was part of a project the Justice Department called Operation Outreach, to try to recruit Russian sources.

Deripaska returned to the United States a year later, in September 2016, again as part of Russia’s official U.N. delegation. He was at one of his Manhattan homes when several FBI agents knocked at his door and wanted his help on the investigation the bureau had opened in July into possible contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. “We think Russia is colluding with the Trump campaign, and we think Manafort is the key guy,” one of the agents told Deripaska, according to the knowledgeable source. The oligarch responded, “I hate Manafort, and I’m suing him,” according to this source.

The September 2016 Deripaska meeting has an intriguing sidelight. One of the FBI agents who called on Deripaska had worked with him in 2009 on a secret (and unsuccessful) FBI effort to find a retired bureau agent and CIA contractor named Robert Levinson, who disappeared during a trip into Iran in March 2007. The FBI director at the time of this covert outreach to Deripaska was none other than Mueller — a fact that some GOP investigators have tried to spin into a conflict of interest for Mueller in the Russia probe. That alleged conflict is unconvincing, in my assessment.

Because Deripaska didn’t have information in September 2016 that helped the nascent Trump-Russia investigation, the “good opportunity” that Steele had suggested in his email to Ohr some months before doesn’t appear to have led anywhere.

Deripaska came to New York once more in September 2017, again on an official visa, but sources tell me his lawyers blocked any FBI attempt to subpoena him on that trip, because he was part of the Russian delegation and therefore immune.

Sarah Isgur Flores, Justice Department director of public affairs, declined to comment about Ohr’s activities. Susan McKee, an FBI public affairs officer, declined to comment on the reports about the 2015 and 2016 meetings with Deripaska. Some of Deripaska’s dealings with the FBI were discussed in a Sept. 1 New York Times article.

What about Steele, the GOP’s bête noire? As he compiled his dossier in the summer and fall of 2016, the ex-spy remained in regular contact with Ohr at the Justice Department and stayed in touch later when he faced a barrage of questions from congressional Republicans in 2017. Republicans assert that Steele’s work and the larger FBI probe were tainted because he had been hired to compile the dossier by Fusion GPS, an investigative firm working for the Clinton campaign, and because Steele, starting in July 2016, became a source for the FBI.

As incestuous as these relationships might seem, they don’t impugn the accuracy of the main thrust of the information that Steele gathered, much of which has since been confirmed. The FBI ended its relationship with Steele in late 2016 because he had been talking with journalists about his investigation of Trump.

Here’s a sampling of Steele’s sometimes frantic messages with Ohr about reconnecting with the FBI: On March 30, 2017: “Hi, Bruce, any news? The Senate Intel Committee is leaking like a sieve which is giving us pause for thought on engagement.” On June 22, 2017: “Hi, Bruce, is there any news on reengagement yet?” On Aug. 6, 2017: “We are frustrated with how long this reengagement with the Bureau and Mueller is taking.”

Waldman, meanwhile, was making his own Steele-related contacts, trying to help Warner, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who in early 2017 was eager to meet with the ex-MI6 officer. (Waldman knew Warner because the two had nearby vacation residences on Martha’s Vineyard, according to a congressional aide.) Steele, who was getting pounded at the time by conservative media, asked Warner for a bipartisan letter of invitation from the committee. The letter never came, and Steele never testified.

Finally, there is the tale of Waldman’s effort to negotiate a deal on behalf of Assange, who might be the most intriguing player to surface in these documents. Evidence shows that at the same time the WikiLeaks founder was being investigated last year as a conduit for Russian-hacked documents attacking the Clinton campaign, he was trying through Waldman to negotiate a secret deal with the Justice Department on leaked CIA documents, and also a possible deal to provide Senate testimony about the Clinton hacks. Assange wanted safe passage to leave, at least temporarily, his solitary refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

The Guardian reported in June that Waldman visited Assange nine times last year in his warren-like rooms at the Ecuadoran Embassy. Waldman doesn’t dispute the Guardian’s contention that he visited Assange repeatedly last year but would not say how often.

Waldman’s contacts with Assange began in mid-January 2017, after he received a request from a lawyer with whom he’d worked on another case, who was representing the WikiLeaks founder, according to the knowledgeable source. On his way to the meeting with Assange, Waldman called Ohr’s number in D.C. and left a voicemail message describing what he was doing, the source said. Ohr returned the call later and asked Waldman to contact Justice Department officials when he came back from London. (Flores, the Justice Department spokeswoman, would not comment.)

The offer that Waldman and other lawyers acting on Assange’s behalf brought to Justice was that the WikiLeaks founder would help vet a cache of leaked CIA documents he was about to release, under the rubric “Vault 7.” In exchange, Assange wanted some form of “safe passage” so that he could leave the embassy and answer questions, possibly in the United States.

Waldman’s negotiations with Justice were conducted through a DOJ attorney named David Laufman, who stepped down in February as head of counterintelligence for Justice’s national security division.

A March 28, 2017, email from Waldman to Laufman says that in the “risk mitigation” process, Assange would be prepared to discuss: “(i) a description of CIA information in the possession or control of Wikileaks; (ii) the risks of third parties who may have obtained access to such information . . . (iii) information regarding the timing of further publications . . . .”

Flores declined to comment about Waldman’s contacts with Laufman. Laufman, who’s now in private practice, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Waldman was also talking about Assange with Warner, whose committee was investigating how Assange and WikiLeaks had obtained the Russian-hacked Clinton campaign emails it published in 2016.

Waldman defended his Assange mediation in this Feb. 15, 2017, text to Warner: “I told Assange just as I told the USG that I would end this pro bono role if I found that the objective (safe passage to discuss w USG the past and future leaks) could not be achieved.”

Assange’s leverage was that he was threatening to disclose the CIA documents (and perhaps other material that would harm Democrats). As Waldman explained in a Feb. 16 text to Warner: “This guy is going to do something catastrophic for the dems, Obama, CIA and national security. I hope someone will consider getting him to US to ameliorate the damage.”

On Feb. 26, Warner telephoned Waldman and said he had talked to James B. Comey, then the FBI director. From that conversation, Waldman understood Comey’s message was to “stand down” on Assange. Waldman and Warner continued to exchange text messages, which were later disclosed by House GOP investigators.

WikiLeaks started publishing on March 7, 2017, the first of what were eventually 24 installments of Vault 7. On April 7, WikiLeaks revealed some especially sensitive details about CIA hacking techniques, and the Justice Department quickly ended its contacts through Assange’s intermediaries.

Waldman, meanwhile, was still discussing Deripaska with Warner. He texted the senator on March 25 that he “might be able to arrange a mtg” with Deripaska, who “seemed interested.” Deripaska was prepared to talk about his dealings over the years with Manafort, the knowledgeable source said.

The unlikely trio — Steele, Assange and Deripaska — converge in this April 10, 2017, text from Waldman to Warner, summing up the state of play with all three of Waldman’s contacts:

“Hi. Steele: would like to get a bipartisan letter from the committee; Assange: I convinced him to make serious and important concessions and am discussing those w/ DOJ; Deripaska: willing to testify to congress but interested in state of play w/ Manafort.” All three representations appear to have come to naught.

Warner stopped responding to Waldman’s text messages in late April. Rachel Cohen, a spokesman for Warner, explained: “Senator Warner immediately passed each message regarding Assange to the FBI. He deferred entirely to DOJ’s handling of this matter and at no point did he offer any opinion on how they should proceed.”

Reviewing the tangled story of the Russia investigation, Deripaska now takes the same line as Trump and his defenders in Congress: It’s all the work of a “deep state” conspiracy, centered on Fusion GPS, the company that hired Steele to compile his dossier on behalf of the Clinton campaign.

The making of the Steele dossier

Deripaska wrote in a March 2018 op-ed in the Daily Caller about “unholy alliances” between Fusion GPS and the Justice Department. Deripaska added that an associate of Fusion GPS had told Waldman in March 2017 that the organization was partly funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, another bogeyman for Trump supporters and Russia. Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson declined to comment for this article. Soros’s spokesman, Michael Vachon, told me that Soros hadn’t funded Fusion GPS directly but had made a grant to the Democracy Integrity Project, which used Fusion GPS as a contractor.

The players in the Russia story are intertwined like the strands of a double helix. And this might someday make a lively noir thriller for one of Waldman’s Hollywood friends. But none of it affects the center line of Mueller’s investigation. That probe continues, as the evidence and convictions mount.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

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