The Muscovian Candidate?
Donald Trump and Russia
In the past there have frequently been discussions on the left about what was called a crisis of legitimacy within the countries of democratic capitalism. Most of these discussions have been misleading or exaggerated. In the case of the new US president this is not the case; the legitimacy wolf is finally at the door. Concerning the illegitimacy of the new US president it is, however, important to be precise. The presidency of Donald Trump is not illegitimate because he received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Nor is it illegitimate because arguably he has the foulest attitudes or the vilest character of any president in US history. If his presidency will eventually come to be regarded as illegitimate it will be because sufficient American people are convinced that he won his office in part because of his unlawful collusion with a hostile foreign power.
There is already overwhelming evidence that the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin was involved first in a complex plan to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and later as well to assist the candidacy of Donald Trump. There were several methods deployed, but by far the most significant was Russian intelligence hacking into the emails of the US Democratic Party. By early 2016, the American intelligence services were aware of the Russian effort. There were two main operations. One began in mid 2015, the other much later in April 2016. The first was probably directed by the Russian domestic intelligence service, the FSB. The second was certainly directed by the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU. The first hacking operation came to be called Cozy Bear and the second Fancy Bear. Details of both these operations were leaked to the Washington Post in June 2016, presumably by US intelligence. Following the presidential election, all American intelligence agencies released an unclassified report – shorn of details about the methods used to gather their information – which argued with “high confidence” that Russia was responsible for hacking the Democratic Party’s emails. Two private firms that had been employed to investigate the hacking of the Democratic Party’s emails, CrowdStrike and FireEye, revealed that they had arrived at the same conclusion and with the same degree of certainty but with more technical detail about the methods they had used.
Foreign intelligence hacking is of course very common. What was possibly unique about the Russian regime’s operation was the immediate publication of the product of the hacking in the targeted country for a specific political purpose – in this case to harm the electoral chances of Hillary Clinton and to bolster those of Donald Trump. Initially, Russian intelligence created two phoney hacking personae – Guccifer 2.0 (a supposed Romanian) and an entity called LeaksDC – as its publication outlets. In the early summer of 2016, however, they transferred to a better option, WikiLeaks, chosen most likely because of its fame or notoriety as an independent and politically non-aligned source of significant leaked material, which would help disguise Russia’s involvement. Between July and November 2016 WikiLeaks published some 58,000 emails Russian intelligence had obtained from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and its chairperson, John Podesta. The most important moments of the WikiLeaks publications coincided with the Democratic Party’s convention in mid 2016 and with the Clinton–Trump debates in the month or so before the election, from early October until 8 November. The emails were drip-fed to the media and with clear political timing. Minutes after the video of Trump’s disgusting comments about how easy it was for someone as famous as him to grab women by the “pussy”, for example, the second batch of the Podesta emails was released. The unclassified US intelligence agencies’ report into the Russian hacking, published on 6 January 2017, concluded, “We assess with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks. Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity.”
The most damaging of the leaks in the first period demonstrated that the leadership of the Democratic Party had secretly worked to help Hillary Clinton and to harm Bernie Sanders. Emails published by WikiLeaks at this time led to the resignation of the Democratic Party’s secretary, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and the party’s interim chairperson, Donna Brazile. The most damaging of the leaks in the second period, from John Podesta’s emails, were the speeches Hillary Clinton had delivered to Goldman Sachs, where she admitted that she had led a life of privilege somewhat divorced from the life of the American middle class and that on occasions there had been a difference between what she privately believed and what she felt obliged to say in public.
Naturally, the question of the source of the 58,000 emails WikiLeaks published during the second half of 2016 was frequently raised. Julian Assange, somewhat contradictorily, both steadfastly refused to divulge his source and indirectly pointed to who he claimed it was. The WikiLeaks founder frequently argued that non-disclosure of sources was at the heart of the organisation’s philosophy. Simultaneously, however, he hinted (for the first time on 9 August 2016 in an interview on Dutch television) that his source was a young Democratic Party insider, Seth Rich, who was murdered in Washington on 10 July 2016. WikiLeaks offered $20,000 for information leading to the identity of his murderer. As a result of this suggestion, for which there was zero evidence, and to the horror of his grieving family, Seth Rich instantly became a hero of the US alt-right, which had long charged both Bill and Hillary Clinton with the contract murders of several people standing in their political path. Assange also took advantage (most importantly in his post-election interview from the Ecuadorian embassy in London with the right’s Sean Hannity of Fox News) of the parallel claims of a friend, Craig Murray, a disgraced former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who told the media that he had received the emails from a disaffected Democratic Party insider during secret liaisons in Washington. Both before and after the election, Assange consistently used a crafted, lawyerly formula. Adhering to this form of words, he solemnly promised Sean Hannity, with “1000%” certainty, for example, that “our source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party”.
Julian Assange’s justification for the publication of the Democratic Party’s emails was also somewhat contradictory. Most often Assange argued that according to WikiLeaks’ philosophy every leak it received must be published no matter what the consequences. “It would be unconscionable,” he argued, “for WikiLeaks to withhold such an archive from the public during an election.” Sometimes he added that even if WikiLeaks managed to obtain leaks from Trump they were unlikely to be as damaging as things he openly said. On occasion Assange professed neutrality over the question of Clinton or Trump. Interviewed by Democracy Now, for example, Assange argued that being asked to choose between Clinton and Trump was like “asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhoea”. However, he also made it clear that, on balance, if he had a preference it was for Trump rather than Clinton. Assange argued that Clinton “was a war hawk who gets an unseemly rush out of killing people”; that she was personally responsible for the disorder that had overtaken Libya, which he described as “Clinton’s war”; and that she was “someone who is eaten alive by their ambitions, tormented literally to the point where they become sick”. When Clinton stumbled late in the campaign, WikiLeaks conducted a poll among its supporters as to the cause of her “prior coughing fits and unusual facial and body movements”, suggesting as possibilities “Parkinson’s”, “MS” or “head injury complications”. In a post-election interview with the Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi, Assange argued that while with Clinton the calamitous imperial American status quo would have been maintained, with the unpredictable, anti-establishment candidate “there are opportunities for change in the United States: change for the worse and change for the better”. Earlier, he also expressed frustration in seeing “the sort of McCarthyist attempt to frame Trump as some kind of Russian conspirator”. A few days before the election Assange argued, in his characteristically conspiratorial way, that those who wielded power in the US would not allow Donald Trump to be elected.
How effective were the anti-Clinton leaks? There have been two studies. Judd Legum in Think Progress added up the times Donald Trump mentioned WikiLeaks or the hacked Democratic Party emails between 10 October and the day of the presidential election. There were 164 occasions or more than five times each day. During that month Trump frequently showered WikiLeaks with the highest praise. “I love WikiLeaks” (10 October); “WikiLeaks is amazing” (11 October); “We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks” (20 October); “We love WikiLeaks” (21 October). In addition, material from WikiLeaks – like Hillary Clinton’s admission that her life was very different from the life of ordinary Americans as she was “kind of removed from the middle class” or that on occasion her private and her public views diverged – provided Trump with some of his most devastating and witty attacks during the course of the candidates’ debates. Clearly Trump believed in the political value of the Democratic Party emails WikiLeaks had provided.
Harry Enten from the psephological website FiveThirtyEight conducted a different kind of study of the effectiveness of the WikiLeaks material: a comparison of the impact of the hacked emails published by WikiLeaks and James Comey’s notorious eleventh-hour announcement of the renewed FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email for State Department business. Enten discovered that in the month before the election Google searches for WikiLeaks were double the number of searches for the FBI. His conclusion was straightforward. Julian Assange had most likely influenced the presidential election more markedly than James Comey, whom Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters regard as in part responsible for its outcome. Although the precise importance of WikiLeaks to the Trump election victory will never be known, what is clear is that its publication of the product of Russian intelligence services’ hacking of the Democratic Party emails played some significant part.
Following the election, evidence emerged that suggests at least the possibility of a more sinister connection between the Trump campaign and the Russia’s anti-Clinton operation. In September 2015, Republican opponents supporting Jeb Bush’s candidacy commissioned a report on Donald Trump from the US firm Fusion GPS. Once Trump won the Republican nomination in mid 2016, the commission was maintained by an anonymous wealthy supporter of the Democratic Party. Fusion GPS employed a British firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, one of whose principals was the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who had worked for MI6 in the British Embassy in Moscow in the late 1980s and the early 1990s and then headed the MI6 Russian desk in London before a transfer to Paris and then leaving the intelligence service and going into private business. Steele’s company was instrumental, for example, in providing crucial evidence about corruption in FIFA, the world football federation. His dossier on Donald Trump was based on the evidence provided by a number of highly placed sources in Russia and by one source close to the Trump team in the US. It comprised a series of memos on Trump and the Russians written between June and December 2016. Before the election, Steele was so alarmed by what his informants had revealed that he continued his research even after his contract with Fusion had concluded and passed his dossier on to old contacts inside the FBI. When nothing appeared to happen, Steele showed his dossier to selected journalists. One was David Corn of Mother Jones, who on 31 October wrote the only report on the dossier to appear before the presidential election. Once more, there was almost no response.
After the election, at a meeting on 18 November of the Halifax International Security Forum, Senator John McCain was told about the dossier by a former British ambassador to Russia, Sir Andrew Wood, who vouched for Steele’s professionalism and integrity. McCain sent an emissary to London. McCain’s emissary and Steele met at Heathrow Airport. Steele was holding a copy of the Financial Times for the purpose of identification. Without reading the dossier McCain now passed it to the FBI. In turn, the US intelligence agencies passed a two-page summary of the dossier to Barack Obama and Donald Trump as an appendix to their 6 January 2017 unclassified report on Russian interference in the presidential election, where, as we have seen, they argued with “high confidence” that Russian intelligence had provided WikiLeaks with the hacked Democratic Party emails. Shortly after, CNN reported that this two-page summary had been shown to Obama and Trump. Almost immediately BuzzFeed published the full dossier. Most of the mainstream media chastised BuzzFeed for publishing unsubstantiated material. Amusingly enough, WikiLeaks – an absolutist transparency organisation opposed to all curation, which thought there was nothing wrong with publishing, for example, the phone numbers, bank details or health records of private citizens – agreed. “WikiLeaks has a 100% record of accurate authentication. We do not endorse BuzzFeed’s publication of a document which is clearly bogus.”
For his part, Trump condemned not only BuzzFeed but also CNN. With characteristic moderation he tweeted, “Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans – FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists. Probably released by ‘Intelligence’ even knowing there is no proof, and never will be. My people will have a full report on hacking within 90 days.” Trump also condemned unnamed intelligence officers who had supposedly leaked information about the receipt by the president and the president-elect of the two-page summary of Steele dossier. Later he tweeted, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
These details have already been thoroughly reported. What, however, has not yet been at all well reported is the evidence of the supposed collusion between the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin and the camp of Donald Trump contained in the Steele dossier. If eventually the dossier is discovered to be the malicious concoction produced by someone Trump described as “a failed spy” for a group of those he called “sick people”, it will be seen as the most audacious and consequential forgery in Western history since the pre–World War One anti-Dreyfus conspiracy of the anti-Semitic French far right. If, however, the dossier is found to be substantially accurate, it will call into question the legitimacy of the current US president and provide grounds for his impeachment.
The Steele dossier comprises separate memos, varying in length from one to three typed pages. Each is headed “Company Intelligence Report” and given a number. The first in the series is 2016/080; the last 2016/166. All the memos (except one, 2016/095) are dated. Dates range between 20 June 2016 and 13 December 2016. Clearly Orbis Business Intelligence, or perhaps Christopher Steele, produced 86 reports between 20 June and 13 December. Of these, 15 concern Donald Trump and Russia.
It has been reported that Steele has not visited Russia for 20 years after which he headed MI6’s Russia desk in London before taking up a post in Paris and then going into private business. His reports on Trump relied on several Russian collaborators, whom presumably Orbis paid, who in turn spoke with a large number of Putin regime political insiders. In the earlier memos these insiders are given an alphabetical number – Source A to Source G. Their gender is disguised by the formula “s/he”. In most of the later memos there is no alphabetic enumeration. The sources of information are inevitably however given a description – ”a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure”, “a former Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin”, “a senior Russian financial officer”, “a senior Kremlin official”, “an official close to Presidential Administration Head, S.Ivanov”, “a Russian source close to Rosneft President … Igor Sechin”, and so on. It is not possible to know exactly how many sources the memos relied upon as sometimes it appears that the same source is given a slightly different description. My estimate is that there are no fewer than 15 sources and no more than 20. One important source does not live in Russia but in the US. S/he is described in slightly different ways, but most comprehensively as “a Russian émigré figure close to the Republican US Presidential candidate”.
It has been reported that Orbis was paid $200,000 by Fusion GPS. How much Fusion received from its two clients – the first Jeb Bush supporters, the second an anonymous supporter of Hillary Clinton – is not known, at least to me. It has also been reported that Steele passed his memos to the FBI in the fall of 2016 without the agreement of Fusion and that the last memos were produced without payment evidently because of Steele’s concern about what he had discovered about the relations between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. From these 15 memos an extraordinary narrative of events emerges. It is very important to emphasise that in outlining this narrative I am not passing any judgment about the truthfulness of any particular claim.
On 20 June 2016 (2016/080) Steele reported to Fusion on the basis of seven sources (A to G) that Donald Trump had been “cultivated” for a period of five years. The principal reason was that he was known to be an opponent of what was called “the transatlantic alliance”, that is to say NATO. Trump had recently been fed information on Hillary Clinton by the Russians and offered lucrative real estate deals that, for unknown reasons, he had so far declined. Because of Trump’s perverse sexual behaviour in Russia, which had been recorded by the FSB – which included asking prostitutes in 2013 to perform “golden shower” acts on the bed in the Hotel Ritz-Carlton in Moscow where the Obama couple had once slept – Trump “had provided the authorities there with enough embarrassing material on the now Presidential candidate to be able to blackmail him if they so wished”. The Steele memo claimed that the FSB had also compiled a dossier of compromising material (“kompromat”) on Hillary Clinton going back as far as the presidency of her husband. This did not concern her behaviour but statements inconsistent with her public political positions that had been acquired through bugging or perhaps telephone intercepts. The Clinton file, the Steele memo claimed, was controlled by Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitriy Peskov. Putin had not yet passed this material to Trump. What he intended to do with it was not known.
On 19 July (2016/094) Steele reported a secret meeting in July between Carter Page, one of Trump’s foreign policy advisors, and Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, the vast Russian oil company, where the possibility of a lucrative bilateral energy deal was discussed in return for the lifting of “Ukraine-related western sanctions against Russia”. “Page had reacted positively”, the memo claimed, although he was “generally non-committal”. Steele also reported another meeting between Page and a Kremlin official, Divyekin, where Page had been informed about the existence of the compromising material held on Clinton, which might possibly be released to Trump. In addition, heavy hints were dropped about the compromising material the Russians held on Trump.
In late July, but undated (2016/095), Steele reported that the American-based Russian émigré source associated with Trump “admitted that there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between them [the Trump team] and the Russian leadership”. On the Trump side relations were under the control of his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was using Carter Page and others as his intermediaries. The Russian émigré admitted that Russia was the source for the recently published DNC email leaks. He explained that WikiLeaks had been used for reasons of “plausible deniability”. According to him, “The operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of Trump and senior members of his campaign team. In return Trump’s team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue.” For his part, according to the émigré, Trump had provided the Russian regime with intelligence on the business of the Russian oligarchs living in the US, a subject which greatly “preoccupied” Putin. Another source had claimed that Trump’s lack of real estate success in Russia “had not been for want of trying”. He had to be satisfied with the provision of prostitute services.
On 30 July (2016/097) Steele reported to Fusion further information supplied by the American-based Russian. He claimed that the Trump team was anxious about the political fallout from the DNC hacking. He believed Putin now also thought events had “spiralled out of control”. As a result, s/he believed it was unlikely that Russia’s pro-Trump, anti-Clinton campaign would be “ratcheted up” in the near future. Trump. however, the émigré claimed, had been promised that because of his helpfulness and co-operation “over several years” the compromising material the Russians held would not be used against him.
On 5 August (2016/100) Steele passed on the evidence supplied to his informants by two Russian political insiders about the recent political tensions that had arisen in the Kremlin as a result of the anti-Clinton, pro-Trump campaign. Putin’s spokesman, Peskov, was now “scared shitless” that he would become a scapegoat over the backlash in the US with regard to the DNC hacking scandal. The head of the Presidential Administration, Ivanov, was advocating the line of “sit tight and deny everything”. Another source claimed that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was opposed to the hacking, in the interest of good relations with the Americans. Some Russians, this memo argued, now hoped Trump might withdraw from the presidential race on grounds of his instability of character and unsuitability for the office.
On 10 August (2016/101) Steele reported to Fusion further detail about the tensions inside the Kremlin, which had been provided to one of Steele’s people by a source close to Ivanov. Because Russia was being widely blamed in the US for the hacking operation, the Russian government had decided that no new material would be released to WikiLeaks for the time being. Moscow still hoped however that “the educated youth” in the US might be able to be convinced to support Trump as the anti-establishment candidate. Putin was reported to be “satisfied with the progress of the anti-Clinton operation”. American “hawks” and the Washington “elite” were now divided as a consequence. Another Kremlin official had spoken to one of Steele’s agents about the political value of the recent visits to Moscow of Lyndon Larouche, the leader of the Greens Party Jill Stein, Trump’s foreign policy adviser Carter Page and former Defense Intelligence Agency director Michael Flynn, all of which had been funded indirectly, in one way or another, by Russia.
On the same day (2016/102) Steele reported the outline of the tactical thinking inside the Trump camp that the American-based Russian had provided. They hoped that the hacked Clinton emails published by WikiLeaks would swing Clinton supporters to Bernie Sanders, who were thought to share with Trump “a visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton”. He admitted, however, that the Trump camp had underestimated the strength of liberal and conservative reaction to Russian interference in the election.
On 22 August (2016/105) someone described as “a well-placed Russian figure” was reported by Steele to have spoken about a recent meeting between Putin and the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, following the resignation of Paul Manafort as Trump’s campaign manager. Yanukovych had admitted that he had indeed paid substantial “kick-backs” to Manafort as the Western media had reported. He had assured Putin, however, that there was no paper trail. Putin was not convinced. As Manafort had been deeply involved in commercial transactions in Ukraine up to the time of his appointment as Trump’s campaign manager, according to Putin the Manafort revelations “remained a point of potential political vulnerability and embarrassment”. An unidentified American source (perhaps the émigré Russian, the dossier does not make this clear) agreed that while the Yanukovych kick-backs had played a role in Manafort’s demise, also important was the hatred of his predecessor as campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who had remained very close to Trump.
On 14 September (2016/111) a senior member of the Presidential Administration was reported by Steele to have given further details about the growing differences inside the Kremlin over the anti-Clinton campaign inside the Kremlin. The issue was now extremely sensitive. Putin had forbidden all discussion of it both in public and in private. It was claimed that there were two main factions. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Russian ambassador in Washington had stressed the negative consequences of the operation. Ivanov and the Russian foreign intelligence service had previously advised that the “anti-Clinton operation/s would be both effective and plausibly deniable”. In Putin’s view they had been wrong. Accordingly, Ivanov had been unexpectedly removed as the head of the Presidential Administration. In addition, and as a “prophylactic” measure, an official in the Russian embassy in Washington, Kulagin (in reality Kalugin), who had been involved in another aspect of the anti-Clinton campaign – the payment of moneys to ethnic Russians through the pensions system for their assistance – had been withdrawn at short notice. On the same day (2016/113) two well-placed business people were reported to have told one of Steele’s people that Trump had paid bribes and attended “sex parties” in St Petersburg but that witnesses had been “silenced”.
One month later, on 12 October (2016/130), Steele outlined the views of a “senior leadership figure” and of a Russian foreign ministry official concerning the outcome so far of WikiLeaks’ publication of the DNC emails. Putin and his colleagues were reported to be “surprised and disappointed” that the hacked emails had not had greater impact. They had therefore decided “that the stream would continue through October and up to the election”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs official had explained that Moscow hoped that Trump would “help upset the liberal international status quo, including on Ukraine-related sanctions”. Trump was regarded as “an anti-Establishment figure” and as a “pragmatist” with whom one could do business. Over time the pro-Trump campaign had passed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the FSB and then to Putin.
A few days later, in the third week of October (2016/134), Steele sent a more detailed report of Carter Page’s secret meeting with Sechin, the head of Rosneft, that had been provided by one of Sechin’s close associates. The meeting took place on 7 or 8 July. It was claimed that Sechin offered a 19% stake in Rosneft to Page and to Trump’s people in return for the end of sanctions. According to this memo, “Page expressed interest and confirmed that were Trump elected US President, then sanctions would be lifted.” At the same time, Steele reported (2016/135 and 2016/136) the evidence of a so-called “Kremlin insider” who claimed that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had replaced Manafort as the key figure in the Kremlin/Trump anti-Clinton campaign. Cohen was now, it was argued, “heavily engaged in a cover up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of Trump’s relations with Russia being exposed”. The Kremlin insider reported a meeting in Prague in August between Cohen and unnamed Russians working in policy institutes. The purpose of the meeting was “to sweep [the pro-Trump, anti-Clinton campaign] … under the carpet and make sure no connections could be fully established or proven”.
If reports are accurate, by now Orbis Business Intelligence was no longer employed by Fusion GPS. Nonetheless, on 16 December (2016/166) – in the final and potentially most explosive memo in the dossier, which seems to have been written for the FBI or other agencies – Christopher Steele reported further details of the Prague meeting between a Russian delegation and Michael Cohen, who was now said to have been accompanied by three associates. (After the publication of the Steele dossier Cohen maintained that he had never visited Prague.) Twice in this memo the source of the information is redacted. Later, however, s/he is described as an associate of Ivanov. The meeting is now said to have taken place either in late August or early September. Its purpose was alleged to be to decide how deniable cash payments could best be made to the hackers and how the links between the Putin regime and the Trump team, in the case of a Hillary Clinton electoral victory, could most effectively be covered up. So-called “Romanian hackers” should be stood down forthwith. Other hackers should be sent to Plovdiv in Bulgaria where they should “lay low”. It was claimed by the source of this memo that “the operatives involved had been paid by both Trump’s team and the Kremlin”. If this claim were eventually proven to be true it would almost certainly constitute grounds for the impeachment of the newly inaugurated US president.
There are two outlier cases that might be made about the accuracy of the information contained in the Steele dossier.
The first is that the information it contains is entirely or almost entirely accurate. This seems to me extremely unlikely. The dossier appears to have been written, at least for the most part, by Christopher Steele. He relied upon a series of unnamed people – principally in Moscow but also in St Petersburg and in America – who were working for him and who, presumably, he had come to know and trust either during his time as an MI6 operative in Moscow or subsequently as the head of MI6’s Russia desk in London or later when he formed his private firm, Orbis Business Intelligence. In turn, if the dossier is to be believed, these people spoke in secret and apparently in a situation of great danger to between 15 and 20 well-placed sources inside Russia and then reported back to Steele what they had been told. How exactly these sources had learned what they told Steele’s people cannot be known on the basis of the dossier. Some of the information passed on by the sources might have been gained by first-hand experience. Some might merely be gossip or speculation. Therefore even if the sources in the dossier were all entirely reliable and honest – which seems unlikely – it is almost impossible to believe that everything they reported to Steele’s people was reasonably objective or occurred more or less precisely as claimed. Inaccuracy, exaggeration, misjudgement or even deliberate disinformation on the part of the dossier’s sources cannot be ruled out. Likewise the chain of reporting – from the dossier’s sources to Steele’s people in Russia and from them to Steele in London – makes it impossible to believe that some trivial or even serious errors in transmission – ”Chinese whispers”, as it were – did not occur.
The second outlier suggestion – advanced by Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange and their supporters and also by several commentators, like Bob Woodward of Watergate fame and the left-wing British journalist Patrick Cockburn – is that the dossier is a malicious invention and entirely fake. This is in my view an even less likely possibility. After the publication of the dossier, several journalists spoke to former colleagues or associates of Christopher Steele. Almost unanimously, so far as I am aware, all regarded him as a consummate professional of undoubted integrity. One senior American officer described Steele to David Corn of Mother Jones as “a credible source who has provided information to the US government for a long time, which senior officials have found to be highly credible”. The former British ambassador Sir Andrew Wood concurred. “I do know Christopher Steele and in my view he is very professional and thorough in what he does.” A former member of the British Foreign Office, who had known Steele for 25 years, told the Guardian: “The idea his work is fake or a cowboy operation is false – completely untrue. Chris is an experienced and highly regarded professional … He could not have survived in the job he was in if he had been prone to flights of fancy or doing things in an ill-considered way.” Moreover, far from Steele being what Trump called “a failed spy”, when British intelligence was investigating the London murder by poison of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, it was to Christopher Steele that they turned. If it were ever to be proven that his dossier was a concoction, Steele’s reputation would be destroyed and his business would be ruined. Unless Steele has recently lost his mind, it is as certain as anything can be that his dossier is not a fake. David Corn encountered Steele a few months ago, in October 2016. He described the man he met as “a serious and sombre professional … [who] realized he was taking a risk, but … seemed duty bound to share information he deemed crucial”.
What is even more significant is that there is considerable independent evidence of one kind or another that confirm many of the most significant details found in the Christopher Steele dossier. Regarding the dossier’s claim that the FSB has film of Trump’s sexual antics in Moscow that they could use for blackmail, Paul Wood, the Washington correspondent for the BBC, wrote in a report of 13 January 2017 that “a retired spy” had told him that he had been informed by “the head of an East European intelligence agency” that Moscow had “kompromat” material on Trump, and that he had learned indirectly from a CIA officer that “there was ‘more than one tape’, ‘audio and video’, on ‘more than one date’, in ‘more than one place’ – in the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and also in St Petersburg – and that the material was ‘of a sexual nature’”.
In the Steele dossier the question of the lifting sanctions on Russia imposed as a consequence of its illegal annexation of Crimea and aggression against Ukraine in return for Moscow’s support of Trump was raised in different ways on a number of occasions by the Russians. In return, in the evidence contained in the dossier, promises were made by representatives of Trump. So it has happened. On 18 July 2016, the Washington Post reported that Trump supporters intervened in the Republican Convention and were responsible for changing the wording of a motion concerning Russian aggression in Ukraine – from “providing lethal defensive weapons” to “provide appropriate assistance” to the government of Ukraine against the pro-Russian separatists. On 27 July 2016 Trump spoke about recognising Crimea as Russian territory and about the possibility of lifting the sanctions against Russia. Until the New York Times broke the story about the $12.7 million dollars in kickbacks Paul Manafort had received from the pro-Russian Ukrainian former president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager. This matter was of course discussed in the dossier, principally from the Russian angle. Despite the outing of Manafort and his resignation, Trump has steadfastly maintained his position on the lifting of sanctions. On 14 January 2017 President-elect Trump proposed striking a deal with Russia, perhaps involving mutual nuclear weapons reduction that “would include lifting of economic sanctions”.
According to the Steele dossier, Russia chose WikiLeaks as its chosen vehicle for the publication of the emails its intelligence services had succeeded in hacking because it offered the Kremlin the possibility of what the sources in the dossier called “plausible deniability”. It also suggests that the Trump team was aware throughout the second half of 2016 that Russian intelligence was responsible for the hacking. There is no proof of this. However, as we have seen, Trump used the WikiLeaks material on more than 150 occasions and praised WikiLeaks to the skies during the final month of the election campaign. One of Trump’s unofficial advisers, Roger Stone, was in contact with Assange and had prior knowledge of forthcoming WikiLeaks publications. Moreover, on 27 July Trump had jokingly invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email server “to find the 30,000 emails that are missing”. Readers can make of that comment what they will.
Three of Trump’s key appointments also appeared in one way or another in the Steele dossier. Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager from April 2016, was described by one of the dossier’s sources as Trump’s principal representative with the Russians until August, when the millions he had been paid by Yanukovych came to light. The dossier described Carter Page as one of Manafort’s intermediaries with the Russians and claimed that he had met the head of Rosneft, the oil corporation, to discuss the lifting of sanctions in exchange for a 19% share in the company to be divided among members of Trump’s team. Much later, Trump’s spokesperson, Sean Spicer, claimed that Trump did not know Page. This was odd. On 21 March 2016, in an interview with the Washington Post, Trump had named him as a foreign policy adviser. Following the presidential election, Trump appointed General Mike Flynn as his national security adviser. In the dossier, Flynn was described as a valued visitor to Russia. In late 2015, it has been reported, Flynn had been a paid guest speaker at a dinner in Moscow to celebrate the achievements of RT, the English-language Russian television channel. He had sat beside Putin. The only leading pro-Russian Trump nominee for office not mentioned in the dossier was his choice as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. He had been awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship; he had once spoken of his “very close relationship with Putin” and, as head of Exxon Mobil, had once struck a $500 million deal with Rosneft.
According to the Steele dossier, as we have seen, Putin’s principal reason for cultivating and supporting Trump was the hope that as president he might help dissolve the post-war international order in ways that benefited Russia. It was this hope that provided Moscow with the rationale for what one source called the “conspiracy of cooperation” between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump against their common enemy Hillary Clinton. To judge by Trump’s words and actions since his election, so far at least Putin’s hopes have not been disappointed. In a recent interview with the Times of London and the German Bild, Trump described NATO as an “obsolete” alliance, praised the Brexit decision of the British people, and expressed the hope that other European nations would soon follow their example and leave the European Union. At first, following his election, Trump denied fervently that the Russians were responsible for hacking the Democratic Party’s emails and derided the claims of the US intelligence services – or what he called sarcastically US “Intelligence”. On the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomatic personnel, Mike Flynn telephoned the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, on several occasions, according to reports. When Putin shortly after announced that Russia would not respond to the expulsions by Cold War–style tit-for tat, Trump described the Russian president’s restraint as showing his characteristic wisdom. Even though shortly after, in the face of overwhelming evidence, Trump grudgingly accepted that Russia had probably been responsible for the DNC hacks, this had no influence whatever on his friendly attitude towards Putin’s Russia. He described his close relations with Putin’s Russia as an “asset” not a “liability”. And in his interview with the Times and Bild, he placed his relations with Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin on an identical footing. “Well, I start off trusting both – but let’s see how long that lasts.”
Trump’s Russia policy stands in the starkest contrast with his China policy. Rex Tillerson has already threatened US military action over Beijing’s South China Sea island policy. Trump himself has already, even more radically, questioned Beijing’s One China policy by raising the possibility of American recognition of Taiwanese independence thereby challenging the most fundamental element that has underpinned relatively amicable Sino-American relations since 1979. On China Trump is an extreme hawk and on Russia an extreme dove. He has never been able to explain why.
As I write, three investigations into Trump’s relations with the Russians have been established. On 15 October, according to a BBC report, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted a warrant sought by a number of US intelligence services, which, according to a later report of the New York Times, is going to investigate the exchanges between two Russian banks and three American citizens involved in the Trump campaign: Paul Manafort, Carter Page and the Republican activist Roger Stone. According to the same report, the FBI is conducting a separate inquiry into the Steele dossier, although how scrupulously and thoroughly is not yet known. The Republican-dominated houses of Congress have refused point blank to authorise a commission to investigate Russian interference in the presidential election. However, an inquiry into that matter, with subpoena powers, has been established by the US Senate, with the support of certain Republicans. If between them these inquiries conclude that Trump’s team colluded with Russia in the publication of the hacked DNC emails, and, even more, if it can be proven that they helped pay for the operation or that the Russians offered their campaign financial support, an impeachment hearing of the newly inaugurated US president seems the only constitutional course.
If such a hearing threatens, Trump will fight ruthlessly, taking no prisoners. To uncover the truth about the relations between Trump and Russia therefore now requires not only painstaking investigation but, even more, political courage from members of the Republican Party in the Senate, the US intelligence services and the American mainstream media. The future of the Trump presidency now rests in their hands.
Since the original publication of this piece, several articles have appeared that throw additional light on Donald Trump’s election and his relations with the Putin regime. I will summarise each briefly and point to their significance.
On 25 January, Reuters reported that 19.5% of Rosneft had been privatised in December 2016 but that the details of who exactly had been the purchasers was shrouded in mystery because of the use of the Cayman Islands and a number of shelf companies. The sale was arranged almost single-handedly by the head of Igor Sechin and welcomed by Vladimir Putin as a sign of international confidence in the Russian economy. Readers of ‘The Muscovian Candidate?’ will recall that in October 2016 Christopher Steele reported that Sechin had offered one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, and other members of the Trump team a 19% share in Rosneft (perhaps it should have been a share in the 19% of Rosneft) in return for Trump’s willingness to lift sanctions imposed because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine. That the figure of 19% or 19.5% should have appeared in the July conversation reported in the Steele dossier and in the actual privatisation six months later seems more than a coincidence. Since his election, Trump has, as we have seen, returned to the possibility of lifting sanctions and is reported to have discussed the possibility of a new Ukraine policy in his hour-long telephone conversation of 30 January with the president of Russia, which if realised might constitute a sharp reversal of previous US policy on Russia.
On 27 January, Nick Fernandez and Rob Savillo published a blog on the outstanding website Media Matters, containing the most detailed study so far of the impact of WikiLeaks on the outcome of the presidential election. Their research showed that in the five weeks between 4 October and 8 November, the day of the election, Fox News aired 173 segments and 64 “teasers” concerning WikiLeaks’ information, CNN 57 segments and 21 “teasers”, the ABC network 10 segments and five mentions, and the CBS network six segments and 12 mentions, while both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published 27 articles on the leaked emails, with an additional 36 mentions between them. The authors’ conclusion is compelling. In the five-week period before the election of Donald Trump, “evening cable and broadcast news, major newspapers, and the Sunday morning broadcast network political talk shows combined to flood the media landscape with the coverage of hacked emails released by WikiLeaks …” This study strengthens the earlier work of Think Progress and FiveThirtyEight. It refutes the claim by Trump supporters that the WikiLeaks’ material on Hillary Clinton had little influence on the outcome of the election. And indirectly at least it supports the accuracy of the information contained in the Steele dossier, which reported on 12 October that Putin intended to continue with WikiLeaks’ publication of the Podesta emails until the election, having been “surprised and disappointed” about the lack of impact of the earlier DNC email leaks of July.
On the same day, 27 January, the New York Times reported that three senior Russians working in the area of cybersecurity, including Sergei Mikhailov, the deputy director of the FSB’s Center for Information Security, had been arrested and charged with treason. Mikhailov was dragged from his place of work with a bag over his head. US intelligence is widely believed to have relied in part on information supplied by human informants in arriving at their “high confidence” collective conclusion that the Russians were responsible for hacking the DNC emails. It is possible but not entirely certain that the three men arrested were suspected of providing the Americans with information about Russian intelligence’s anti-Clinton, pro-Trump hacking campaign.
Also on 27 January, the Telegraph of London reported that the ex-KGB chief Oleg Erovinkin was found dead in Moscow on 26 December 2016 in the back seat of his car. Erovinkin worked as a “key aide” to the head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, and was thought to be the link man between Sechin and Vladimir Putin. It is widely believed that he was the source for the information in the Steele dossier concerning the 7 or 8 July conversation that, according to the Steele dossier, took place between Sechin and Carter Page about a stake in Rosneft in return for the lifting of sanctions. It is therefore quite possible that he was murdered as a reprisal, most likely, like the former KGB/FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko before him, on the orders of another ex-KGB man, the president of Russia. As they say, the plot thickens.
On February 9, no fewer than nine separate current or former members of US intelligence agencies revealed to reporters of the Washington Post that Donald Trump’s National Security adviser, Mike Flynn, had indeed discussed the future of Ukrainian-inspired sanctions with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in their several telephone communications and texts at the time the Obama administration had expelled 35 Russian officials because of Russian hacking to influence the outcome of the presidential election. This article was significant for a number of reasons. It proved that several US intelligence officials were by now leaking freely against the Trump administration. It also showed that Flynn was both a fool and a liar. As a former Director of National Intelligence he should have been aware that the communications of the Russian Ambassador in Washington were routinely intercepted by US signals intelligence. By denying that he and Kislyak had discussed sanctions Flynn appears to have misled Trump’s Vice-President, Mike Pence, who flatly denied to journalists that in the phone communications between Flynn and Kislyak that sanctions had been discussed. There was however an amusing aspect to all this. In denying that sanctions had been discussed, the new regime’s media spokesman, Sean Spicer – the Comical Ali of the Trump administration – claimed that Flynn had merely conveyed Christmas greetings to Kislyak, apparently unaware that Russians celebrate Christmas not on December 25 but on January 7. On February 13, undefendable even according to the standards of the Trump administration, Flynn finally resigned. Even before his appointment as US National Security Adviser, it was revealed that while Flynn was advising the Trump campaign he was on the payroll of the Turkish government, earning a great deal of money, while writing op eds urging the extradition from the United States of Fetullah Gulen, the principal enemy of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Ergogan.
On February 10, Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez of CNN reported a matter of great significance. US intelligence agencies had intercepted communications between Russians mentioned in the Steele dossier that confirmed that “some of the conversations described in the dossier took place between the same individuals on the same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier”. Two things follow from this. Unless several US intelligence officials are lying to CNN, the Steele dossier is not, as Trump, Putin and Assange have all claimed, a fake. Even more importantly, the report confirms what the Washington Post at the same time revealed, namely that members of US intelligence, most likely from the National Security Agency, are presently sufficiently alarmed about what the substance of the Steele dossier reveals about the relations between the Trump campaign team and the Putin regime that they are openly, under conditions of anonymity, beginning to leak details of their overseas communications interceptions to the US media.
On February 19, the New York Times reported that a week before General Michael Flynn resigned as Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser – after lying to Vice President Pence over the subject matter of his December 29 discussions with Russian Ambassador, Kislyak – an intriguing meeting took place in the luxury Loews Regency Hotel in Manhattan. A once jailed Russian-born American businessman and an associate of Trump with a former connection to the Mafia, Felix H Sater, and an aspiring pro-Russian Ukrainian politician, Andrii V Artemenko, an associate of Paul Manafort’s pro-Yanukovytch group, who has spent two and a half years in prison in Kiev on embezzlement charges, handed Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, a sealed Ukrainian peace plan. Cohen agreed to deliver the plan to Michael Flynn. As Cohen put it, “Who doesn’t want to bring about peace?” The plan involved the removal of Russian forces from Eastern Ukraine in return for a referendum in Ukraine to determine whether Crimea should be leased to Russia for fifty or one hundred years. The plan was premised on the removal of the current President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, accused by Sater, Artemenko and Cohen of corruption. The Times reported that the plan had the support of Putin, and that from Artemenko’s point of view, someone regarded by many Ukrainians as “untrustworthy” and “corrupt”, that it might represent a means by which he could replace Poroshenko as the new pro-Russian President of Ukraine.
On February 21, and thereafter, Donald Trump described the free liberal press in America responsible for investigating the question of the relations between his campaign team and Russia during the presidential election campaign, as “the enemy of the people”. No one can be certain whether or not Trump is aware of the sinister connotations of a phrase that was used by the chief prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, at the height of the Stalinist show trials of 1936-1938, as a justification for one of the greatest political acts of mass murder in the history of the twentieth century. Shortly after describing the news outlets reporting the links between his campaign team and the Putin regime as enemies of the people, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, banned a number of these enemies — the New York Times, CNN, BuzzFeed, Politico and others — from a daily press gaggle, to which conservative outlets like Breitbart, the Washington Times and Fox News were invited, a move that even Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal condemned.
Perhaps as alarmingly, the New York Times reported on February 24 that the White House invited the director of the FBI, James Comey, and other intelligence officers, to publish statements repudiating the reports of the multiple connections between the Trump team and the Putin regime which the FBI, among several other bodies, including the intelligence committees on both houses of the US Congress, are currently investigating. Shortly after, on February 28, the Washington Post reported that the FBI had been so concerned about the information contained in the Christopher Steele dossier that prior to the presidential election it had considered paying Steele a retainer after his contract with Fusion GPS had lapsed, to enable him to continue his research. Christopher Steele is still in hiding, perhaps in fear of his life. E J Dionne in the Washington Post suggested that the US Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, who was deeply involved in the Trump presidential campaign, should recuse himself from the present investigation.
Having admitted that he had twice met with Ambassador Kislyak despite formal denials under oath Attorney-General Sessions, apparently without referring the matter to the President, recused himself from any future investigation into the relations between the Trump election campaign team and Russia.
On March 4, as an apparent distraction from his Russian troubles, President Trump launched a Breitbart based accusation, without evidence, on Twitter and Fox News, that in the final days of the presidential campaign President Obama had ordered a wire-tap of Trump’s campaign headquarters in clear breach of the law. The claim was hotly denied by the former head of the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, while the present director of the FBI, James Comey, requested a formal denial of the charge from the Department of Justice, with which it failed to comply. Unnoticed by the mainstream media, the best-informed journalist on the Trump business real estate empire and its links with Russian finance, James Henry, published a very detailed article that revealed that Trump’s newly endorsed Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, has been since 2013 the Vice-Chairman of and chief investor in the Bank of Cyprus, perhaps the most important repository of the funds of several members of the current Russian kleptocracy closely linked to President Putin.
In the Steele dossier memo of September 14, it was reported that longstanding close financial and political links dating back to the 1990s existed between President Putin and the Russian Alpha (sic) Bank, whose leaders — Fridman, Aven and Khan — were “still giving informal advice to Putin, especially on the US”, via an intermediary, Oleg Govorun, head of one of the current departments of the presidential administration. On March 9, CNN reported that material leaked from the internet showed that from May 4 to September 23 2016, on 2,820 occasions the Russian Alfa Bank looked up the email address of one of the Trump Organization’s servers, which comprised 80% of the total number of such inquiries during that period. The unexplained oddity, for which a variety of theories had been advanced, was presently being investigated by the FBI.
On March 20, the FBI Director, James Comey, informed the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee that Russian interference in the presidential election and links between the Russians and the Trump campaign team had been under investigation since July 2016. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, claimed: “If the Trump campaign, or anybody associated with it, aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history.”
Meanwhile, CNN has produced a fascinating timeline showing the truly surprising number of occasions that the right-wing Republican activist and Trump campaign fringe dweller, Roger Stone, boasted in public about his contacts with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and about his fore-knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans regarding the publication of the emails seventeen US intelligence agencies are convinced, most with “high confidence”, that Russian intelligence agents or operatives hacked from Hillary Clinton and her campaign team.
On March 22, two reporters from the Associated Press, Jeff Horwitz and Chad Day, revealed that Paul Manafort, the leader of the Trump campaign team between April and August 2016, had signed a contract worth tens of millions of dollars to work for one of Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs and one of Putin’s closest allies, the aluminium magnate, Oleg Derispaska, whose purpose was in part to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States … to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government.” Manafort’s contract lasted from 2006, a year in which he was paid $10,000,000 by Derispaska, until “at least” 2009. In 2005, Manafort wrote Derispaska a memo that promised he could “greatly benefit the Putin government” and “offer a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government”. Manafort was the head of the Trump campaign at the time of the 2016 Republican Party campaign which watered down a motion concerning the level of US opposition to the activities of the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Manafort resigned as the leader of the Trump campaign team when the New York Times revealed that he had received $12.7 million in kick-backs from the ousted pro-Russian former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovytch. The Associated Press reported that Manafort is still in almost daily contact with President Trump and his inner circle.
Paul Wood, the BBC’s correspondent in Washington, is emerging as the most important journalist working on this case. On March 30, he reported that he had discovered independent corroboration that a Soviet Embassy official, Mikhail Kalugin, named in the Steele dossier (although there was a misspelling), who was withdrawn suddenly from Washington in the summer of 2016 — according to Steele because he was heavily involved in Russia’s pro-Trump campaign and in danger of being exposed — had been suspected by US intelligence for a considerable time of being a spy. Even though he was formally an Economic Counsellor at the Russian Embassy, no one in the State Department ever dealt with him. According to Wood, Steele had contributed information on Russia and Ukraine to US intelligence between 2013 and 2016 and it was regarded as highly credible. Steele met with members of the FBI in Rome in August 2016 to discuss the case of Trump and Russia. In early October, he visited the United States and was extensively debriefed.
According to Wood, Steele dealt with the FBI rather than the CIA because it was there he had contacts. Some people Wood spoke to regretted that it was the FBI and not the CIA that was leading the investigation. The investigation is far more complex than Watergate, in essence about whether the Trump team was working in coordination with Russian intelligence on a multi-pronged campaign. Their current hypothesis is that Russian intelligence agents were hacking Democratic Party emails, and disseminating the hacked information gained thereby in various ways: on Facebook and Twitter; on pro-Russian English-language sources, like RT television; and then on pro-Trump outlets, like Fox News and Breitbart. US intelligence was aware that “voter rolls had been scanned and probed from a server in Russia”. According to one of Wood’s sources, a micro-targeted social media campaign of the kind now being investigated — using voter roll information in the way advertisers routinely do — “would take cooperation with the Trump campaign”.
As has been widely reported, the Republican Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, has been speaking to the media about material he has been given by an unknown secret source, in advance of informing his colleagues on the Intelligence Committee, as part of his increasingly obvious campaign to absolve President Trump from all wrongdoing with the Russians. Nunes’ material is most likely the source of President Trump’s obvious lie, namely that the Obama administration was tapping Trump’s campaign team’s communications. No President has the legal authority to do what Trump claimed. As Wood had previously reported, US intelligence agencies have been granted a court warrant to mount surveillance of the communications between two Russian banks and certain so far unnamed US citizens. Most likely some of those communications mentioned individuals involved in the Trump campaign. Information of this kind, gained in this way, is described by US intelligence as “incidental”. It is perfectly legal.
As James Comey recently testified, the FBI is now investigating whether there was “coordination” between the Trump campaign team and Russian intelligence to help Trump gain the US Presidency. Wood’s concluding words go to the heart of the matter. “Increasingly, the American people are being asked to choose between two unpalatable versions of events: abuse of power by one president or treason that put another in the White House.”
On April 3, the Washington Post reported that in early January 2017, Erik Prince, the founder of the notorious Blackwater paramilitary business and brother of Donald Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, met for two days in secret in the Seychelles with Russians closely connected to President Putin. The meeting was arranged by a United Arab Emirates crown prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. According to US intelligence sources who spoke to the Post, the purpose of the meeting was the establishment of a “back-channel” for unofficial discussions on sensitive questions of interest to Presidents Trump and Putin. There was no evidence of further meetings.
One day later, on April 4 Buzz Feed reported that Carter Page, the man who Trump named as one of his foreign policy advisers in an interview with the Washington Post in March 2016, had been cultivated in 2013 by a Russian spy, Victor Podobnyy. In the court case filings that followed the disclosure of a spy ring, Podobnyy described Page as an “idiot” in a recorded conversation with another spy, Sporyshev. Page had discussed the energy business with Podobnyy, had shown an interest in the vast Russian corporation, Gazprom, and had handed Podobnyy certain energy business documents. Podobnyy and Sporyshev could not be prosecuted because of diplomatic immunity and were quickly removed from the United States. A third member of their group, Buryakov, who worked for the Russian bank, Vnesheconombank, received a thirty month prison sentence. In the court documents, Page was referred to as “Male-1”. As readers may recall, Page is a central figure in the Steele dossier. In early July 2016, Steele reported that he had met with the head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, a close associate of Putin, and that they had discussed a deal by which members of Trump’s team would be offered a share of Rosneft when it was privatised in return for lifting US sanctions on Russia. On December 26, the link man between Sechin and Putin, the former FSB officer, Oleg Erovinkin, was murdered in Moscow, possibly because he was suspected to be the source of the information about the Page-Sechin conversation that had made its way into the Steele dossier.
On April 6, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, recused himself from any involvement in his committee’s investigation into the relations between Trump and Russia. Nunes had been accused of working with the White House, in support of Trump’s evidence-free wiretapping allegation against the Obama administration behind the back of his own committee and is presently being investigated by the House’s ethics committee for the unauthorised release of classified intelligence documents to the media. On the same day the New York Times reported that, according to two former CIA officials, in late August and then again in September, the director of the CIA, John Brennan, briefed the eight most senior members of the House and Senate intelligence committees about the growing concern inside his agency as information was accumulating pointing to Russian support for the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of cooperation between Russian intelligence and the Trump campaign team which, as previously reported, was already being investigated by the FBI. According to the Times, “By the campaign’s final weeks, Congress and the intelligence agencies were racing to understand the scope of the Russian threat.”
On April 11, those following the question of Trump and Russia learnt two new interesting pieces of news. The Associated Press reported that an alleged Russian hacker, Pyotr Levashov, was arrested in Barcelona at the request of the United States. His wife, Maria, informed RT television that Pyotr told her that he was suspected of interference in the 2016 election campaign. On the same day the Washington Post revealed that in the summer of 2016 the FBI had managed to convince the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to issue a warrant that allowed the wire-tapping of one of the key figures in the Steele dossier, Trump’s foreign policy adviser, Carter Page. As the FBI director, James Comey, made clear obtaining a warrant of this kind was no easy matter. Page was suspected of being an agent of a foreign government, namely Russia. Page declared his innocence. He compared his persecution by the FBI to that once experienced by Martin Luther King.
At last some progress. On May 5 the New York Times reported that the Senate’s intelligence committee had sent letters to General Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Carter Page among others requiring them to hand over emails, text messages and phone logs concerning their dealings with Russian officials and business people and also details of all meetings with them between 16 June 2015 and 20 January 2017 as well as information on all their financial and real estate holdings in Russia. The letters were signed by the senior Democrat on the committee, Mark Warner, but also the senior Republican, Richard Burr. If the information is not supplied, the intelligence committee can issue subpoenas following a majority vote of its members.
Roger Stone signalled his agreement. “I am eager, indeed anxious, to testify in full public session, have requested no immunity and am ready to go.” At first, Carter Page stated he would cooperate although he noted that “any records I may have saved as a private citizen with limited technology capabilities will be minuscule in comparison to the full database of information which has already been collected under last year’s completely unjustified FISA warrant.” Shortly after he changed his mind, writing to the committee, as the Independent reported: “I suspect the physical reaction of the Clinton/Obama regime perpetrators will be more along the lines of extreme vomiting when all the facts are eventually exposed regarding the steps taken by the US Government to influence the 2016 election.”
May 8 2017 This postscript is now closed.
With Donald Trump’s dismissal of James Comey as director of the FBI, the question of Trump and Russia is now at the centre of US politics. Updates will appear from time to time as blogs on the website of the Monthly beginning with “Once upon a time in America”, May 12
Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.