An Associated Press review finds that investigations and criminal cases are revealing some truth in a set of controversial memos accusing the Trump campaign of working with the Russian government. But libel complaints argue otherwise, and whether there was collusion remains an open question.
No one has painted a more vivid or lurid portrait of a purported alliance between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia than a quiet, nondescript former British spy named Christopher Steele.
Steele’s once-confidential campaign memos were published just before Trump’s inauguration, unleashing tales of cavorting prostitutes and conniving campaign aides on secret sorties with agents of the Kremlin.
Ever since, the credibility of these Democratic-funded memos – the so-called Steele dossier – has remained the subject of both official investigation and political sniping.
In the 18 months since the dossier’s release, government investigations and reports, criminal cases and authoritative news articles have begun to resolve at least some of the questions surrounding the memos.
As a whole, the Steele dossier now appears to be a murky mixture of authentic revelations and repurposed history, likely interspersed with snippets of fiction or disinformation, an AP review finds.
Mixing fact and fiction?
At the vortex of all the arguments is Steele, often described as a buttoned-down, earnest defender of Western interests, who spied on Russia for the British government and later founded a business intelligence firm built on his network of confidential informants.
Steele’s 17 memos laid out an extraordinarily detailed narrative of how the Russian government supposedly collaborated with the Trump campaign in an elaborate operation to tilt the 2016 presidential race in his favor.
Some of the dossier’s broad threads have now been independently corroborated. U.S. intelligence agencies and the special counsel’s investigation into Russian election interference did eventually find that Kremlin-linked operatives ran an elaborate operation to promote Trump and hurt Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, as the dossier says in its main narrative.
The dossier first told of a clandestine partnership between the Trump campaign and Russian officials in a memo dated June 2016, the month before the FBI began investigating that very possibility.
Steele laid out details of a secret Moscow meeting between the Russians and Trump adviser Carter Page months before FBI suspicions about Page and news reports about just such a meeting forced him to leave the campaign.
The dossier’s portrait of a cooperative campaign also has been bolstered by developments it did not specifically foretell: Legal cases and authoritative reporting have exposed Trump’s son Donald Jr. and another aide as receptive to Russian overtures to supply dirt on Clinton.
However, the dossier makes other sensational, unverified claims. It reports that Trump provided intelligence to the Kremlin on wealthy Russians in the U.S. The Russian government, in return, was said to supply Trump with secrets about his political rivals while collecting compromising information on him, including recording him with prostitutes who supposedly urinated on a bed in a Moscow hotel.
It remains unclear if the Trump campaign, in the end, secretly acquired Russian information, and if so, whether Trump himself was aware and involved.
For his part, Trump has dismissed the memos as “fake news” and turned “no collusion” into the Twitter tagline of his presidency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied his government meddled in the election.
Four wealthy Russians take more specific exception to the dossier: They say they were libeled.
In four separate lawsuits filed as recently as April, the Russians sued Steele and BuzzFeed, the online news outlet that published the memos in January 2017. Three of the Russians – all owners of a Moscow-based financial-industrial conglomerate called Alfa Group – also have sued Fusion GPS, the research company that enlisted Steele under a contract with a law firm connected to the Democrats.
Russian tech entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev and the Alfa Group’s owners – Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan – all say they had nothing to do with the events described in the dossier. In cases playing out in state, federal and British courts, they say they took unfair hits to their reputations.
The four men are named in two separate Steele memos, both of which are seemingly out of alignment with the rest of the dossier, as their legal teams have stressed in court filings.
Their questionable relevance raises the possibility that they were motivated by someone with a different agenda who perhaps fed false information to the former spy. Indeed, Gubarev’s lawyer has repeatedly suggested his client might have been framed by a competitor or someone looking for a scapegoat in the computer business.
In the Alfa Group memo, the billionaire owners were said to perform unspecified political favors for Putin. Fridman and Aven allegedly sent “large amounts of illicit cash” to Putin in the 1990s when he was still a city official in St. Petersburg.
The Gubarev memo said his business “had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data” in an operation against Democratic Party leaders. He was purported to have been recruited under duress by Russian security agents.
Any actions ascribed to the four Russians have never been independently confirmed by official investigations or authoritative news reports.
The Alfa Group owners do have ties to the Kremlin. Aven is a former Russian foreign trade minister, and Fridman has been said to be close to Putin. Like Fridman, Khan is Ukrainian-born and one of the original founders of the Alfa Group. However, their financial and industrial empire has also waged bare-fisted battles with other powerful Russian interests, leaving adversaries who might want to take them down.
Gubarev, who lives in Cyprus, also is a possible target for scapegoating as the owner of a Luxembourg-based digital services business with thousands of customers, subsidiaries around the world, and business relationships in Russia, the U.S. and elsewhere.
Unlike the other memos, Steele’s Alfa Group write-up concentrates on internal Russian affairs, with no direct connection to the U.S. election. The only tie is an unsupported inference in the memo’s heading that it somehow involves the topic of “Russia/US Presidential Election.”
“Mr. Fridman, Mr. Aven and Mr. Khan have absolutely nothing to do, in any way, with the issue that is the theme of the dossier – alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign,” the trio’s lawyer, Alan Lewis, said in an interview.
Oddly, the memo about Gubarev is dated five weeks after the election.
“Why the heck did he even bother to continue writing this stuff?” Gubarev’s lawyer, Valentin Gurvits, asked in an interview.
Steele has said the Gubarev memo came from unsolicited details that continued to trickle in after Trump’s election, and his lawyers have acknowledged that the memo “needed to be analyzed and further investigated/verified.”
BuzzFeed has issued an apology for publishing Gubarev’s name and redacted it in response to his complaints.
Representatives for both Steele and Fusion GPS chief executive Glenn Simpson declined to comment for this story.
In a filing in the Alfa Group owners’ lawsuit, Steele’s lawyers say that memo “came from a network of vetted sources known to Mr. Steele … and resources developed over a lifetime of Russian intelligence work in public and private service.”
However, testifying to Congress, Simpson quoted Steele as saying that any intelligence, especially from Russia, is bound to carry intentional disinformation, but that Steele believes his dossier is “largely not disinformation.”
Both men deny giving the documents to BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed’s legal arguments don’t rely primarily on the truth of the memos. Instead, they cast the dossier as something that was under review by multiple layers of government and thus subject to news coverage as an official document, whether true or not. Judges have decided to allow that argument.
BuzzFeed News spokesman Matt Mittenthal said “the fact that these allegations were being taken seriously at the highest levels of government was in itself a real story here.”
BuzzFeed’s lawyers have acknowledged that Gubarev’s involvement could have been tangential, simply “turning a blind eye” to wrongdoing by websites he hosted.
Even before the Steele dossier, a 2014 lawsuit filed against Gubarev’s company in Florida opened a window on how readily associates can become adversaries in the post-Soviet business world.
The suit, dismissed last year, was filed by Depicto Commercial Ltd., a little-known company registered in the British Virgin Islands. The company contended that it lent $627,000 to Gubarev’s business and that he failed to repay as agreed; Gubarev’s side contended it repaid what was owed.
The lawsuit identifies Depicto Commercial’s principal figure as Victor Lukashenko, a Belarusian digital services businessman.
Lukashenko spent time in prison in 2010-2012 in that former Soviet republic, according to his lawyer, Rolandas Tilindis. He said Lukashenko, who is now in hiding, was accused of improperly exchanging cryptocurrency for real money as a service to customers, not realizing the currency was the product of fraud.
Gurvitz, Gubarev’s lawyer, said his client “had absolutely no relationship” with Lukashenko beyond the loan.
The Depicto Commercial lawsuit gives little detail about that company. However, a company with that name has been identified in previously leaked corporate documents from the Bahamas, with a director named Emilios Hadjivangeli. Hadjivangeli runs a corporate services business in Cyprus, Gubarev’s home and a haven for well-to-do Russians and their money.
Hadjivangeli has been listed as an official for hundreds of companies. Many appear to be so-called shell companies, where wealthy Russians and others often list intermediary strawmen as executives to hide the actual ownership.
Hadjivangeli did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Gurvitz said that his client has never heard of Hadjivangeli and that there is no reason to believe that he or Lukashenko was involved in any way with the Steele dossier.
Local journalism is essential.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.