Christopher Steele, the former British spy who fueled an ongoing investigation into President Trump’s administration, was a lot more confident of his charges when he wrote his now-notorious 2016 dossier than he is today in defending it in a libel lawsuit.
While Mr. Steele stated matter-of-factly in his dossier that collusion between Mr. Trump and the Russian government took place, he called it only “possible” months later in court filings. While he confidently referred to “trusted” sources inside the Kremlin, in court he referred to the dossier’s “limited intelligence.”
In recent weeks, the dossier of opposition research has taken on added importance in the debate over the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into suspected Russia coordination and whether it is biased against Trump people. Congressional Republicans are demanding that the FBI explain how the deeply contested, Democrat-financed document took on such importance in a major government investigation.
Mr. Steele wrote 35 pages of memos in which he said Trump aides were part of a vast conspiracy with Moscow to interfere in the election against Hillary Clinton. The unverified charges were spread by Fusion GPS, the Washington-based political research firm that first commissioned the report. Mr. Steele bragged to Mother Jones magazine that he started the Mueller investigation by convincing FBI agents that summer about the credibility of his dossier.
It was later revealed that the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton helped fund the dossier, meaning that in essence her paid agent was spreading unsubstantiated charges to get to the FBI to investigate her opponent, critics say.
Now that Mr. Steele must defend those charges in a London courtroom, his confidence level has shifted down several notches.
In the dossier, he stated without reservation that an “extensive conspiracy between Trump’s campaign team and the Kremlin” existed.
He wrote that Mr. Trump, as a hotel builder and entrepreneur, engaged in an eight-year partnership with Russian intelligence dating back long before his presidential campaign, during which both sides traded information. One memo also claimed that the Kremlin had compiled enough financial and personal information on Mr. Trump that it could blackmail the Republican nominee.
He wrote that Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, and a campaign volunteer, Carter Page, in tandem orchestrated the campaign with Moscow to meddle in the race. He also maintained that Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s attorney, traveled to Prague in August 2016 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal staff and orchestrate a cover-up of the campaign’s hacking conspiracy.
All of those charges have been denied, and none has been confirmed publicly by a press leak or congressional inquiry.
In court filings this year, Mr. Steele doesn’t sound as confident as his dossier.
He answered questions through his attorney in a libel complaint brought by a Russian entrepreneur, Aleksej Gubarev. Mr. Steele has accused Mr. Gubarev of being pressured by Russian’s FSB intelligence service to take part in hacking against the Democratic Party.
In one answer, Mr. Steele refers to the intelligence he gathered as “limited.” On the charge of collusion by Mr. Trump and his campaign advisers, he now says there was only “possible coordination.”
His answer was to a question from Mr. Gubarev’s legal team on the lengths he took to brief American reporters as the fall campaign was in full swing.
Mr. Steele answered, “The briefings involved the disclosure of limited intelligence regarding indications of Russian interference in the U.S. election process and the possible coordination of members of the Trump’s campaign team and Russian government officials.”
At the request of Fusion GPS, the investigative firm hired by Democrats to handle and pay Mr. Steele, the former spy said he briefed The New York Times, The Washington Post, Yahoo News, The New Yorker and CNN in person. He later briefed Mother Jones magazine via Skype.
In another indication that Mr. Steele was no longer wholeheartedly vouching for his own findings, he said he told journalists that they may not quote his research. He “understood that the information provided might be used for the purpose of further research, but would not be published or attributed,” he said through his attorney.
Mr. Steele also acknowledged that his final December memo, the only one that dealt with Mr. Gubarev, contained information he never vetted.
“The contents of the December memorandum did not represent (and did not purport to represent) verified facts, but were raw intelligence which had identified a range of allegations that warranted investigation given their potential national security implications,” he wrote.
He added, “Such intelligence was not actively sought; it was merely received.”
The unverified “raw intelligence” included Mr. Cohen reported trip to Prague.
BuzzFeed posted the complete dossier on Jan. 10 as Mr. Trump was about to assume the presidency. Mr. Gubarev is suing the online news site for libel in federal court in Florida and wants to know who supplied the document to BuzzFeed.
Mr. Steele’s libel defense is not truth. He argues that he warned Fusion and reporters against making his memos public and never authorized their disclosure.
Mr. Steele’s handiwork got only a qualified endorsement from the ex-head of MI6, the British intelligence service where Mr. Steele once worked before founding his private investigating firm.
“I think that there is probably some credibility to the content,” Richard Dearlove told the BBC’s “Newsnight” program on Tuesday.
In Washington, Republicans have pressed the FBI to disclose how it relied on an unproven document to investigate Mr. Trump and possibly to obtain surveillance warrants. In public, the FBI and Justice Department have declined to answer such questions.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has yet to release information it obtained from the FBI under threat of holding the bureau in contempt of Congress. Members asked Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe about it on Tuesday during seven hours of closed-door testimony.