What’s known about the provenance of the infamous Steele memo on Trump-Russia collusion.
Recent revelations in the Washington Post about the funding of the opposition research memo prepared by British ex-Spy, Christopher Steele, has caused a storm of controversy (at least among conservatives in the US), with pundits on the political right suggesting this funding history indicates the dossier is a partisan ‘hack’ job, and that Hillary Clinton should actually be investigated for collusion with Russians.
The following is a timeline of what has been made public about the origins and funding of the Steele dossier, compiled from Washington Post, the New York Times, publicly accessible court documents and reporting in Talking Points Memo, Mother Jones and other reputable media outlets.
We now know, thanks to the New York Times and the Washington Post that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee had funded the opposition research project that gave rise to the so-called Trump dossier, even though the oppo research was first funded by an as of yet unknown GOP operative. Trump and his vehemently denied the Steele dossiers claims of collusion between his campaign and Russia figures to meddle with the election. And currently Trump and his allies are using the news of its DNC-Clinton campaign funding to smear the both the document and those who have believed its claims. Indeed, Trump seems to believe – as he is certainly publicly saying – the revelation of who funding the dossier vindicates his position all along that it was a hoax: fake news cooked up by the mainstream media.
While the most salacious allegations in the dossier have yet to be verified, other more general claims about Russia’s efforts to interfere with the election have indeed been shown to be accurate. As reported in TPM the dossier, first published by Buzzfeed in early January 2017, has become the target of numerous lawsuits and both the author, Christopher Steel, his company and the intermediary between the research funders and his company, Fusion GPS, have faced legal actions, both in private lawsuits and from congressional investigators, for more information on the dossier.
Here is what is publicly known about the production of the dossier to date:
September 2015: A still unknown Republican donor who opposed Donald Trump hires Fusion GPS to research the candidate: New York Times.
April 2016: After it becomes clear that Trump will be the GOP nominee, the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign take over the funding of the research project, through the intermediary of Democratic attorney Marc Elias’ law firm Perkins Coie, according to the Washington Post.
June 2016: Steele’s company Orbis is hired by Fusion GPS for the project, per his court filings in a British lawsuit against him. He goes on to produce 16 versions of the dossier before November’s election, according to his court filings.
Summer 2016: FBI begins investigation into Trump associates’ alleged Russia ties.
“Near the start of July” 2016: Steele sends “a report he had written for that firm to a contact at the FBI.”
End of September 2016: Journalists from New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN are verbally briefed in-person by Steele and Fusion GPS on some of his findings, per a filing in the U.K. lawsuit.
Mid-October: New York Times, Washington Post and Yahoo News journalists verbally briefed in-person.
October 2016: According court documents in the British case, the last of the 16 pre-election memos is produced.
Late October 2016: Mother Jones reporter briefed by Steele via Skype, according to court documents.
End of October 2016: Democrats end their funding for Fusion GPS: as per the Washington Post.
October 30, 2016: Then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid writes letter to then-FBI Director James Comey in which he says that in their conversations and in conversations with other top national security officials, it had “become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government.” A former Reid spokesman would go on to Tweet, after the dossier became public, that dossier was what Reid was referring to when he wrote the letter.
October 31, 2016: Mother Jones’ David Corn publishes his major scoop on the dossier, based on his conversations with Steele: “A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump.” In it, he says that a “former senior intelligence officer for a Western country” had told Mother Jones that it had provided the FBI “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.” The timeline offered by Corn in the story matches what has since been presented in court documents. Corn also writes that the ex-spy’s work was for an oppo project originally financed by a GOP client, but that the funding was taken over by a “client allied with Democrats” before the former spy was retained to work on it.
After November 8, 2016 election: The FBI agrees to pay Steele to continue his work on Russia-Trump ties, but then pulls out of the deal, according to the Washington Post because of the scrutiny around him and the document.
November 18, 2016: Sen. John McCain attends the annual Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, where Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Russia, told McCain about the existence of material compromising to Donald Trump, according to Wood’s account to BBC4. Wood, an Orbis “associate,” goes on to set up a meeting between Steele and David Kramer, an associate of McCain’s who works at the McCain Institute, according to court filings in the U.K. case.
November 28: Steele meets with Kramer and tells him that what he’s learned through his research raises nation security issues. They agree that a hard copy of the research should be provided to McCain, per court filings.
Around December 13, 2017: Another version of the dossier is compiled, and it is shared with an unnamed U.K. security official and with Fusion, again according to Steele’s filings in the U.K. case. According to the filings, Fusion was instructed to only provide the memo to Kramer, for him to pass on to McCain. Fusion has in court filings denied giving the memo directly to Buzzfeed.
Also around this time — December 9, as per CNN’s reporting – McCain hands over a copy to Comey. The FBI, however, already had in its possession earlier versions of the memo dating up to August.
Late 2016: According to their own court filings, Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith suggests to investigative reporter Ken Bensinger that he reach out to an unnamed “source.” The source shows Bensinger a copy of the dossier and allows him to photograph it.
January 6: Comey and other top national security officials brief President-elect Donald Trump on the dossier, using a two-page summary, at a meeting in Trump Tower, as first reported by CNN and later confirmed by Comey in Senate testimony. Then-President Obama and leaders in Congress were also briefed on the dossier.
January 10, 2017: CNN publishes its report on the briefing Trump and Obama received on the dossier, adding that U.S. national security officials had been examining Steele’s work and had found some of his sources credible enough to include in the presentation, even as many of the dossier’s claims are unverified. Buzzfeed later that day publishes the dossier in its entirety.
October 24, 2017: After a number of attempts, via lawsuits or otherwise, to get Fusion GPS to release the identity of its clients of the dossier project, the Washington Post reports that the Democrats funding it were the DNC and the Clinton campaign. Its report is partially based on a letter Elias sent to Fusion GPS that day releasing the firm from its client confidentiality agreement, as the House Intel Committee sought to subpoena the firm’s banking information.
So what does this tell us, why should we care? Well first off, Trump's claims that somehow the fact that the Democrats funded Steele's research discredits it, and vindicates him. Nonsense. Opposition research is funded by all political parties and their helpers. A Republican campaign began this research and only stopped when Trump was confirmed as GOP nominee (at that point, there was no point for the GOP in continuing it).
What is crucial is if the research is accurate. Much of what is in the dossier has been shown to be credible -- so credible in fact that the FBI continued to fund it's author after the Democrats stopped, not for partisan reasons, but because it was credible and so potentially damaging. The current Mueller investigation has used the dossier to develop leads. Trump was fully briefed on it, before Obama was.
Trump and his allies are currently trying to discredit the dossier with partisan claims. Don't be distracted. Fully accurate or not, the dossier started the investigation into Russian meddling, which not fully completed, has nonetheless be shown to have been real and of consequence. How significant we still don't know. Trump will try to use the revelations of the funding of the dossier to get those ongoing investigations shut down.