ROBERT MANNE. The Muscovian candidate? Donald Trump and Russia.Feb 1, 2017
This article was first published by The Monthly in December 2016.
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.
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. Neither 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. Already 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 Fire Eye, 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 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 November 8. 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 January 6 2017 after the presidential election, 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. Assange frequently argued that non-disclosure of sources was at the heart of the WikiLeaks’ philosophy. Simultaneously, however, he hinted (for the first time on August 9 2016 in an interview on Dutch television) that his source was a young Democratic Party insider, Seth Rich, who was murdered in Washington on July 10 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, 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 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 during secret liaisons in Washington from a disaffected Democratic Party insider. 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 “1,000%” 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 United States 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 October 10 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” (October 10); “WikiLeaks is amazing” (October 11); “We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks” (October 20); “We love WikiLeaks” (October 21). 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 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, who 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, Glenn Simpson’s 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 United States. 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 onto 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 October 31 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 November 18 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 January 6 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-First World War 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 80/2016; the last 166/2016. All the memos (except one, 2016/95) are dated. Dates range between June 20 2016 and 13 December 2016. Clearly Orbis Business Intelligence, or perhaps Christopher Steele, produced eighty-six reports between June 20 and December 13. Of these fifteen concern Donald Trump and Russia.
It has been reported that Steele has not visited Russia for twenty 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, who 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 fifteen sources and no more than twenty. One important source does not live in Russia but in the United States. 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 fifteen 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 June 20 2016 (2016/80) 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 which, 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 which 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 July 19 (2016/94) Steele reported a secret meeting in July between one of Trump’s foreign policy advisors, Carter Page 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 (2016/95) 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 United States, 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 July 30 (2016/97) Steele reported to Fusion further information supplied by American-based Russian. He claimed that the Trump team was anxious about the political fall-out 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 cooperation “over several years” the compromising material the Russians held would not be used against him.
On August 5 (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 America 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 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 August 10 (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 United States 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 DIA 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 August 22 (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, Yanukovytch following the resignation of Paul Manafort as Trump’s campaign manager. Yanukovytch 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 Yanukovytch 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 September 14 (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 October12 (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 July 7 or 8. 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 December 16 (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 was 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 fifteen and twenty 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 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 twenty-five 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 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 January 13 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 July 18 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 July 27 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 kick-backs Paul Manofort had received from the pro-Russian Ukrainian former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovytch, 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 January 14 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 one hundred and fifty occasions and praise 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 July 27 Trump had jokingly invited Russia to hack Hillary’s 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 Yanukovytch came to light. The dossier described a Trump foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, as by 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 March 21 2016, in an interview with Washington Post, Trump had named him as a foreign policy adviser. Following the presidential election, Trump appointed General Mike Lynch as his National Security Adviser. In the dossier, Lynch was described as a valued visitor to Russia. In late 2015, it has been reported, Lynch 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 United States, Sergey Kislyak, according to reports on several occasions. 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 October 15, according to a BBC report, the FISA 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 sub poena 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.
23 January 2017
Since the original publication of this piece four 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 January 25 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 January 30 with the President of Russia, which if realised might constitute a sharp reversal of previous US Russian policy.
On January 27, 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 October 4 and November 8, 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; 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 between them an additional 36 mentions. 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 October 12 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, January 27, 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.
Finally (so far) on January 27, The Telegraph of London reported that the ex-KGB chief, Oleg Erovinkin, was found dead in Moscow on December 26 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 him and Vladimir Putin. It is widely believed that he was the source for the information in the Steele dossier concerning the July 7 or July 8 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.
January 31 2017
Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of The Petrov Affair: Politics and Espionage (Text Publishing) and The Cypherpunk Revolutionary: On Julian Assange (Black Inc.) His most recent book is The Mind of the Islamic State (Black Inc.).