The FBI was aware CNN was looking for a reason to publish information about the so-called “Steele Dossier” just before then-Director James Comey briefed President-elect Trump in early 2017, according to a Senate investigative committee.
That January briefing was done at the urging of then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and CNN soon published a story once it knew the president had been briefed on the salacious and largely unverified dossier, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson said in a letter to the FBI this week.
Mr. Johnson demanded the FBI come clean about the decision-making at the time, which Mr. Trump’s defenders say appears to have been an attempt to get the salacious information out into the media.
“According to documents received by the committee, the FBI appeared to have had awareness in January 2017 that media outlets had information about the Steele Dossier,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “It appears that then-FBI Director James Comey briefed then-President-elect Trump about this information, at the request of then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.”
He cited an FBI email that said CNN used that briefing as the “trigger” to publish its story.
The dossier was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, who was being paid by a firm hired by Democrats to dig up dirt on Mr. Trump. The dossier contains allegations of collusion and salacious stories about Mr. Trump, which he has denied and which have largely gone unverified. Mr. Steele has since said he cannot vouch for much of what he wrote.
But the dossier and Mr. Steele played a major role in shaping the narrative around Mr. Trump in the transition and early days of his presidency, coloring his relationship with Mr. Comey, whose first meeting with the incoming president involved telling him the Russians claimed to have evidence Mr. Trump had engaged in particular sexual practices with prostitutes.
Mr. Comey began to memorialize his interactions with the president after that meeting, sending an email to fellow FBI leaders saying that the impetus for the talk came from Mr. Clapper, and that he was aware CNN was “looking for a news hook.”
For his part Mr. Clapper denies having been CNN’s source for the dossier. He told The Washington Post he didn’t speak with CNN anchor Jake Tapper until May 2017, months after the dossier story, at which point Mr. Clapper was being paid to be a contributor to CNN.
He also denied to The Post that he directed Mr. Comey to brief the president in order to create a hook for reporting.
“It did not occur to me,” he told the paper’s Fact Checker column, which was looking into House intelligence committee claims to the contrary.
Many news organizations say they had the dossier but held off on running with it because the information wasn’t verified. CNN used the briefing of Mr. Trump to decide it was newsworthy even without verification.
Soon thereafter BuzzFeed published the entire dossier contents, along with a note that the organization hadn’t verified the information and was aware it had “errors.”
The dossier and the FBI’s handling of it continue to roil Washington, and to snare a number of high-level Obama officials who were part of the decision-making.
Mr. Johnson’s letter says Mr. Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, was aware that CNN was going ahead with the story two days before it was published, telling fellow officials the “flood is coming” and that the “trigger” was the decision to brief the president.
Mr. McCabe also alerted then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and her top assistant, Matthew Axelrod, of the impending CNN story, “as expected.”
Mr. McCabe has been fired for lying to Mr. Comey, FBI agents and the inspector general. Ms. Yates was ousted as acting attorney general after refusing to defend the president’s travel ban policy. Mr. Axelrod followed her out the door.
The inspector general has reported Mr. Axelrod was involved in a highly questionable interaction with Mr. McCabe in August 2016, when Mr. McCabe said it appeared Mr. Axelrod was trying to squelch an investigation into the Clinton Foundation in the heat of the presidential election.
Both Mr. Axelrod and Ms. Yates have ducked questions from The Washington Times about that incident.
Both have, however, criticized Mr. Trump. Ms. Yates says he has mounted an attack on America’s democratic institutions.
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this story.