The Steele Papers Dossier at Heart of Trump Scandal Still Dogs President
At the heart of Donald Trump's Russia scandal is a mysterious dossier prepared by a former British intelligence agent. Many of the suspicions in the papers have been confirmed and have hounded his presidency for two years now.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
The story of the intelligence report that has dogged, threatened and angered Donald Trump since the beginning of his term in office began in a sparsely furnished office in central London, just a stone's throw away from Buckingham Palace. The room has gray carpeting, bare walls and, at its center, a conference table made of dark wood. Displayed on a sideboard are matryoshka dolls with painted portraits of Russian authors -- Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoyevsky -- as souvenirs from Moscow. The noise of people typing on a keyboard emanates from the adjacent room. This is the home of Orbis Business Intelligence, a kind of miniature intelligence agency for the private sector. The firm is run by two British men, Christopher Steele and Christopher Burrows.
Steele and Burrows have more in common than just the same first name. Both have gray hair, an inconspicuous appearance and a posh middle-class accent. Steele is 54 and lives in the county of Surrey, Burrows is 60 and lives in York. They're about as English as it gets. Before they established their company 10 years ago, they worked for the British foreign intelligence service, MI6. Steele was an undercover agent in Moscow for a number of years, and later headed the agency's Russia desk; Burrows was stationed in India, Greece and Brussels. Both served as spies for Her Majesty's government.
The difference between the two is that Steele won't talk, at least not publicly. Burrows spoke one year ago to The New Yorker -- and now he's agreed to be interviewed by DER SPIEGEL.
Steele is the author of the dossier on Donald Trump and his entourage that was leaked to the public two years ago, shortly before the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. In the report, the former spook cites high-ranking sources from Russia who make scandalous allegations. They say that Trump was wooed and backed by Putin's regime for years, and they accuse his election team of colluding with the Russians in the summer of 2016 in a bid to tarnish Hillary Clinton's reputation and win the election.
For over two years now, the Russia affair has been hanging like a dark cloud over Trump's presidency. In a report published on Jan. 26, The New York Times listed more than 100 contacts that Trump and his allies had with Russia, such as meetings, emails and text messages, just in the period of time between the launching of his candidacy and the day of his inauguration.
Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 34 suspects, including Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who is mentioned in the Steele dossier along with many other Trump allies. The most recent indictment was filed by Mueller on Jan. 24 against Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser. Stone is accused of witnesses tampering and making false statements to a congressional committee about his communications with WikiLeaks, which published emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee during the presidential election campaign. Stone denies the allegations.
Steele's Russia dossier lies at the heart of the scandal. It reads today like a preview of everything that has happened since then. Many of the names that dominate the Trump-Russia affair appeared for the first time in the report, like Aras Agalarov, for example, a Russian property mogul. There's also Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, former campaign adviser Carter Page, Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Rosneft Chairman Igor Ivanovich Sechin. They all appear in Steele's report -- and they've all become important for Robert Mueller's investigation.
Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn and Roger Stone
The 35-page dossier consists of 17 individual reports that Steele wrote between June and December 2016. The report was commissioned by a Washington-based political research and intelligence firm called Fusion GPS. The investigation was initially ordered by a major Republican donor to gather material against Trump, but it was later funded by the Democrats.
Steele alerted the FBI to his suspicions back in July 2016. Together with the findings of the FBI, the dossier blew open the scandal. Steele is ultimately responsible for a good deal of the investigative work that led to the appointment of a special investigator. Aspects of Steele's report that seemed incredible and inconceivable over two years ago now sound far more plausible.
The most vulgar and still unconfirmed allegation is listed right at the beginning of the dossier, on Page 2. According to Steele's sources, Trump stayed in the presidential suite of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton Hotel and reportedly looked on as prostitutes gave each other golden showers on a bed in which Barack Obama had once slept. One informant said that the Russian authorities had collected "enough embarrassing material" to blackmail Trump.
Trump denies the allegations. Last week, he took to Twitter again to denounce Steele's dossier, which he claims was paid for by Clinton, as "fake and unverified." The paper continues to hound him.
The story of the Trump-Russia dossier vacillates between an espionage thriller and a mafia movie set in London, Berlin, Prague, Moscow, New York and Washington. Key figures include former British agents Steele and Burrows; Trump's former associate Michael Cohen; journalist Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, which decided two years ago to publish the dossier; and Carter Page, a pro-Russian consultant who has received death threats.
I. The Spies
Christopher Burrows is the kind of intelligence agent who quickly charms people. He's cultured, well-read, has a penchant for the fine arts and can fluently converse in Greek, German and French. He's sitting in a café in Berlin, not far from Savignyplatz, and he's here on a rather unpleasant business matter. Burrows' firm is engaged in a legal battle with the German company Bilfinger over 150,000 euros in outstanding fees for an investigation commissioned by the company.
Burrows knows Berlin from previous stays. He came to the city as a student in the late 1970s and served as a member of the British Embassy staff in the mid-1980s. Speaking in German, he orders calf's liver, Berlin style. Then he says: "We didn't expect the findings on Russia to reach the public."
This is the second time that he has spoken publicly on the matter, the first time being last year in an interview with a journalist from The New Yorker. Burrows says it annoys him that the report is referred to as a "dossier" when "it's actually information that is referred to as 'raw intelligence' in intelligence circles." He says the reports are in large part a summary of tips from sources that Steele knew from his time in Russia -- a mixture of knowledge, rumor and hearsay, not a "dossier."
He goes on to say that an intelligence agency would enrich the findings with data, test probabilities and write analyses. It's an elaborate process. But Steele is not an intelligence agency. His company employs eight people. Steele is a man with good contacts.
His job was to investigate whether and -- if they actually did it -- how Trump's people colluded with the Russians. When he found information that confirmed this theory, he informed the U.S. authorities. "We were concerned about national security," says Burrows. After all, as he points out, it concerned a presidential candidate who may have been manipulated by Russia.
Steele and Burrows are convinced that spies from friendly powers should assist each other if they suspect foul play. Both men move in a world of people who work in the shadows, deal with sensitive information and go to the office in the morning with the knowledge that they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They see themselves as indispensable, but, as with Christopher Steele, are not prepared to speak openly about it. They're not really spies - they're more like business people.
Burrows says: "We also informed the German authorities when we received information that terrorists were mingling with Syrian refugees."
Steele's first report to his client was submitted on June 20, 2016, and the second dates from July 26. In early August both of these reports were handed over to FBI agents in Rome. Steele's findings made their way into the ongoing U.S. investigations into Trump's election campaign team.
II. The Witness
For years, Michael Cohen was the self-proclaimed "fixer" in the Trump organization, sort of like a crime-scene cleanup man who shows up when the boss has messed up again. He has the compact and pugnacious strut of an amateur boxer who expects somebody to take a swing at him at any moment. Only 17 months ago, he said that he would take a bullet for Trump. Now he's cooperating with Mueller and has become the key witness in the affair.
Cohen's story shows to what extent the dossier anticipated developments that did not come to the attention of the public until months and, in some cases, years later. Steele's suspicions were staggering. During the election campaign, Cohen allegedly took part in a clandestine meeting with envoys dispatched by the Russian president. According to Steele's source -- who is the friend of a "Kremlin insider," -- the meeting with the Russians took place in Prague, sometime in August or September 2016. Cohen maintains to this day that he has never been to Prague.
Cohen is also an interesting minor character in this saga because he has sparked so many new scandals. First his name appeared in the Trump-Russia dossier, then last year he said that, acting on orders from Trump, he paid $130,000 in hush money to a porn star to cover up their alleged affair.
According to the dossier, Cohen and three other Trump emissaries met with people in Prague, including a man named Oleg Solodukhin. The meeting allegedly had to do with paying off Romanian hackers who, under the direction of the Kremlin, had been working to undermine the Clinton campaign. Cohen and Solodukhin reportedly discussed how they could funnel the money to the hackers and how the cooperation between Trump and Putin's people could be covered up.
Steele wrote that Trump's people and the Russians agreed at the meeting that the Romanian hackers should go into hiding and "other operatives should head for a bolt-hole in Plovdiv, Bulgaria where they should 'lay low.'"
What a story! -- that is, if it's true. Trump's lawyer allegedly conspired with the Kremlin. If this can be proved, it would amount to treason, but so far there is no concrete proof.
Late last year, the U.S. newspaper publishing group McClatchy reported that one of Cohen's mobile phones had logged on to a cell phone tower near Prague at the time in question. The journalists referred to four anonymous sources. But Cohen has repeatedly stated that he has never been to Prague or anywhere else in the Czech Republic.
Oleg Solodukhin, the alleged contact from Russia, works for a Russian government agency in Prague. Western agencies have reason to believe that the agency has close ties to the Russian intelligence service. In a written statement to DER SPIEGEL, Solodukhin denies having met Cohen or anyone else from Trump's entourage. He also says that he has never worked for intelligence agencies.
Neither Steele nor Burrows are willing to comment on the individual allegations in the dossier. Close associates of theirs, though, say that the two men are fairly certain that Cohen was in Prague in late summer. There is no proof, they admit, but there are indications that a meeting may have taken place. Cohen could have flown to Germany in a private jet and landed at an airfield in Bavaria, from where he could have crossed the Czech border without being checked. Cohen's lawyer declined to comment on this and instead made reference to Cohen's statement from August 2017, in which he denies all allegations.
This fits with a story currently circulating among intelligence officials in Europe. Acting "on behalf of an affiliated agency," the Czech intelligence agency purportedly planned to observe a meeting between Solodukhin and another individual. But the surveillance was reportedly called off "because the matter was too sensitive and the security precautions surrounding the meeting were too tight." The Russians had "taken countermeasures." The Czechs were allegedly not informed by their foreign partners of the reason behind the operation or who might possibly attend the meeting.
The Prague story was so important to Steele that he wrote an update on Cohen five weeks after Trump's election victory. This was the last of his 17 reports, dated Dec. 13, 2016. His previous reports were already on the desk of then-FBI Director James Comey. The Steele dossier started to make the rounds in Washington.
III. The Journalist
The headquarters of BuzzFeed News is located on the fifth floor of an office building not far from the East Village in New York. An assistant leads the way along rows of workstations, all occupied by journalists, and motions toward a conference room with glass walls. Slips of paper, books and notes lie scattered on the table, and a half-empty bottle of whiskey stands on a shelf.
Ben Smith apologizes for being late -- he just gave a TV interview. The previous evening, BuzzFeed reported that Cohen told special counsel Robert Mueller he had been instructed by Trump to lie to Congress about a real estate project in Moscow. The news sent shockwaves through Washington, even though the special counsel quickly denied the story. Cohen, as usual, was making headlines.
Smith says he learned about the existence of the dossier before Christmas 2016. He was not the first journalist to hear about Steele's investigations. At the time, Steele had traveled to Washington and informed a select group of reporters. In late October, Mother Jones magazine published an article outlining Steele's findings. Smith was determined to get his hands on the dossier.
BuzzFeed News can't be compared with The New York Times. The website is colorful, plastered with photos, and it occasionally tips into gaudiness. It's immediately apparent that much of the workforce here is under 50. At the same time, Smith endeavors to publish investigative reporting. "We've been reporting aggressively on the Russia scandal for more than two years," he says.
In late December 2016, Smith dispatched a reporter to Washington to find Steele's dossier. Parts of it had made their way into the hands of members of Congress. The journalist hit pay dirt with a staff member at the think tank of the now deceased Senator John McCain. Shortly thereafter, Smith had the dossier in his hands and set out to verify the information.
"We put a lot of reporters on it," says Smith. A team tackled the fact-checking, but it wasn't easy. Many claims were difficult to verify working under pressure and with limited resources, especially without a direct line to Trump or Putin. A BuzzFeed reporter flew to Prague with a photo of Michael Cohen and asked hotel staff if they recognized the man. Then, while their reporting efforts were in full swing, a CNN report broke that was the first to mention "memos" by a former intelligence agent.
This was on Jan. 10, 2017. Smith said: Let's post the dossier online.
It was one of the most momentous journalistic decisions of recent years. A secret report alleging that a newly elected president had won the election with the help of the Kremlin was suddenly revealed to the eyes of the world. The big difference here was that these sensational findings originated not from a government or an intelligence agency, but instead from the interview notes of a former spook with friends in Russia.
"It was a big deal for us to release the dossier," says Smith, adding that the American public had a right to see the original document. When Steele wrote his reports, says Smith, the Americans knew hardly anything about Russian attempts to influence the election. "In the summer of 2016, these were explosive accusations."
This sparked a race among American journalists to land exclusive stories. It looked as if Trump's presidency was hanging by a thread even before he was sworn into office. Less than two weeks after taking office, Trump fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn because he had lied about his contacts to the Russian ambassador -- and in May, the president dismissed FBI Director James Comey, presumably in the hope of burying the investigation. Then came Mueller.
BuzzFeed continues to benefit from the dossier, and Smith's reporters are still getting mileage out of Steele's findings today.
IV. The Adviser
Carter Page was at the airport in Boston, waiting for a flight to the Middle East, when Smith published the Steele dossier. Page is a wiry, baldheaded man who gets red in the face when he's nervous. He was in the U.S. Navy, worked at an investment bank and finally joined the Trump team as a foreign policy adviser specializing in the energy sector and Russia.
Looking back, Page says: "I was just a minor player -- an unpaid volunteer."
Steele wrote on Page 9 of the dossier that Page secretly met with the head of Russian oil and gas giant Rosneft during the summer of 2016. The two men allegedly discussed the possibility of easing sanctions that the U.S. Treasury had imposed against the Rosneft CEO and other associates of Putin. On Page 30 of the dossier, it says that Page was offered Rosneft shares if Trump lifted the sanctions.
Page denies everything: the meeting with the Rosneft boss, the financial offer and the discussion about a more favorable U.S. foreign policy toward Moscow. His theory: "Mr. Steele was hired to influence an election." In other words, not to benefit Trump, but to help Hillary Clinton.
Early last week, he agreed to a short phone call, which ended up lasting a half-hour. He also sent text messages and emails to DER SPIEGEL with links to websites and documents as evidence of his innocence. Page says that Steele was fed false information by European intelligence agents to pave the way for a war against Russia. He says that he lived in Russia for three years, adding: "I know the truth."
It was a meandering interview. Page has the ability to dodge a question with such a profusion of words that you forget what it was you were asking. He refused to say from where he was making the call, citing the death threats that he has received. "I'm in the United States," was all he could say.
Has he ever met the head of Rosneft?
"Never," he said.
Has he spoken to others at Rosneft?
"Let me mention someone who I've met. He works for Gazprom and his name is Gerhard Schröder."
He never had anything to do with the people at Rosneft?
"OK, on July 6, 2016, I was in Moscow at a party thrown by an American bank. There were dozens of people there. By coincidence, I struck up a conversation with a guy from Rosneft. It was a real big deal." He means this ironically.
What remains certain is that Page was one of the campaign team members with connections to Moscow. Steele has documented this. Page's proximity to Putin's people is another piece in the Russia puzzle because it reveals how close the contacts to Moscow were within Trump's entourage.
Page is still dealing with the aftershocks of the dossier and he's embroiled in legal skirmishes. Among Russian experts in Washington he has a reputation for being a hopeless Putin apologist. Six years ago, two Russian undercover agents in New York tried to recruit him as an informant -- that's documented because the FBI had wiretapped the phone call at the time.
What did the Russians have to say about page? He's an "idiot."
V. The Consequences
Chris Burrows, the former spy and Steele partner, orders a cup of coffee after his meal. He says that the weeks following the publication of the dossier were the worst of his life. Photographers and camera teams camped out in front of his office, and eventually also at the door to his house in York. "My wife took the children and headed north to stay with friends for a few days. I spent a night at my eldest daughter's place in London."
Steele was harder hit. His picture was all over the newspapers, TV and internet. He went into hiding for two months, slept at friends' houses and grew a full beard so he wouldn't be recognized. "What worried him the most was his three cats," says Burrows. "We were under siege and didn't know if a maniac wanted to get at our throats." They suspected that an Israeli detective agency run by former Mossad agents had been hired to track them down.
The excitement has since died down. The two former spooks are able to resume their work, even though the publication of the dossier has meant that they have been called to testify in lawsuits involving the Russian Alfa Bank and entrepreneur Aleksey Gubarev. The number of requests for their services has risen, says Burrows. Ultimately, the dossier has been good for business.
Michael Cohen, Trump's former associate, was sentenced last December to three years in jail. He'll start serving his term in March. Cohen says that he and his family felt "threatened" by Trump and, in a surprise move, he decided to cancel a planned public congressional testimony. It sounded like something out of The Sopranos. This Friday, he is expected to testify in a closed-door session before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Steele's reports on Russia remain astonishingly newsworthy two years after they were released. It seems that every week there is a yet another breaking news story that stems from something in the dossier. Now it's up to Robert Mueller to separate truth from fiction.
Friends of Steele say that the former agent believes that "80 to 90 percent" of the contents of the dossier are true. Perhaps a source here and there has made a mistake or exaggerated, but they argue that the main points of his findings have been confirmed. This is especially true when it comes to the extent that Russia exerted influence on the presidential election. They point out that Trump allowed himself to be compromised by his business dealings in Russia, as confirmed by countless revelations that have surfaced since the dossier was published.
And what about the allegation that Trump hired prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed in Moscow where the Obamas once slept? Even people close to Steele doubt that proof of this will ever be found. Steele always gives the same response to this question: "The sources for this were good."
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen