How Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS used their connections to spread the Trump dossier
Information paid for by the Clinton campaign targeting Donald Trump made its way to the highest levels of the FBI and the State Department, with a sophisticated strategy relying on the personal connections of hired operatives.
At the center of the multi-pronged strategy to disseminate the information were Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson and former British MI6 spy Christopher Steele. The operation was funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
Simpson and Steele not only used their contacts at the FBI to feed information directly to the bureau, but also used their contacts within other agencies to create additional channels into the FBI. Additionally, they utilized their media connections to create an external distribution channel for the unverified material against Trump and his campaign.
It was in “early March of 2016” that Fusion GPS approached Perkins Coie—the law firm used by the Clinton campaign and the DNC—expressing interest in an “engagement,” according to an Oct. 24, 2017, response letter by Perkins Coie.
Perkins Coie “engaged Fusion in April of 2016, to perform a variety of research services during the 2016 election cycle.” The law firm noted that “the engagement concluded prior to the November 2016 Presidential election.”
Steel’s firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, was retained by Fusion during the period between June and November 2016. During this time, Steel produced 16 memos, with the last memo dated Oct. 20, 2016. There is one final memo that Steele wrote on Dec. 13 at the request of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Steele provided Fusion GPS with something that Simpson’s firm was lacking: access to individuals within the FBI and the State Department. These contacts could be traced back to at least 2010, when Steele had provided assistance in the FBI’s investigation into FIFA over concerns that Russia might have been engaging in bribery to host the 2018 World Cup.
Sometime in the latter half of 2014, Steele began to informally provide reports to the State Department. One of the recipients of the reports was Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
“During the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and ‘15, Chris Steele had a number of commercial clients who were asking him for reports on what was going on in Russia, what was going on in Ukraine, what was going on between them,” Nuland said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Feb. 4, 2018.
“Chris had a friend at the State Department, and he offered us that reporting free so that we could also benefit from it. It was one of, you know, hundreds of sources that we were using to try to understand what was going on.”
The Initial FBI Contact
After Steele’s company was hired by Fusion GPS in June, he began to reach out to the FBI through Michael Gaeta, an FBI agent and assistant legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. Gaeta also headed up the FBI’s Eurasian Organized Crime unit, which specializes in investigating criminal groups from Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine.
Details over the initial contact in June between Steele and Gaeta vary. The Guardian reported that “in June, Steele flew to Rome to brief the FBI contact with whom he had cooperated over FIFA.” ABC News reported that “Steele sent the FBI agent in Rome the opposition research on Trump he generated working for Fusion GPS.”
Gaeta had known Steele since at least 2010, when Steele provided assistance in the FIFA probe.
Gaeta was identified as Steele’s FBI handler in a July 16, 2018, Congressional testimony before the House Judiciary and Oversight committees by former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who previously served as a special counsel to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe at the time.
“[The] FBI first receives the reports that are known as the dossier from an FBI agent who is Christopher Steele’s handler,” Lisa Page told lawmakers, according to a transcript that has not been publicly released but was reviewed for this article.
Following Gaeta’s initial meeting with Steele in June, the FBI sought permission from the office of Nuland, who gave the go-ahead for the more formal meeting.
On July 5, 2016, Gaeta traveled to London and met with Steele at the offices of Steele’s firm, Orbis.
At some point in early July, Steele passed his initial report to Nuland and the State Department.
“In the middle of July, when he [Steele] was doing this other work and became concerned … he passed two to four pages of short points of what he was finding and our immediate reaction to that was, this is not in our purview. This needs to go to the FBI if there is any concern here that one candidate or the election as a whole might be influenced by the Russian Federation. That’s something for the FBI to investigate,” Nuland said in her February 2018 appearance on Face the Nation.
Exactly what happened with the reports that Gaeta brought back from London, and precisely who he gave them to within the FBI, remains unknown. During the period following Steele’s initial contact with the FBI, there appears to have been no further FBI interaction or contact with Steele.
Outreach to Top DOJ Official
After nearly a month, it seems that Steele and Simpson decided to pursue a new channel into the FBI, through then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr.
Ohr had known Steele since at least 2007, when they met during an “official meeting” while Steele was still employed by the British government. During testimony before Congress, Ohr told lawmakers that he and Steele had maintained contact approximately “once a year,” although the frequency of their interactions would increase later on. Ohr also knew Simpson, whom he had met “on various occasions over the years.”
Ohr’s wife, Nellie, also knew Simpson from years past and had begun working for Fusion as a Russian analyst in late 2015. Nellie Ohr, who would remain with Fusion until September 2016, worked for Fusion on researching the Trump campaign.
Steele had already been in contact with Bruce Ohr via email in early 2016. Notably, most of these communications appeared to discuss Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. On July 29, Steele wrote to Ohr to say that he would “be in DC at short notice on business,” and asked to meet with both Ohr and his wife. On July 30, 2016, Bruce and Nellie Ohr met Steele for breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel. Also present at the breakfast meeting was a fourth individual, described by Ohr as “an associate of Mr. Steele’s, another gentleman, younger fellow. I didn’t catch his name.”
According to a transcript of Ohr’s testimony before Congress, which was reviewed for this article, Steele relayed information from his dossier at this meeting and claimed that “a former head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, had stated to someone … that they had Donald Trump over a barrel.”
Steele also referenced Deripaska’s business dealings with Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and foreign policy adviser Carter Page’s meetings in Moscow.
Ohr also noted that Steele told him he had been in contact with the FBI but now had additional reports. “Chris Steele had provided some reports to the FBI, I think two, but that Glenn Simpson had more,” he said.
Of particular note, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation, “Crossfire Hurricane,” was formally opened the following day, on July 31, 2016, by FBI agent Peter Strzok.
Immediately following Ohr’s breakfast meeting with Steele, Ohr reached out to Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe and the two met in McCabe’s office in early August. Also present was Lisa Page. Ohr, who initiated the meeting with McCabe, testified that he wanted the FBI to have the information and be aware of his meeting with Steele.
Ohr would later testify that during the August meeting he told McCabe that his wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion, noting “I wanted the FBI to be aware of any possible bias.”
On Aug. 15, 2016, a week or two following Ohr’s meeting with McCabe, FBI agent Strzok would send the now-infamous “insurance policy” text referencing McCabe to Lisa Page:
“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office – that there’s no way he gets elected – but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40…”
Ohr’s Contact With Glenn Simpson
Then, on Aug. 22, Ohr had a meeting with Simpson. Ohr would later discuss that meeting during his testimony:
“I don’t know exactly what Chris Steele was thinking, of course, but I knew that Chris Steele was working for Glenn Simpson, and that Glenn might have additional information that Chris either didn’t have or was not authorized to prevent [present], give me, or whatever.”
Ohr also testified that Simpson mentioned Sergei Millian, Michael Cohen, Carter Page, and Paul Manafort during their meeting. Page and Manafort had been previously mentioned by Steele during the July 30, 2016, breakfast meeting.
Meanwhile, the FBI had reached out to Steele, asking him for the information in his possession. The team working on “Crossfire Hurricane” received documents and a briefing from Steele in mid-September, reportedly at a meeting in Rome, where Gaeta was also present.
During Lisa Page’s testimony, she appeared to corroborate this account, noting that the team received the “reports that are known as the dossier from an FBI agent who is Christopher Steele’s handler in September of 2016.” She would later clarify the timing, noting “we received the reporting from Steele in mid-September.”
Steele had produced 8 reports from June 20, 2016, through the end of August 2016 (there is also one undated report included in the dossier). No further reports were generated by Steele until Sept. 14, when he suddenly wrote three separate memos on one day. One of the memos referenced a Russian bank named Alfa Bank, misspelled as “Alpha” in his memo.
Perkins Coie Outreach
On Sept. 19, FBI General Counsel James Baker met with Perkins Coie partner Michael Sussmann, who had sought out the meeting. Baker told Congressional lawmakers in an Oct. 3, 2018, testimony—a transcript of which was reviewed for this article—that Sussmann presented him with “a stack of material I don’t know maybe a quarter inch half inch thick something like that clipped together, and then I believe there was some type of electronic media, as well, a disk or something.”
The information that Sussmann gave to Baker was related to what Baker described as “a surreptitious channel of communications” between the Trump Organization and “a Russian organization associated with the Russian Government.”
Baker was describing alleged communications between Alfa Bank and a server in the Trump Tower. These allegations, which were investigated by the FBI and proven to be false, were widely covered in the media.
Baker’s testimony also shows that Sussmann was speaking with the media at the same time he had approached Baker, who noted that Sussmann had also provided the info to the media and had told him that “the New York Times was aware of this.”
Baker testified that the FBI approached The New York Times and convinced them to hold off on their reporting while the FBI investigated Sussmann’s information.
On Sept. 23, 2016, Ohr testified that he again met with Steele for breakfast, telling lawmakers, “Steele was in Washington, D.C., again, and he reached out to me, and, again, we met for breakfast, and he provided some additional information.” Ohr said this meeting concerned similar topics that were discussed at the July 30, 2016, meeting but did not provide further details.
Steele Meets With State Department Official
At some undetermined point in September 2016—but probably during this same trip to Washington—Steele also met with Jonathan Winer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement and former special envoy for Libya, whom Steele had known since at least 2010.
Winer had received a separate dossier, very similar to Steele’s, from longtime Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal. This “second dossier” had been compiled by another longtime Clinton operative, former journalist Cody Shearer, and echoed claims made in the Steele dossier. Winer gave Steele a copy of the “second dossier.” Steele then shared this second dossier with the FBI, who may have used it as a means to corroborate Steele’s dossier.
On the same day that Ohr met with Steele for breakfast, on Sept. 23, 2016, Yahoo News reporter Michael Isikoff published an article about Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. The article, which was headlined “U.S. intel officials probe ties between Trump adviser and Kremlin,” was based on an interview with Steele. Isikoff’s article would later be used by the FBI in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) spy warrant application on Carter Page as corroborating information.
Following the publication of the Isikoff article, Hillary for America released a same-day statement touting Isikoff’s “bombshell report” with the full article attached.
UK Court documents—in a case where Steele was sued for libel—make clear that Steele was meeting with U.S. media during this time, and doing so “at Fusion’s Instruction.” Steele testified that he “briefed” The New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker, and CNN at the end of September 2016. Steele would engage in a second round of media contact in mid-October 2016, meeting again with The New York Times, Washington Post, and Yahoo News. Steele testified that all these meetings were “conducted verbally in person.”
On the same day as the Isikoff article, on Sept. 23, Politico published a lengthy article, “Who Is Carter Page? The Mystery of Trump’s Man in Moscow,” by Julia Ioffe. This article was particularly interesting as it appeared to highlight media efforts by Fusion:
“As I started looking into Page, I began getting calls from two separate ‘corporate investigators’ digging into what they claim are all kinds of shady connections Page has to all kinds of shady Russians. One is working on behalf of various unnamed Democratic donors; the other won’t say who turned him on to Page’s scent. Both claimed to me that the FBI was investigating Page for allegedly meeting with Igor Sechin and Sergei Ivanov, who was until recently Putin’s chief of staff—both of whom are on the sanctions list—when Page was in Moscow in July for that speech.”
Ioffe noted that “seemingly everyone I talked to had also talked to the Washington Post, and then there were these corporate investigators who drew a dark and complex web of Page’s connections.” Her article also mentioned rumors regarding Alfa Bank:
“In the interest of due diligence, I also tried to run down the rumors being handed me by the corporate investigators: that Russia’s Alfa Bank paid for the trip as a favor to the Kremlin; that Page met with Sechin and Ivanov in Moscow; that he is now being investigated by the FBI for those meetings because Sechin and Ivanov were both sanctioned for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
On Oct. 21, 2016, the FBI obtained a FISA warrant on Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page. The FISA would be renewed three times, extending into September 2017.
On Oct. 31, several more articles were published simultaneously that referenced Alfa Bank. The first, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia” by The New York Times, appeared to be the delayed version of the article they had intended to publish before the FBI asked them to delay their reporting:
“F.B.I. officials spent weeks examining computer data showing an odd stream of activity to a Trump Organization server and Alfa Bank. Computer logs obtained by The New York Times show that two servers at Alfa Bank sent more than 2,700 ‘look-up’ messages—a first step for one system’s computers to talk to another—to a Trump-connected server beginning in the spring. But the F.B.I. ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts.”
The second article, published by Slate, “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?” focused heavily on the allegations and was later used to promote the Trump–Russia collusion narrative.
On the same day as the Slate article, on Oct. 31, Hillary Clinton posted a tweet that included a statement from Jake Sullivan, a senior policy adviser, that referenced the Slate article:
“Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank.”
Still one more article would be published on Oct. 31 that mentioned Alfa Bank.
The Mother Jones Article
The UK Court documents show Steele referenced another meeting with a reporter that occurred in October 2016:
“In addition, and again at Fusion’s instruction, in late October 2016 the Second Defendant [Steele] briefed a journalist from Mother Jones by Skype.”
In the court documents, Steele is referring to Mother Jones reporter David Corn. Steele’s meeting with Corn resulted in an Oct. 31, 2016 article, “A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump.” Corn’s article provided the first public details regarding the Steele dossier:
“A former senior intelligence officer for a Western country who specialized in Russian counterintelligence tells Mother Jones that in recent months he provided the bureau with memos, based on his recent interactions with Russian sources, contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump—and that the FBI requested more information from him.”
It was reportedly Corn’s article that caused the FBI to terminate their relationship with Steele on Nov. 1 for disclosures to the media. Corn’s article also referenced Alfa Bank:
“(In recent weeks, reporters in Washington have pursued anonymous online reports that a computer server related to the Trump Organization engaged in a high level of activity with servers connected to Alfa Bank, the largest private bank in Russia. On Monday, a Slate investigation detailed the pattern of unusual server activity but concluded, ‘We don’t yet know what this [Trump] server was for, but it deserves further explanation.’ In an email to Mother Jones, Hope Hicks, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, maintains, ‘The Trump Organization is not sending or receiving any communications from this email server. The Trump Organization has no communication or relationship with this entity or any Russian entity.’)”
James Baker’s interactions with David Corn
Corn has publicly acknowledged that he provided FBI General Counsel Baker with copies of the dossier and in a Jan. 19, 2019, article in Mother Jones, Corn re-stated his version of events:
“I did send a copy of the Steele memos to Baker a week after I had posted the article on them. (My story had reported that Steele, whom I had not identified by name, had already provided copies to the bureau.) I asked if anyone in the bureau could talk to me about the documents. That’s what reporters do. No one at the FBI would. End of story.”
In his testimony, Baker provided some additional details as to what he actually received from Corn:
Mr. Baker: My recollection is that he had part of the dossier, that we had other parts already, and that we got still other parts from other people, and that — and nevertheless some of the parts that David Corn gave us were parts that we did not have from another source
Baker testified that he received elements of the dossier from Corn that were not in the FBI’s possession at the time. He said that he immediately turned this information over to leadership within the FBI, noting “I think it was Bill Priestap,” the head of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division.
Baker also testified regarding what he believed was the underlying source of the memos he received from Corn.
Mr. Baker: I think I assumed at the time or knew, he may have told me, that he got it from Simpson or somebody acting on Simpson’s behalf.
Notably, Steele wrote four memos after the FBI team received his information in mid-September. All of the memos were written in October, on the 12th, 18th, 19th, and the 20th.
The use of personal relationships as a mechanism to transmit outside information into the FBI was actually noted by Baker, who said of Corn, “even though he was my friend, I was also an FBI official. He knew that. And so he wanted to somehow get that into the hands of the FBI”
Bruce Ohr Becomes a Conduit, Gets an FBI Handler
Meanwhile, Ohr’s communications with Steele began to become more formal.
In either late September or early October, Ohr had a meeting with Strzok, Lisa Page, and two or three DOJ career officials from the criminal division: Bruce Swartz, Zainab Ahmad, and Andrew Weissman (Ohr testified that he was unsure whether Weismann was at this or a later meeting).
On Nov. 21, 2016, Ohr had another meeting with Strzok and Lisa Page and was introduced to FBI agent Joe Pientka, who became Ohr’s FBI handler. Pientka was also present with Strzok during the Jan. 24, 2017, interview of then-National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
On the following day, Nov. 22, 2016, Ohr met alone with Pientka. Ohr would continue to relay his communications with Steele to Pientka, who recorded them in FD-302 forms, which are summaries of FBI interviews. Unknown to Ohr was the fact that Pientka was transmitting all the information directly to Strzok. Recall, the FBI had terminated Steele as a source at the start of November because of Steele’s communications with the media.
Ohr would also have two additional meetings with Simpson.
On Dec. 10, 2016, Ohr met with Simpson, who provided him with “additional information regarding the contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign.” Simpson also gave Ohr a memory stick that Ohr said he believed contained the Steele dossier. Ohr passed the memory stick to Pientka.
Ohr also had one call with Simpson on Jan. 20, 2017—the same day as Trump’s inauguration.
Sometime in late 2016, Ohr also received a memory stick from his wife, Nellie. Ohr testified to his knowledge of the contents, noting “My understanding was that it included her research on behalf of Fusion GPS.” Ohr also passed this second memory stick along to Pientka. The FBI, through Ohr, now had all the research Nellie had done during her time working for Fusion GPS.
Notably, Ohr did not inform any of his superiors of his interactions with Steele, or his involvement with the FBI. Although the FBI is technically a division of the DOJ, the FBI also did not alert senior DOJ leadership of their ongoing relationship with Ohr.
Sen. John McCain’s Involvement
Steele produced one final memo, dated Dec. 13, but has declared in court documents this memo was produced following a request made on behalf of Sen. McCain by his associate, David Kramer. Steele gave a copy of the Dec. 13 memo to a “senior UK government national security official” and to Fusion “with an instruction that Fusion was to provide a hard copy to Sen. McCain via Mr. Kramer.”
Steele’s involvement with McCain arose through earlier meetings he had with Sir Andrew Wood, the UK’s former ambassador to Russia. Steele met with Wood at least twice, once prior to the 2016 presidential election and again post-election.
Wood later relayed information regarding the dossier to McCain during a meeting at the Halifax International Security Forum in late November 2016. Following the briefing from Wood, McCain immediately dispatched longtime associate David Kramer to London to meet with Steele on Nov. 28, 2016, and review Steele’s memos.
Steele apparently did not provide Kramer with a physical copy of his dossier, but upon Kramer’s return to the states, he was provided a copy of the dossier from Simpson.
According to a Dec. 19, 2018, court ruling in a libel case involving BuzzFeed, Kramer, McCain, and Christopher Brose, McCain’s chief of staff, met to review the dossier on Nov. 30, 2016. Kramer “advised McCain to share the reports with the FBI and CIA.” McCain later passed a copy of the dossier to then-FBI Director James Comey on Dec. 9, 2016.
It isn’t known if McCain also provided a copy to then-CIA Director John Brennan. Notably, Brennan did attach a two-page summary of the dossier to the Intelligence Community Assessment that he delivered to outgoing President Barack Obama on Jan. 5, 2017.
Although Steele’s final memo was designated for McCain, it was actually provided to multiple individuals.
According to the ruling, in which a federal judge ruled in favor of BuzzFeed, Steele provided his Dec. 13 memo, also known as Report 166, to Kramer, an unidentified British security official, Senior Director for Russian Affairs at the National Security Council Celeste Wallander (spelled incorrectly as Wallender in the court document), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s chief of staff, Jonathan Burks.
The identity of the unidentified UK security official remains unknown, although former Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) chief Robert Hannigan and current MI6 head Alex Younger have been suggested as possibilities.
Another notable disclosure from the court ruling revealed that Kramer showed a copy of the dossier to BuzzFeed News reporter Ken Bensinger on Dec. 29, 2016, during a meeting at the McCain Institute. Court documents show that Kramer told Bensinger, “some of the information was unverified.” Bensinger left the meeting at the McCain Institute with copies of “all seventeen memos.”
BuzzFeed would publish the entire dossier publicly on Jan. 10, 2017.
FBI Re-engages with Steele
Ohr’s contact with Steele continued and Ohr later testified that he maintained contact with Steele, and relayed the content of those meetings to the FBI into November 2017.
Typically, all the information flowed in one direction; from Steele to Ohr, who would then relay the information and/or conversations to the FBI. But Ohr noted there was one time the FBI reached out to him asking that Ohr relay a message back to Steele:
Rep. Meadows: Did the FBI ever encourage you to reach out to try to get additional information from Chris Steele?
Mr Ohr: Yes, there was one occasion.
Ohr was then asked to provide further clarification:
Ohr: On one of the occasions when I talked to the FBI to tell them I got a call from Chris Steele, they said, oh, next time you talk with him, can you ask him if he’s willing to meet with us?’ And I conveyed that back to Chris Steele.
The FBI outreach to Steele occurred in May 2017 per Ohr’s testimony. A review of text messages that occurred between Steele and Ohr on May 12 and May 15 allowed for further pinpointing of dates. On May 12, Ohr sent the following:
Ohr: Would 3 pm your time work? I’m pretty open so just let me know. Thanks!
Steele: Fine, or possibly even at 2 pm our time if that works for you? Best
Ohr: 2 pm your time is good. It will be quick. Thanks!
The next text message is a response from Steele on May 15, 2017:
Steele: B, having now consulted my wife and business partner about the question we discussed on Saturday I’m pleased to say yes, we should go ahead with it. Best C
Ohr: Thanks! I will let them know and we will follow up.
Ohr was specifically questioned about the texts that took place on May 15, with Rep. Jordan asking him, “So you have asked him will he re-engage with the FBI?” Ohr responded to Jordan with a simple “Yes.”
Comey was fired by Trump on May 9, 2017. This appears to have been the precipitating event that led the FBI to suddenly attempt to re-establish contact with Steele through Ohr on May 12. This was the only time the FBI used Ohr to reach out to Steele.
Notably, McCabe was now the acting FBI director.
On May 17, 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel for the Trump–Russia investigation. In doing so, Rosenstein took the investigation out of McCabe’s control. FBI efforts to re-engage Steele abruptly stopped.
This article is part of my ongoing series at The Epoch Times.