Every few days, a fresh press report or one of the various federal and congressional probes offers a new glimpse into the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election. Taken together, all of those pieces offer a chance to stress-test the most detailed and the most outrageous document we have tying together Donald Trump, his associates and the Kremlin: the Steele dossier.
The dossier, written by former MI-6 spy Christopher Steele, is filled with scandalous and still-uncorroborated allegations, from bizarre stories of Trump’s alleged sexual escapades to supposed payoffs from his campaign to Russian hackers, allegedly brokered by Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen.
Printing the contents of the dossier has seemed irresponsible in the past; the document is composed of unverified, “raw” intelligence that would have been seen as limited even by Steele, as John Sipher, formerly an analyst with the CIA, recently wrote in an in-depth examination of the dossier’s credibility at Just Security. But a steady drip of new information reinforces more and more of the claims in Steele’s dossier, often in spirit if not in particular.
Here are some of the dossier’s claims that have solidified, at least in part, in light of what we know now.
In 2015 Steele began producing the document, which BuzzFeed News published earlier this year, for Republican opposition research firm Fusion GPS at the behest of Republicans worried Trump could win the Republican nomination. In June 2016, Steele wrote about efforts to discredit Clinton that he’d heard about from sources: “A dossier of compromising material on Hillary Clinton has been collated by the Russian Intelligence Services over many years and mainly comprises bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct.”
So what happened to that dossier, if it exists? We don’t know. But we do know that a Kremlin-connected lawyer brought a folder of printed-out documents to a June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., according to the account of a Russian-American lobbyist who also attended named Rinat Akhmetshin. An email to Trump Jr. from Rob Goldstone, a publicist who arranged the meeting on behalf of a Russian oligarch’s son, promised “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
The material contained in the folder wasn’t transcripts of bugged conversations, according to the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya—she has said the information pertained to records of incriminating donations to Democrats—but it was presented as damaging, regardless. Akhmetshin told the AP he thought Veselnitskaya left without the folder.
Steele wrote that he’d heard about rising cyberwar activity in Russian intelligence. We never saw scandalous information emerge from wiretaps or bugs, the preferred methods alleged by Steele’s sources, during the 2016 campaign.
But we now know state-sponsored Russian hackers breached Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Campaign and a Clinton campaign staffer’s email accounts, and that emails probably obtained through those breaches were distributed through the DCLeaks website, by Guccifer 2.0 and by WikiLeaks.
Steele blames WikiLeaks for Russian collusion, citing “an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP, [who] admitted that there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between them and the Russian leadership.” Steele’s source said “the Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), to the Wikileaks platform.” A difference source said “further hacked CLINTON material”, likely campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, “already had been injected by the Kremlin into compliant western media outlets like Wikileaks.”
Steele also received information about an anti-Clinton propaganda campaign that he did not connect to the hacking efforts in June of 2016—months before the Federal government would formally attribute the hacks, though they had been reported in the press.
Russian authorities didn’t admit to hack attacks, though they did coyly suggest that they might have had something to do with it: President Vladimir Putin notoriously credited “patriotic hackers” with the election-related attacks.
Steele’s sources suggested it was fear, rather than patriotism, that motivated the hackers. “[I]n terms of the FSB’s recruitment of capable cyber operatives to carry out its, ideally deniable, offensive cyber operations, a Russian IT specialist with direct knowledge reported in June 2016 that this was often done using coercion and blackmail,” he wrote.
In a breakdown of state-sponsored Russian hacking activity in June 2016, researchers at private digital security firm Cyberreason cited the application of “coercive force” as one of the ways Russia’s intelligence services operate.
This is implied, though not stated directly, in the U.S. Justice Department’s indictment of four FSB operatives who hacked tech company Yahoo, two of whom had prior criminal records. Last month, Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence and organized crime, told TPM that the FSB made a point of recruiting criminals; he said they were the proponents of the risky strategy Steele refers to as “black PR” in his reports.
Weakening U.S. and U.N. sanctions remains incredibly important to the Russian government and its notoriously corrupt oil industry. The dossier suggested that one-time Trump campaign aide Carter Page was offered huge bribes by Igor Sechin, vice-chair of the board of directors of Russian state oil company Rosneft.
The two men did in fact meet, according to investigative reporter Michael Isikoff. Isikoff wrote at Yahoo in September 2016—after the date on Steele’s memo about the meeting, but before his dossier was made public—that Page had met with Sechin as well as another “top Putin aide” who appears in the dossier, named Igor Diveykin.
“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 and his associates the brokerage of up to a 19 per cent (privatised) stake in Rosneft,” Steele wrote.
Page was already a fan. Steele describes the meeting as “recent” in his July 2016 memo, but Page was already lauding Sechin in blog posts as far back as 2014.
Trump consigliere Michael Cohen is described in the dossier as vital to the “covert relationship with Russia.” Steele’s source alleged that Cohen met with Kremlin officials, but the dossier noted the source was “was unsure of the identities of the PA [Putin presidential administration] officials with whom COHEN met secretly in August, or the exact date/s and locations of the meeting/s.”
The dossier speculated Konstantin Kosachev, head of Russia’s Foreign Relations Committee, may have been one of the alleged contacts. As part of his alleged work facilitating—and then, according to Steele, covering up—Russian election interference, the dossier also asserts Cohen traveled to Prague. Steele wrote Cohen was accompanied to Prague by a man named Oleg Solodukhin, who denied the report to the New York Times.
Last month, the Washington Post broke Cohen did communicate directly with Kremlin publicist Dmitry Peskov, albeit through a generic email address, on the matter of a Trump Tower in Moscow. The two men are characterized as holding corresponding positions in the Trump and Putin camps in the Steele dossier, Peskov as “the main protagonist in Kremlin campaign to aid Trump and damage Clinton.”
Peskov confirmed that he had received Cohen’s email, but said nothing came of it.
Cohen has vociferously denied the dossier’s claims, famously trashing the allegation that he’d been coordinating with hackers in August 2016 in Prague. When Cohen shared photos of his passport as evidence, BuzzFeed reporters observed stamps indicating he could have entered the Czech Republic through Italy; a CNN report, on the other hand, suggested the Michael Cohen who went to Prague was a different man altogether.
The Steele dossier is filled with such maddening claims—is the Prague trip a fabrication, or did the ex-spy’s sources get the timing wrong? It’s impossible to know. But too often to ignore, Steele’s sources appear to have described—often with errors—an event or a relationship of significance that would become clear with the benefit of hindsight. The question now, then, is whether the dossier’s wilder and more difficult to prove claims have the same element of near-truth to them as the allegations examined here.
This post has been updated.