The inside story of how a former British spy was hired to investigate Russia’s influence on Trump – and uncovered explosive evidence that Moscow had been cultivating Trump for years.
Moscow, summer 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power. Official relations with the west have softened, but the KGB still assumes all western embassy workers are spooks. The KGB agents assigned to them are easy to spot. They have a method. Sometimes they pursue targets on foot, sometimes in cars. The officers charged with keeping tabs on western diplomats are never subtle.
Back then, the KGB kept watch on all foreigners, especially American and British ones. The UK mission in Moscow was under close observation. The British embassy was a magnificent mansion built in the 1890s by a rich sugar merchant, on the south bank of the Moskva river. It looked directly across to the Kremlin. The view was dreamy: a grand palace, golden church domes and medieval spires topped with revolutionary red stars.
One of those the KGB routinely surveilled was a 27-year-old diplomat, newly married to his wife, Laura, on his first foreign posting, and working as a second secretary in the chancery division. In this case, their suspicions were right.
The “diplomat” was a British intelligence officer. His workplace was a grand affair: chandeliers, mahogany-panelled reception rooms, gilt-framed portraits of the Queen and other royals hanging from the walls. His desk was in the embassy library, surrounded by ancient books. The young officer’s true employer was an invisible entity back in London – SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6.
His name was Christopher Steele. Years later, he would be commissioned to undertake an astonishing secret investigation. It was an explosive assignment: to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets with relation to Donald Trump. Steele’s findings, and the resulting dossier, would shake the American intelligence community and cause a political earthquake not seen since the dark days of Richard Nixon and Watergate.
By 2006, Steele held a senior post at MI6’s Russia desk in London. There were ominous signs that Putin was taking Russia in an aggressive direction. The number of hostile Russian agents in the UK grew, surpassing cold war levels. Steele tracked a new campaign of subversion and covert influence.
And then two FSB assassins put a radioactive poison into the tea of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer turned London-based dissident. It was an audacious operation, and a sign of things to come. MI6 picked Steele to investigate. One reason for this was that he wasn’t emotionally involved with the case, unlike some of his colleagues who had known the victim. He quickly concluded the Russian state had staged the execution.
Simpson had been an illustrious Wall Street Journal correspondent. Based in Washington and Brussels, he had specialised in post-Soviet murk. He didn’t speak Russian or visit the Russian Federation. This was deemed too dangerous. Instead, from outside the country, he examined the dark intersection between organised crime and the Russian state.
By 2009, Simpson decided to quit journalism, at a time when the media industry was in all sorts of financial trouble. He co-founded his own commercial research and political intelligence firm, based in Washington DC. Its name was Fusion GPS. Its website gave little away. It didn’t even list an address.
Simpson then met Steele. They knew some of the same FBI people and shared expertise on Russia. Fusion and Orbis began a professional partnership. The Washington- and London-based firms worked for oligarchs litigating against other oligarchs. This might involve asset tracing – identifying large sums concealed behind layers of offshore companies.
Later that year, Steele embarked on a separate, sensitive new assignment that drew on his knowledge of covert Russian techniques – and of football. (In Moscow he had played at full-back.) The client was the English Football Association, the FA. England was bidding to host the 2018 soccer World Cup. Its main rival was Russia. There were joint bids, too, from Spain and Portugal, and the Netherlands and Belgium. His brief was to investigate the eight other bidding nations, with a particular focus on Russia. It was rumoured that the FSB had carried out a major influence operation, ahead of a vote in Zurich by the executive committee of Fifa, soccer’s international governing body.
Steele discovered that Fifa corruption was global. It was a stunning conspiracy. He took the unusual step of briefing an American contact in Rome, the head of the FBI’s Eurasian serious crime division. This “lit the fuse”, as one friend put it, and led to a probe by US federal prosecutors. And to the arrest in 2015 of seven Fifa officials, allegedly connected to $150m (£114m) in kickbacks, paid on TV deals stretching from Latin America to the Caribbean. The US indicted 14 individuals.
The episode burnished Steele’s reputation inside the US intelligence community and the FBI. Here was a pro, a well-connected Brit, who understood Russian espionage and its subterranean tricks. Steele was regarded as credible. Between 2014 and 2016, Steele authored more than 100 reports on Russia and Ukraine. These were written for a private client but shared widely within the US state department, and sent up to secretary of state John Kerry and assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, who was in charge of the US response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of eastern Ukraine. Many of Steele’s secret sources were the same people who would later supply information on Trump.
Before this, in early spring 2016, Simpson approached Steele, his friend and colleague. Steele began to scrutinise Paul Manafort, who would soon become Trump’s new campaign manager. From April, Steele investigated Trump on behalf of the DNC, Fusion’s anonymous client. All Steele knew at first was that the client was a law firm. He had no idea what he would find. He later told David Corn, Washington editor of the magazine Mother Jones: “It started off as a fairly general inquiry.” Trump’s organisation owned luxury hotels around the world. Trump had, as far back as 1987, sought to do real estate deals in Moscow. One obvious question for him, Steele said, was: “Are there business ties to Russia?”
Normally an intelligence officer would debrief sources directly, but since Steele could no longer visit Russia, this had to be done by others, or in third countries. There were intermediaries, subsources, operators – a sensitive chain. Only one of Steele’s sources on Trump knew of Steele. Steele put out his Trump-Russia query and waited for answers. His sources started reporting back. The information was astonishing; “hair-raising”. As he told friends: “For anyone who reads it, this is a life-changing experience.”
Steele had stumbled upon a well-advanced conspiracy that went beyond anything he had discovered with Litvinenko or Fifa. It was the boldest plot yet. It involved the Kremlin and Trump. Their relationship, Steele’s sources claimed, went back a long way. For at least the past five years, Russian intelligence had been secretly cultivating Trump. This operation had succeeded beyond Moscow’s wildest expectations. Not only had Trump upended political debate in the US – raining chaos wherever he went and winning the nomination – but it was just possible that he might become the next president. This opened all sorts of intriguing options for Putin.
In June 2016, Steele typed up his first memo. He sent it to Fusion. It arrived via enciphered mail. The headline read: US Presidential Election: Republican Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities in Russia and Compromising Relationship with the Kremlin. Its text began: “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in the western alliance.”
“So far TRUMP has declined various sweetener real estate business deals, offered him in Russia to further the Kremlin’s cultivation of him. However he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.
“Former top Russian intelligence officer claims FSB has compromised TRUMP through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him. According to several knowledgeable sources, his conduct in Moscow has included perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB.
“A dossier of compromising material on Hillary CLINTON has been collated by the Russian Intelligence Services over many years and mainly comprises bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct. The dossier is controlled by Kremlin spokesman, PESKOV, directly on Putin’s orders. However, it has not yet been distributed abroad, including to TRUMP. Russian intentions for its deployment still unclear.”
The memo was sensational. There would be others, 16 in all, sent to Fusion between June and early November 2016. At first, obtaining intelligence from Moscow went well. For around six months – during the first half of the year – Steele was able to make inquiries in Russia with relative ease. It got harder from late July, as Trump’s ties to Russia came under scrutiny. Finally, the lights went out. Amid a Kremlin cover-up, the sources went silent and information channels shut down.
If Steele’s reporting was to be believed, Trump had been colluding with Russia. This arrangement was transactional, with both sides trading favours. The report said Trump had turned down “various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia”, especially in connection with the 2018 World Cup, hosted by Moscow. But he had been happy to accept a flow of Kremlin-sourced intelligence material, apparently delivered to him by his inner circle. That didn’t necessarily mean the candidate was a Russian agent. But it did signify that Russia’s leading spy agency had expended considerable effort in getting close to Trump – and, by extension, to his family, friends, close associates and business partners, not to mention his campaign manager and personal lawyer.
In late 2015 the British eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, was carrying out standard “collection” against Moscow targets. These were known Kremlin operatives already on the grid. Nothing unusual here – except that the Russians were talking to people associated with Trump. The precise nature of these exchanges has not been made public, but according to sources in the US and the UK, they formed a suspicious pattern. They continued through the first half of 2016. The intelligence was handed to the US as part of a routine sharing of information.
The FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of these contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow. This was in part due to institutional squeamishness – the law prohibits US agencies from examining the private communications of US citizens without a warrant.
But the electronic intelligence suggested Steele was right. According to one account, the US agencies looked as if they were asleep. “‘Wake up! There’s something not right here!’ – the BND [German intelligence], the Dutch, the French and SIS were all saying this,” one Washington-based source told me.
That summer, GCHQ’s then head, Robert Hannigan, flew to the US to personally brief CIA chief John Brennan. The matter was deemed so important that it was handled at “director level”, face-to-face between the two agency chiefs. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, later confirmed the “sensitive” stream of intelligence from Europe. After a slow start, Brennan used the GCHQ information and other tip-offs to launch a major inter-agency investigation. Meanwhile, the FBI was receiving disturbing warnings from Steele.
At this point, Steele’s Fusion material was unpublished. Whatever the outcome of the election, it raised grave questions about Russian interference and the US democratic process. There was, Steele felt, overwhelming public interest in passing his findings to US investigators. The US’s multiple intelligence agencies had the resources to prove or disprove his discoveries. He realised that these allegations were, as he put it to a friend, a “radioactive hot potato”. He anticipated a hesitant response, at least at first.
In June, Steele flew to Rome to brief the FBI contact with whom he had co-operated over Fifa. His information started to reach the bureau in Washington. It had certainly arrived by the time of the Democratic National Convention in late July, when WikiLeaks first began releasing hacked Democratic emails. It was at this moment that FBI director James Comey opened a formal investigation into Trump-Russia.
Steele had hoped for a thorough and decisive FBI investigation. Instead, it moved cautiously. The agency told him that it couldn’t intervene or go public with material involving a presidential candidate. Then it went silent. Steele’s frustrations grew.
But all this frantic activity came to nought. Just as Nixon was re-elected during the early stages of Watergate, Trump won the presidential election, to general dismay, at a time when the Russia scandal was small but growing. Steele had found prima facie evidence of a conspiracy, but by and large the US public knew nothing about it. In November, his dossier began circulating in the top national security echelons of the Obama administration. But it was too late.
The same month a group of international experts gathered in Halifax on Canada’s eastern seaboard. Their task: to make sense of the world in the aftermath of Trump’s stunning victory. One of the delegates attending the Halifax International Security Forum was Senator John McCain. Another was Sir Andrew Wood, the UK’s former ambassador to Russia. Wood was a friend of Steele’s and an Orbis associate. Before the election, Steele had gone to Wood and shown him the dossier. He wanted the ambassador’s advice. What should he do, or not do, with it? Of the dossier, Wood told me: “I took it seriously.”
On the margins of the Halifax conference, Wood briefed McCain about Steele’s dossier – its contents, if true, had profound and obvious implications for the incoming Trump administration, for the Republican party, and for US democracy. The implications were alarming enough to lead McCain to dispatch a former senior US official to meet Steele and find out more.
McCain believed it was impossible to verify Steele’s claims without a proper investigation. He made a call and arranged a meeting with Comey. Their encounter on 8 December 2016 lasted five minutes. Not much was said. McCain gave Comey the dossier.
McCain’s intervention now made some kind of bureaucratic response inevitable. This was no longer just an FBI affair; it required co-ordination across the top levels of US intelligence. A highly classified two-page summary of Steele’s dossier was compiled. It was attached to a longer, restricted briefing note on Russian cyber interference in the 2016 election. The US’s most senior intelligence chiefs mulled what to do.
Their next task was an unenviable one. As former CIA director Michael Hayden put it to me, the situation was “off the map in terms of what intelligence is asked to do. I didn’t envy them”. Of the dossier, Hayden said: “My gestalt idea, when I saw it, was that this looks like our stuff.”
The dossier was on its way to the desk of the man who was still, for now, the world’s most powerful person: President Barack Obama.
It was also going to his successor, the next guy in the Oval Office. He wasn’t going to like it much.
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