Fox News’s Martha MacCallum: “So it doesn’t bother you that the Clinton campaign paid for a dossier to be put together by someone who had all kinds of ties to intelligence and put together something that turned out to be not necessarily factual?”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.): “Which part of it hasn’t been proved factual?”
MacCallum: “I mean, are you serious? … For one thing, Michael Cohen said he never went to Prague. Do you agree with that?”
Swalwell: “But which part has been proved to be not factual?”
— exchange on Fox News, March 23, 2019
Now that a redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report has been released, what about the dossier?
The “dossier” consists of more than a dozen memos, based on conversations with Russian sources, that were written between June and December 2016 by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele under a contract with the research firm Fusion GPS. The company had been hired by a law firm connected to the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to look into Trump’s ties with Russia.
The dossier was intended as raw, unverified intelligence. But it achieved notoriety after incoming President Trump was briefed on its contents by then-FBI Director James B. Comey in early 2017 and BuzzFeed published a version of it.
The FBI’s counterintelligence operation into whether Russia was assisting the Trump campaign was not prompted by the dossier. But the FBI was aware of the document and used Steele as a source. The FBI even obtained a secret court order to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page after convincing a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there was probable cause to believe he was acting as an agent of a foreign power, Russia. Steele also briefed selected reporters during the campaign on his findings.
The dossier is a political Rorschach test. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a hoax used to defame a future president or a credible guide to allegations about Trump’s involvement with Russia. That vast gulf in perceptions is captured in the exchange above.
The dossier itself was not intended to be published and consists largely of rumors and gossip — the starting point for investigative reporters and law enforcement officials, not the end point.
Defenders of the dossier say its overall message — that Russia wanted to help Trump win the election, in part to sow discord in the United States — has been validated by the Mueller report. Detractors say many of the details have been proved false or remain unverified.
Neither case is confirmed by the Mueller report. Mueller was looking for criminal acts, not seeking to confirm the dossier. In fact, Steele is rarely mentioned in the more than 400 pages. So one cannot necessarily say the Mueller report ends the matter, given a continuing counterintelligence investigation. But some key elements certainly appear in grave doubt.
“The Mueller Report substantiates the core reporting and many of the specifics in Christopher Steele’s 2016 memoranda, including that Trump campaign figures were secretly meeting Kremlin figures, that Russia was conducting a covert operation to elect Donald Trump, and that the aim of the Russian operation was to sow discord and disunity in the U.S. and within the Transatlantic Alliance,” Joshua A. Levy, counsel for Fusion GPS, told The Fact Checker. “To our knowledge, nothing in the Steele memoranda has been disproven.”
Here’s a guide to how elements of the dossier match up with the Mueller report, along with our analysis.
“Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.”
— Steele memo 80, dated June 20, 2016
The Mueller report documents extensive Russian efforts to ensure Trump’s victory, through hacking operations and social media efforts. Mueller also details Trump’s business interests in Russia, especially pursuit of a Trump Tower project in Moscow.
Talks on the project continued even as Trump pursued the presidency — and Trump aide Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to misleading Congress about those efforts. But a case could also be made that the memo’s political analysis about Russia’s motivations might have been made by any close reader of the newspapers. By the time this memo was written, The Washington Post had already broken the news that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee.
“There were other aspects to TRUMP’s engagement with the Russian authorities. One which had borne fruit for them was to exploit personal obsessions and sexual perversion in order to obtain suitable ‘kompromat’ [compromising material] on him.”
— Memo 80
We won’t get into the details, but the most salacious material in the dossier concerned allegations that Trump cavorted with sex workers in Moscow in 2013 — and that the Russians had tape of the incident. Mueller actually addresses this allegation in an intriguing footnote that called the claim “unverified” but suggested Trump had heard Russia might have such incriminating tapes.
“Comey’s briefing [to Trump] included the Steele reporting’s unverified allegation that the Russians had compromising tapes of the President involving conduct when he was a private citizen during a 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant,” the report said. “During the 2016 presidential campaign, a similar claim may have reached candidate Trump. On October 30, 2016, [Trump attorney] Michael Cohen received a text from Russian businessman Giorgi Rtskhiladze that said, ‘Stopped flow of tapes from Russia but not sure if there’s anything else. Just so you know … .’ Rtskhiladze said ‘tapes’ referred to compromising tapes of Trump rumored to be held by persons associated with the Russian real estate conglomerate Crocus Group, which had helped host the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Russia. Cohen said he spoke to Trump about the issue after receiving the texts from Rtskhiladze. Rtskhiladze said he was told the tapes were fake, but he did not communicate that to Cohen.”
“Russia has extensive program of state-sponsored offensive cyberoperations.”
— Memo 86, dated July 26, 2016
This was documented in the Mueller report, but it was also well known at the time Steele wrote this memo. The methods described in this document do not match up with the methods used by the Russians to obtain DNC and Clinton campaign emails during the 2016 campaign.
“Further evidence of extensive conspiracy between campaign team and Kremlin, sanctioned at highest levels and involving Russian diplomatic staff based in the US. Agreed exchange of information established in both directions.”
— Memo 95, undated, probably July
This memo makes the strongest suggestion of coordination and collusion — a “conspiracy” — between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. The memo claims an “agreed exchange of information in both directions,” with “Trump’s team using moles within the DNC and hackers in the US.” The memo further states that Putin was “motivated by fear and hatred of Hillary Clinton.”
The Mueller investigation did not find such a level of coordination. Instead, it suggests the Trump campaign was opportunistic about apparent assistance from Russia, but Mueller could not find evidence the conspiracy outlined in the memo existed.
Instead, the report described Russian contacts that “consisted of business connections, offers of assistance to the Campaign, invitations for candidate Trump and Putin to meet in person, invitations for Campaign officials and representatives of the Russian government to meet, and policy positions seeking improved U.S.-Russian relations.”
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mueller concluded.
“TRUMP associate admits Kremlin behind recent appearance of DNC e-mails on WikiLeaks, as means of maintaining plausible deniability.”
— Memo 95
This is correct. Mueller concluded that Russia distributed hacked material through WikiLeaks, as well as fictitious online personas “DCLeaks” and “Guccifer 2.0.” The report noted: “The presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump showed interest in WikiLeaks’s releases of documents and welcomed their potential to damage candidate Clinton.” Large sections of the WikiLeaks discussion are redacted in the public version of the report, citing an ongoing investigation.
“This [coordination] 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. The two sides had a mutual interest in defeating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary CLINTON, whom President PUTIN apparently both hated and feared.”
— Memo 95
The Mueller report does not show that Manafort used Trump foreign policy aide Carter Page as an intermediary with Russia before he was ousted from the campaign in August. Manafort had his own Russia-linked connections, as documented in the report.
“On August 2, 2016, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort met in New York City with his long-time business associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI assesses to have ties to Russian intelligence,” the report said. “Kilimnik requested the meeting to deliver in person a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to the Special Counsel’s Office was a ‘backdoor’ way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine; both men believed the plan would require candidate Trump’s assent to succeed (were he to be elected President). They also discussed the status of the Trump Campaign and Manafort’ s strategy for winning Democratic votes in Midwestern states. Months before that meeting, Manafort had caused internal polling data to be shared with Kilimnik, and the sharing continued for some period of time after their August meeting.”
Kilimnik has denied to The Washington Post that he has any ties to Russian intelligence.
The report says that Manafort lied to prosecutors about his dealings with Kilimnik, resulting in termination of his cooperation agreement. “The Office could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing internal polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign period,” the report said, but added: “The investigation did not establish that Manafort otherwise coordinated with the Russian government on its election-interference efforts.”
“TRUMP advisor Carter PAGE holds secret meetings in Moscow with [Rosneft president] SECHIN and senior Kremlin Internal Affairs official, DIVYEKIN. SECHIN raises issues of future bilateral US-Russia energy co-operation and associated lifting of western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.”
— Memo 94, dated July 19, 2016
“In terms of the substance of their discussion SECHIN’s associate said that the Rosneft President was so keen to lift personal and corporate western sanctions imposed on the company, that he offered PAGE associates the brokerage of up to a 19 percent (privatized) stake in Rosneft in return. PAGE had expressed interest and confirmed that were TRUMP elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted.”
— Memo 134, dated Oct. 18, 2016
The Mueller report does not confirm a meeting between Page, then a low-level campaign adviser, and the president of Rosneft. But Mueller did document a meeting between Page and a lower-level Rosneft official. The meeting included discussion of a possible sale of part of Rosneft, though apparently not in the context of a reward for lifting sanctions.
“Page said that, during his time in Moscow, he met with friends and associates he knew from when he lived in Russia, including Andrey Baranov, a former Gazprom employee who had become the head of investor relations at Rosneft, a Russian energy company,” the Mueller report said. “Page stated that he and Baranov talked about ‘immaterial non-public’ information. Page believed he and Baranov discussed Rosneft president Igor Sechin, and he thought Baranov might have mentioned the possibility of a sale of a stake in Rosneft in passing.”
The report stated that Page shook hands with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, who made statements to Page about working together in the future. Page wrote a memo to the campaign that Dvorkovich “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump,” as did other senior members of the Putin administration. But the report added: “The Office was unable to obtain additional evidence or testimony about who Page may have met or communicated with in Moscow; thus, Page’s activities in Russia — as described in his emails with the Campaign — were not fully explained.”
“Top level Russian official confirms current closeness of Alpha Group-PUTIN relationship. Significant favors continue to be done in both directions... and [Petr] AVEN still giving informal advice to PUTIN, especially on US.”
— Memo 112, Sept. 14, 2016
This memo gets the essence of the relationship between Putin and Russia’s largest commercial bank correct. (The Cyrillic name can be translated as Alfa or Alpha in Latin script; the bank itself prefers Alfa.)
“Aven told the Office that he is one of approximately 50 wealthy Russian businessmen who regularly meet with Putin in the Kremlin; these 50 men are often referred to as ‘oligarchs,’ ” the Mueller report said. “Aven told the Office that he met on a quarterly basis with Putin, including in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2016, shortly after the U.S. presidential election.” The report recounts how, at Putin’s direction, Aven sought to make contacts with the Trump transition team.
“Two knowledgeable St Petersburg sources claim Republican candidate TRUMP has paid bribes and engaged in sexual activities there but key witnesses silenced and evidence hard to obtain.”
— Memo 113, dated Sept. 14, 2016
The Mueller report does not describe any bribes paid by Trump. There is no indication Mueller investigated this allegation.
"The Kremlin had more intelligence on CLINTON and her campaign but he did not know the details or when or if it would be released.”
— Memo 96, dated July 30, 2016
“Russians do have further kompromat on CLINTON (e-mails) and considering disseminating it after Duma (legislative elections) in late September.”
— Memo 111, dated Sept. 14, 2016
These two memos accurately reported more Russian-obtained dirt on Clinton was coming.
On Oct. 7, The Post disclosed the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump had a lewd conversation about women, in what was considered a major setback for his campaign. “Less than an hour after the video’s publication, WikiLeaks released the first set of emails stolen by the GRU [Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army] from the account of Clinton Campaign chairman John Podesta,” the Mueller report said. Mueller noted that thousands of Podesta emails had been stolen in late March. That means the Russians had held on to the material for nearly six months.
The report says that “metadata collected from the WikiLeaks site revealed that the stolen Podesta emails show a creation date of September 19, 2016,” indicating that is when it was transferred from the GRU to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks released more than 50,000 Podesta documents in the month before the U.S. election.
“Kremlin insider reports TRUMP lawyer COHEN’s secret meeting/s with Kremlin officials in August 2016 was/were held in Prague.”
— Memo 136, dated Oct. 20, 2016
The Mueller report suggests no such meeting in Prague took place, even though three of the Steele memos discuss this alleged meeting in detail.
One of the memos, dated Dec. 13, stated that Cohen was accompanied in Prague by three colleagues with an agenda of processing “deniable” cash payments to operatives, including hackers, and contingency plans to cover up the operations. Another memo, dated Oct. 19, described Cohen as a “secret liaison with Russian leadership,” a role that had supposedly grown with the departure of Manafort from the campaign.
Mueller does not indicate he investigated whether Cohen traveled to Prague; he simply dismisses the incident in Cohen’s own words as he discusses Cohen’s preparation for testimony before Congress.
”At that time [May 2017], Cohen understood Congress’s interest in him to be focused on the allegations in the Steele reporting concerning a meeting Cohen allegedly had with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign,” the report said. “Cohen had never traveled to Prague and was not concerned about those allegations, which he believed were provably false.”
The only listed source for this information is a “302,” code for an FBI summary of an interview with Cohen. He has not been consistent on whether he has ever been to Prague, telling the Wall Street Journal he had not been there since 2001, telling Mother Jones in 2016 he had been there for one afternoon 14 years earlier and reiterating on Twitter and to Congress he has never been there.
Cohen has been cooperating with the investigation after pleading guilty to criminal charges, including lying to Congress. So, facing a prison term, Cohen presumably would reveal such a meeting if it had occurred.
The Mueller report documents Trump Organization discussions about Cohen’s taking a trip to Moscow in 2016 to advance the Trump Tower Moscow project. But that trip never took place. Trump had signed a letter of intent in November 2015, as he was campaigning for the presidency.
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