The public knows that the FBI relied extensively on the Democratic Party-financed dossier, whose list of anti-Trump allegations influenced the bureau’s overall attitude toward the candidate and eventual president.
Now, Attorney General William Barr has made it clear he wants to know more: Just how far did the discredited dossier take the FBI into the depths of a nearly three-year Trump investigation?
“What were the standards that were applied? What was the evidence?” Mr. Barr told CBS News, adding that his focus is not on the rank-and-file but on senior FBI leaders.
Dossier writer Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer, was a trusted FBI paid informant before Trump-Russia. He pitched his dossier to the FBI in these terms: Donald Trump was a Russia spy, co-conspirator and financier of computer hacking. In other words, a traitor and a criminal.
“Christopher Steele influenced their attitudes,” Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, told The Washington Times. “Remember, they had a relationship with Steele. Steele was former MI6. So Steele probably biased them in some way because they had worked with Steele previously.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on an investigation that found no conspiracy effectively destroyed the dossier.
The dossier’s impact inside FBI headquarters is a topic of investigation by John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. Mr. Barr has assigned him the special job of finding out how and why the FBI targeted the Trump campaign — which means a focus on the dossier.
“These counterintelligence activities that were directed at the Trump campaign were not done in the normal course and not through the normal procedures, as far as I can tell,” Mr. Barr said Friday.
The attorney general said he wants Mr. Durham to find out “what was the predicate for it,” “was everyone operating in their proper lane” and “what was the evidence.”
He belittled the FBI’s decision to place an informant on campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos. He referred to the operation as “dangling a confidential informant in front of a peripheral player in the Trump campaign.”
Mr. Barr said the investigation is not FBI-wide but is focused on “a small group at the top. … And a lot of the people who were involved are no longer there.”
Though he mentioned no names, it was a clear reference to former FBI Director James B. Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and former Assistant Director Peter Strzok, who started the Trump investigation.
One reason he appointed Mr. Durham, the attorney general said, is that the prosecutor has the power to compel former officials to testify. The Justice Department inspector general does not.
The dossier isn’t the official reason given for why the FBI started its Trump journey. But beginning in July 2016, dossier material was widely circulated and landed at the FBI and Justice Department headquarters, the White House, Congress, the State Department and various news bureaus in Washington.
That summer and fall, the only person known to be making election conspiracy allegations to the FBI against Mr. Trump was Mr. Steele, an operative paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign.
This is known: The FBI used the Kremlin-sourced dossier to obtain at least four wiretaps on a former Trump campaign volunteer. Mr. Comey briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump on the dossier’s contents.
The FBI and the dossier
The FBI received continuous dossier updates from Mr. Steele and from Fusion GPS, Mrs. Clinton’s opposition research firm that handled Mr. Steele. The FBI recruited Mr. Steele to keep investigating Mr. Trump after the election even though it scored the former spy’s reliability as low. The FBI, among other agencies, attached the dossier to the intelligence community’s final verdict that Moscow hacked Democratic Party computers.
Mr. Jordan, one of a key group of Republicans who have pushed the FBI for answers, said the bureau knew, through a contact, that Mr. Steele was “desperate” to bring down Mr. Trump before it cited the dossier to obtain the first wiretap.
“The guy they are getting the dossier from that they then use to get the warrant, he’s got an extreme bias against the president,” Mr. Jordan said. “So I think all that comes together, and you get what we now understand was this effort to go after the president.”
The four key points in the FBI’s timeline:
⦁ July 31, 2016. Mr. Strzok kicked off the FBI’s investigation into Mr. Trump based on information from Australian Ambassador Alexander Downer in London. Mr. Downer said Trump volunteer Papadopoulos told him over a glass of wine that he had heard the Russians might have dirt on Mrs. Clinton.
By that time, Mr. Strzok likely possessed other information. FBI agent Michael J. Gaeta traveled to London from his Rome base on July 5 to meet Mr. Steele, who was eager to start funneling his Trump conspiracies to the Obama administration. The Obama State Department approved the session.
Mr. Steele began writing dossier memos the previous month after he was hired by Fusion. By July 5, he had written at least one memo. It alleged that Mr. Trump was receiving intelligence on Mrs. Clinton from the Kremlin. In other words, a Trump-Russia conspiracy.
“I have to report this to headquarters,” Mr. Gaeta told Mr. Steele, according to the Michael Isikoff and David Corn book “Russian Roulette.”
That month, Mr. Steele would add memos alleging an “extensive conspiracy” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin — a conspiracy Mr. Mueller didn’t find.
⦁ Oct. 21, 2016. The FBI executed its first wiretap on former Trump volunteer Carter Page. Mr. Comey signed the application to a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. The application relied heavily on what Mr. Steele said about Mr. Page. The application stated at the top, “Verified Application.”
It also was signed by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, who, like Mr. Comey, eventually would become a vocal Trump critic.
Earlier in October, Mr. Gaeta had a second meeting with Mr. Steele, this time in Rome. By then, Mr. Steele had tapped Kremlin sources for a whole new array of conspiracy charges that eventually would be proved false. Four FBI officials from Washington headquarters joined Mr. Gaeta. At that meeting, the FBI offered Mr. Steele $50,000 to keep investigating Mr. Trump.
“I was coming forward because it was my duty,” Mr. Steele is quoted in “Russian Roulette” as saying. “You think if I was peddling false information about Russia, I’d still be in business?”
The record shows that before the investigation opened July 31 and before the Carter Page wiretap, FBI headquarters was awash in the dossier’s anti-Trump allegations.
⦁ May 2017. In response to Mr. Trump’s firing of Mr. Comey, Mr. McCabe opened an investigation into whether the president was a Russian agent.
Mr. Steele’s allegations had been made public by then: BuzzFeed posted the entire 17 memos on Jan. 10.
Before the election, Mr. McCabe received a special briefing from Bruce Ohr, at that time the Justice Department’s No. 4 official. Mr. Ohr’s wife worked at Fusion GPS, which was investigating Mr. Trump. Mr. Ohr turned over to the FBI two thumb drives filled with Fusion research.
⦁ May 2017. Mr. Comey had written for-the-record memos recounting his private meetings with Mr. Trump. He believed Mr. Trump was meddling in FBI investigations.
Upon being ousted from the FBI, Mr. Comey leaked the memos to The New York Times via a Columbia University professor and former federal prosecutor. Mr. Comey said he did so to prompt the appointment of a special prosecutor, which happened when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named Mr. Mueller.
Three G-men — Mr. Strzok, Mr. McCabe and Mr. Comey — made momentous decisions at a time when Mr. Steele’s dozen or so conspiracy allegations had circulated on the FBI’s seventh-floor headquarters.
Said Mr. Barr: “The activities were undertaken by a small group at the top, which is probably one of the mistakes that has been made, instead of running this as a normal bureau investigation or counterintelligence investigation.”
A public record of two FBI memoirs and various congressional transcripts can determine Mr. Steele’s effect.
One place researchers will not find answers is Mr. Mueller’s 448-page report, which mentions the dossier and Mr. Steele only in passing.
There is little known publicly about how the dossier influenced Mr. Strzok, who opened and directed the counterintelligence investigation into Trump associates.
During Mr. Strzok’s congressional appearance in July 2018, Mr. Jordan repeatedly asked how he gathered dossier material.
“Based on direction by the FBI, sir, I am not able to answer questions about ongoing investigative matters,” Mr. Strzok testified. “I have been directed that I may state that I have read the dossier, that I read the dossier as it came in in parts and pieces to the FBI.”
Mr. Strzok wasn’t asked about Mr. Gaeta’s July meeting with Mr. Steele in London and how dossier information reached headquarters.
In a previous, more extensive closed-door session, Mr. Jordan tried to elicit dossier facts, such as the first time Mr. Strzok saw Mr. Steele’s material. In other words, was it before July 31?
“Again, that gets into a level of investigative detail about an ongoing investigation that I don’t think the FBI or the special counsel want me to answer,” Mr. Strzok answered. “I am happy to answer it, but I defer to what I think the appropriate FBI equities are in this regard.”
Mr. Strzok is famous for the series of salty text messages he exchanged with his lover, Lisa Page, who was legal counsel to Mr. McCabe.
Days after opening the Trump investigation, Ms. Page stated, “[Mr. Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”
Mr. Strzok responded, “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
Days before the first Carter Page wiretap began, Mr. Strzok texted, “I am riled up. Trump is a f—ing idiot, is unable to provide a coherent answer.”
Said Mr. Barr: “It’s hard to read some of the texts … and not feel that there was gross bias at work and they’re appalling.”
The FBI fired Mr. Strzok.
Mr. McCabe’s memoir, “The Threat,” had the promise of adding to the Christopher Steele saga. It didn’t.
Mr. McCabe, who played a role in shepherding the dossier material to Mr. Strzok, never brings up the dossier or discusses Mr. Steele. Mr. Ohr, Mr. McCabe’s link to Fusion GPS, also is never mentioned.
How the dossier affected his decision to put the president under investigation as a suspected foreign agent isn’t known publicly.
On his book tour, Mr. McCabe suggested that Mr. Trump was an agent for Russia.
The Mueller report contains no information that Mr. Trump was a Kremlin informant, as Mr. Steele alleged.
Mr. McCabe testified in private before a task force of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees. The dossier came up once.
Mr. Ohr testified that he met with Mr. Steele on July 30, 2016, in Washington to hear his allegations. Mr. Ohr briefed Mr. McCabe at FBI headquarters a few days later. Mr. McCabe connected him with Mr. Strzok.
Mr. Ohr spread Mr. Steele’s allegations even further that summer inside the Obama administration. He met with three lawyers in the Justice Department’s criminal division, including Andrew Weissmann. Mr. Mueller later tapped Mr. Weissmann as one of his top prosecutors.
Mr. Ohr talked with Mr. Steele continually and met with the FBI 13 times in 2016 and 2017.
In public statements, the former FBI director has kept an arm’s distance from the dossier, even as he used it to brief Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump.
He said during his spring 2018 book tour that he still didn’t know who funded the dossier.
This was after Democratic Party attorneys acknowledged publicly that the party and the Clinton campaign had funded it.
In a December 2018 closed-door congressional hearing, for which a transcript was later released, Mr. Comey testified to a different timeline. He said he learned that the Democrats funded the project before he signed the first wiretap application on Mr. Page on Oct. 21, 2016.
He said he didn’t know that the dossier was cited as evidence on the application.
Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas Republican, asked Mr. Comey, “Do you know whether the application that you signed states that the FBI has reviewed this verified application for accuracy?”
“I don’t remember that specifically,” Mr. Comey said. “It sounds like the kind of thing that would be in there as a matter of course, but I don’t remember.”
Mr. Ratcliffe quoted the FBI’s counterintelligence chief as saying the dossier had not been verified.
“Does that cause you any concern about the fact that you signed a verified application for a warrant to surveil Carter Page when the Steele dossier was only minimally corroborated or in its infancy in its corroboration?” Mr. Ratliff asked.
“I don’t know enough or remember enough two years later to have a reaction. I don’t know their testimony. I haven’t looked at the thing,” Mr. Comey replied.
At the time Mr. Comey was fired in May 2017, the FBI was still trying to verify Mr. Steele’s charges.
“My understanding is that an effort was underway to try to replicate, either rule in or rule out, as much of that collection of reports that’s commonly now called the Steele dossier as possible, and that that work was ongoing when I was fired,” Mr. Comey testified.
According to declassified FISA applications released under pressure by Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican, the FBI cited a Yahoo News story as corroboration. But the Yahoo story and the dossier came from the same source: Mr. Steele.
The FBI told the judge that Mr. Steele had affirmed he hadn’t spoken to reporters, thus making the Yahoo piece an independent source. But he had briefed the Yahoo story author.
Republican senators have asked the Justice Department to investigate Mr. Steele for lying to the FBI.
Mr. Barr wants Mr. Durham, the special investigator, to look into all of this.
The attorney general said he arrived at Justice with questions for which he expected answers. So far, he said, the facts don’t add up.
“I had a lot of questions about what was going on,” he said. “I assumed I’d get answers when I went in, and I have not gotten answers that are, well, satisfactory, and in fact probably have more questions, and that some of the facts that I’ve learned don’t hang together with the official explanations of what happened.”
He didn’t single out any particular agency. The FBI has fought congressional Republicans over access to a number of documents.
“The fact that today people just seem to brush aside the idea that it is OK to, you know, to engage in these activities against a political campaign is stunning to me, especially when the media doesn’t seem to think that it’s worth looking into,” Mr. Barr said. “They’re supposed to be the watchdogs of, you know, our civil liberties.”
After the broadcast, Mr. Comey tweeted, “Bill Barr on CBS offers no facts. An AG should not be echoing conspiracy theories. He should gather facts and show them. That is what Justice is about.”
© Copyright (c) 2019 News World Communications, Inc.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.