One year ago, BuzzFeed took the momentous step of posting an unsubstantiated, 35-page scandal sheet against then-President-elect Trump — and Washington hasn’t been the same since.
The news website’s post, which oddly came with a disclaimer, immediately took on the name “dossier.” Sometimes it was the “Trump dossier” or the “Russia–Trump dossier” or the “Steele dossier,” after its author, former British spy Christopher Steele.
A Hillary Clinton campaign opposition research document whose contents had been circulated privately among Democrats and reporters during the campaign suddenly invaded the world’s consciousness. Its raw, explosive tales created an open season on Donald Trump — just 12 days before he took office — that would last for months.
“It’s all fake news,” he said. “It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen.”
Also at Trump Tower, his lawyer, Michael Cohen, learned from the dossier that he, Mr. Cohen, had made a secret trip to Prague in August 2016 to meet aides of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The plot: Making payoffs to cover up Russian hacking of Democratic Party computers.
Mr. Cohen has never been to Prague and has showed his passport to prove it.
Carter Page, a onetime Trump campaign volunteer adviser who had traveled to Moscow in July to give a public speech, learned from the dossier that he, Mr. Page, and former campaign manager Paul Manafort had organized the Democratic Party computer hack with Russian intelligence.
Mr. Page said he does not know and has never spoken to Mr. Manafort, and knew nothing about the hack until it hit the news.
“BuzzFeed’s publication of the discredited Steele dossier will go down in history as a driving force in the crime of the century,” said J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman and Trump campaign national security adviser. “That fraudulent political hit job passed off as legitimate intelligence reports set in motion today’s stealth coup against the president, plus widespread defamation of Trump associates. Congress needs to hold people accountable for the Trump–Russia hoax, to include within their own ranks.”
The dossier does not mention Mr. Gordon. But because he chatted twice with the Russia ambassador at the Republican National Convention, he has found himself testifying to investigators.
With the inauguration out of the way, Democrats plotted how to leverage the dossier into a Trump downfall.
The key moves already had been made behind the scenes, a Republican congressional source told The Washington Times. Opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which paid Mr. Steele with Clinton campaign money, made sure that major liberal outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post were briefed. Meanwhile, Mr. Steeleslipped the dossier into the FBI’s inbox.
“BuzzFeed’s publication obviously broke the dam on media coverage of the dossier, which hardly any outlets wanted to touch at that point because they couldn’t verify anything in it,” said a Republican congressional source.
“But even if it wasn’t for BuzzFeed, the reports that the FBI was looking into the dossier’s allegations, and that these allegations were briefed to the president, clearly would have provided journalists with the cover they wanted to report on the dossier without verifying anything first,” the source said. “Fusion GPS and Steele understood that FBI interaction with the dossier would make it a reportable story even if the dossier was garbage, so they made sure the FBI had the dossier and that the media knew about it.”
The Trump Organization
Relying on Kremlin sources feeding gossip through his intermediaries, Mr. Steele told of an “extensive conspiracy between Trump’s campaign team and the Kremlin.” In a later book about his investigation, he described the so-called conspiracy as “massive.”
Three congressional committees investigating his charges for nearly a year have not yet discovered this “extensive conspiracy.”
In Washington, BuzzFeed’s brash posting had put the document in the hands of Democrats and the anti-Trumppress.
When the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence opened a hearing in March, Democratic members, led by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, read from it copiously, giving it the imprimatur of truth. They tried to get two witnesses, then-FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency chief Adm. Mike Rogers, to confirm the dossier’s most sensation charges. The two did not.
In London, Mr. Steele went into hiding the day the dossier debuted. But he became a hero, not only to Democrats but also to anti-Trump brigades on social media. They declared the dossier 100 percent accurate.
Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat and an enthusiastic impeachment advocate, claimed investigators already had substantiated the prostitute story.
“We already know that the part about the coverage that they have on him with sex actions is supposed to be true,” Ms. Waters told MSNBC. “They have said that that’s absolutely true. Some other things they kind of allude to.”
The dossier topic came up at other congressional hearings.
When BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith released the pages, he said in a memo, “There is serious reason to doubt the allegations. We have been chasing specific claims in this document for weeks, and will continue to.”
As the dossier matured, it began to gain credence in some reporting. CNN has said that parts of the conspiracy charges are true, though there has been no who, when or where. Other news sites have reported the same without details.
One news site gave the dossier credit for reporting facts already known, such as that the Trump Organization had tried sporadically to build a hotel or skyscraper in Russia over three decades.
An internet search and Mr. Trump’s writings show that he attempted only a handful of construction deals dating back to the 1980s. None was consummated. There are no Trump hotels or condo buildings in Russia. The last possible deal came in 2015. The Trump Organization looked at erecting a Moscow skyscraper, but developers never reached a final contract and it was abandoned in January 2016.
His one completed deal: He and co-owner NBC staged the Miss Universe Pageant near Moscow in 2013. During that era, the Obama administration had urged companies to do business in Russia, where nearly 3,000 U.S. firms operate today.
For an organization that for decades has built and branded buildings all over the world, Trump aides say, this is a scant history of Trump dealings in Russia. They say it is hardly the picture of someone in bed with oligarchs and is something Mr. Steele could find with basic open research.
As the dossier’s core charge of a massive Trump–Russia conspiracy fell off track, Republicans last fall started focusing on the FBI and its alliance with Mr. Steele. He first briefed agents in early July 2016, he has said, and later met with a team of agents in Rome the following September.
Today, the FBI-dossier saga could be one of the bureau’s biggest scandals.
“The dossier had an enormous impact because it’s been part of the Democrat campaign to link Trump to Russian collusion in the election, and I think all of that is negative,” John R. Bolton, the top U.N. diplomat in the George W. Bush administration, told The Washington Times. “But I think getting to the bottom of it — why the dossier exists, who paid for it, whether anything in it is verifiable, what role did it play in any actions by the FBI — really continue to raise incredibly significant questions that we still don’t have answers to.”
Enter Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Wielding his subpoena power, Mr. Nunes began demanding Justice Department documents. He wanted to know the lengths to which the nation’s top law enforcement agency used Democratic opposition research — the dossier — to target and surveil Trump people.
The FBI initially turned over a pile of 302s, which are summaries of witness interviews, that related to the dossier. This week, under Mr. Nunes’ charges of a cover-up and obstruction, the FBI provided even more sensitive materials.
“If people really believe that the FBI did not know who paid for that dossier, I’ve got a bridge to sell you,” Mr. Nunes told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. “There is no possible way the FBI did not know who paid for that dossier.”
Another question is whether the FBI relied on the dossier in any way to persuade judges to issue surveillance warrants.
One possible target is Mr. Page. He learned in the news media that the FBI started tapping his phones last summer. Mr. Steele accused Mr. Page of several crimes, all of which the former volunteer says are fiction. He has sued Yahoo News for libel for repeating them.
“The ‘dodgy dossier’ project began as a dishonest propaganda campaign before the election by an illicit public-private partnership, then culminated with the full revelation of that deceitful document after the election and the fake media firestorm it has created throughout the 12 months since,” Mr. Page told The Times. “This entire history has been about self-serving politicians, consultants and sponsors advancing their own personal interests by destroying candidate Trump, his campaign and the new administration.”
Meanwhile, two people and a group of Russian bankers accused in the dossier have filed libel lawsuits against BuzzFeed, Mr. Steele, Fusion and Yahoo News.