At some point in 2017, the precise month is not clear, the FBI obtained evidence that Russian operatives fed disinformation to former British spy Christopher Steele.
That stunning revelation came on Friday, and not through a leak, as did so many of the anti-Trump and pro-Steele stories that have come out since the dossier was published in January 2017.
Instead, the disclosure was the product of an intense GOP-led fact-finding campaign to force U.S. intelligence officials to declassify information that the FBI had on Steele and his notorious dossier.
Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson, the two Republicans who jogged loose the new information, noted the disparity in the type of information that has leaked out of the Trump-Russia investigation in the three-plus years since it began.
“For years, the public was fed a healthy diet of leaks, innuendo and false information to imply that President Trump and his campaign were part of a Russian conspiracy to spread disinformation,” they said in a statement upon the release of three footnotes from the Justice Department inspector general’s (IG) report on the FBI’s surveillance of the Trump campaign.
The disclosure is another stunning blow to the reputation of the FBI, which made Steele’s dossier a “central and essential” component of its surveillance warrants against Carter Page.
The disinformation involved two of Steele’s most explosive claims: that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen visited Prague in August 2016 to meet with Kremlin operatives, and that the Kremlin was blackmailing Donald Trump with footage of him with prostitutes in Moscow in 2013.
An FBI unit was also concerned about Steele’s ties to Russian oligarchs. Steele has worked in the past for Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It is impossible to know what would have happened to the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign, and the special counsel’s investigation that followed, had the information contained in the footnotes been widely known three years ago. The footnotes do not say exactly when in 2017 the FBI obtained the information. The special counsel was appointed on May 17, 2017.
But as Grassley and Johnson noted, government officials in various agencies and in Congress appear to have leaked information out intended to lend credence to the dossier, and its core theory that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
Outlets like CNN published stories that vaguely suggested that the FBI had verified parts of the dossier. The network reported on Feb. 10, 2017 that the FBI had “corroborated some” of Steele’s information, but didn’t provide additional details.
One of the most historically significant leaks of the era was one that appeared in The Washington Post on April 11, 2017.
The newspaper reported that the FBI and Justice Department had obtained Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants to surveil Page, a former Trump campaign aide. The interpretation at the time was that the infallible FBI would not have sought a FISA warrant without strong suspicion that Page was a Russian agent.
The FISA court granting the warrant was also seen at the time as an endorsement of the theory. And when CNN reported on April 18, 2017 that the FBI used the Steele dossier to obtain FISA orders, the network cited anonymous government officials who said that the FBI would have corroborated information from Steele before using it to justify spying on Page.
“Officials familiar with the process say even if the application to monitor Page included information from the dossier, it would only be after the FBI had corroborated the information through its own investigation. The officials would not say what or how much was corroborated,” reads the CNN story.
Pundits on CNN and MSNBC insisted that the FBI would have validated every factual statement from Steele before using it to obtain FISA orders.
But that was all wrong.
The IG report said that the FBI was unable to verify any of Steele’s main Trump-related allegations. The report also said that Steele’s main source said the ex-spy embellished or misrepresented key claims in the dossier. Steele himself told FBI agents on Oct. 3, 2016, three weeks before the first Page FISA order was granted, that he viewed a sub-source used in the dossier as an “embellisher” and “boaster.”
Fittingly, the dossier itself became public through a series of leaks.
BuzzFeed News published it on Jan. 10, 2017 just after CNN reported that then-FBI Director James Comey briefed then-President-elect Trump four days earlier about the salacious sex allegation in the dossier. BuzzFeed had obtained the dossier from a close associate of Sen. John McCain, who had in turn obtained it from Steele.
Peter Strzok, who served at the time as deputy chief of FBI counterintelligence, noted in internal FBI correspondence that investigators could use the leak of the dossier to their benefit.
“We’re discussing whether, now that this is out, we use it as a pretext to go interview some people,” Strzok texted then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page on the day BuzzFeed published the dossier.
The document immediately placed a cloud of suspicion over Trump and his associates, including Carter Page, Cohen and anyone else in Trump’s orbit.
Steele’s information and reputation were bolstered over the course of 2017 through a series of leaks and glowing profiles intended to portray him as a sober intelligence operative widely respected by his peers.
Comey and other former U.S. officials also never disparaged the dossier. Instead, Comey has put out innuendo suggesting that Steele’s steamy allegations about Trump could be accurate. Comey said in a CNN interview on May 9, 2019 that he did not know whether Steele’s sex claim about Trump was true, while leaving open the possibility that it was.
Comey has claimed in the years since his May 9, 2017 firing, that he briefed Trump on the dossier to make him aware of information that was floating around Washington, D.C., and that he expected it to be leaked to the media.
Among the unknowns is whether the FBI received the evidence that the dossier was disinformation while Comey was still with the bureau, or after he left.
The FBI did pick up evidence while Comey was still FBI chief that the dossier had significant problems. In January 2017, just days after BuzzFeed published the dossier, FBI agents met with the Steele source who disputed many of the allegations in the dossier.
That nugget of information was first revealed through a leak of sorts to The New York Times but not until April 2019 — after Special Counsel Robert Mueller had ended his investigation.