- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2019

Evidence suggests that the discredited, Democratic Party-financed dossier landed at FBI headquarters weeks before the bureau officially started the Trump-Russia investigation on July 31, 2016.

The Justice Department’s John Durham has been investigating the central question of how the Trump-Russia probe began.

Dossier timing is one of Mr. Durham’s key concerns. The FBI hierarchy has said it officially started investigating Trump campaign aides free of any dossier presence.

An examination of available testimony by The Washington Times shows evidence to the contrary. Former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele’s stunning but discredited allegations of a wide and deep Trump-Kremlin conspiracy were available to FBI decision-makers beforehand, the evidence suggests.

Former FBI agent Peter Strzok, who began the counterintelligence investigation, has acknowledged relying on the dossier. When asked by Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, at a June 2018 closed session about when he first obtained dossier allegations, Mr. Strzok refused to say.

Former FBI Director James B. Comey has provided a precise timeline while promoting his memoir, “A Higher Loyalty.” He categorically ruled out the presence of dossier information at FBI headquarters before July 31, the day campaign adviser George Papadopoulos became a target.

“The information that triggered it was the Papadopoulos information that came in late July,” Mr. Comey said. “The FBI didn’t get any information that’s part of the so-called Steele dossier, as I understand it, until after that. And so the investigation was triggered entirely separately from the Steele dossier.”

James A. Baker, former FBI general counsel, was asked by House investigators last year whether the allegation that started the investigation on July 31 had anything to do with the dossier.

“Based on the information that I have seen in the public domain, I think I can answer it. And I think the answer is it did not have to do with the dossier,” he testified.

‘Trying to fool the FBI’

The dossier’s role is one of the questions Attorney General William P. Barr wanted answered when he chose Mr. Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, as a special investigator. His mission is to determine the probe’s origins and decision points.

Mr. Barr has chastised Mr. Strzok for his text messages that showed a deep bias against Mr. Trump. The attorney general has questioned the 2016 FBI decision to use informants for what he called a “peripheral player” — Papadopoulos.

There is evidence that dossier material arrived before July 31.

⦁ Mr. Steele beseeched Rome-based FBI agent Michael J. Gaeta to visit London in early July 2016 to hear his sensational allegations against candidate Trump. Mr. Gaeta won trip approval from Victoria Nuland, who was assistant secretary of state.

Mr. Gaeta arrived at Mr. Steele’s Orbis Business Intelligence office in London on July 5 and was greeted with horror stories. Mr. Steele handed him dossier pages. FBI practice would be for Mr. Gaeta to fill out a Form 302 containing Mr. Steele’s charges and circulate it to headquarters in Washington.

⦁ That same month, Ms. Nuland has said, she was given several dossier pages. She said she instructed staff to give the documents to the FBI.

“The dossier, he passed two to four pages of short points of what he was finding, and our immediate reaction to that was, this is not in our purview,” Ms. Nuland said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “This needs to go to the FBI if there is any concern here that one candidate or the election as a whole might be influenced by the Russian Federation. That’s something for the FBI to investigate. And that was our reaction when we saw this. It’s not our — we can’t evaluate this.”

⦁ In testimony to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Glenn R. Simpson, co-founder of opposition research firm Fusion GPS, said he gave Mr. Steele permission in early July to start talking to the FBI. Mr. Simpson was a paid Clinton campaign agent and handled Mr. Steele.

“And by approximately early July, like 1st or 2nd, I had given my assent to him doing it as a professional obligation or a citizenship obligation. And then that’s when he did it, sometime around the Fourth of July,” Mr. Simpson testified.

Question: “So in early July, is it fair to say in early July that you knew that Mr. Steele had taken some information to the FBI?”

Answer: “I think he said he was going to, and then later he told me he did.”

A House Republican staffer told The Washington Times: “We have genuine concern Steele and Simpson were trying to fool the FBI into investigating Trump much earlier than the public testimony suggests. This is one of the big questions John Durham is looking into.”

After a nearly two-year investigation into President Trump and colleagues, special counsel Robert Mueller in March said he didn’t find a Trump-Russia election conspiracy. His 448-page report, when compared with the dossier, eviscerates Mr. Steele’s conspiracy allegations, of which a Washington Times analysis found to have totaled 13.

Mr. Strzok could have settled the question of when dossier material first reached his counterintelligence desk when he testified in a closed-door session before a House task force last year. But he declined to answer, citing the Mueller investigation that was still open.

“When did you first read it?” Mr. Jordan asked.

“Again, that gets into a level of investigative detail about an ongoing investigation that I don’t think the FBI or the special counsel want me to answer,” Mr. Strzok said. “I am happy to answer it, but I defer to what I think the appropriate FBI equities are in this regard.”

Mr. Strzok became famous with the disclosure of his strident text exchanges with his then-lover, FBI lawyer Lisa Page. Both expressed deep dislike for Mr. Trump during the investigation.

What is missing so far in the investigation of the dossier is a gauge of how Mr. Steele influenced FBI decision-makers and their attitudes toward Mr. Trump and his aides. Mr. Steele depicted them as traitors and felons conspiring with Kremlin operatives to hack Democratic computers and conduct information warfare.

Again, Mr. Mueller didn’t find this.

Conspiracy allegations

Although Mr. Strzok officially began the investigation on July 31, events indicate it started earlier, perhaps as a preliminary inquiry.

Stefan Halper, a Cambridge University professor and foreign policy figure in Washington, was an FBI Trump-Russia informant. His graduate assistant reached out to Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, in late June 2016 and invited him to a security conference, the Daily Caller reported. Mr. Halper also touched base with campaign adviser Sam Clovis in mid-July.

Mr. Steele began work for the Democrats, through Fusion GPS, in mid-June.

His first dossier memo, one of 17 completed in December 2016, is dated June 20. Mr. Steele’s Kremlin intelligence operatives were his sources. Mr. Steele said Mr. Trump was a Moscow informant and was receiving regular dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Mueller, assigned to find “any links” between Trump associates and the Kremlin, found no such relationship.

Mr. Steele’s July 19 memo alleged a Trump-Russia “extensive conspiracy.” It said that during Mr. Page’s public speaking engagement in Moscow he had discussed bribes for sanctions relief.

The Mueller report confirmed none of this and, in fact, found no conspiracy. No Trump campaign adviser was charged with any election conspiracy.

It is documented publicly that the FBI received dossier allegations in August 2016, shortly after the official investigation started.

The key link was Bruce Ohr, then an associate deputy attorney general at the Justice Department. Mr. Ohr testified that he met with Mr. Steele in Washington on July 30, 2016, talked with him via social media and ferried the information directly to FBI headquarters. His first stop was then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Ms. Page in August.

Mr. McCabe launched a counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Trump in May 2017, shortly after the president fired Mr. Comey.

How the dossier’s unfounded allegations of a Trump-Kremlin relationship influenced that decision is not known publicly. In his memoir “The Threat,” Mr. McCabe avoided any dossier discussion to include his role.

He has suggested that Mr. Trump was a Russian agent — a supposed relationship not found by Mr. Mueller.

The FBI had an immediate interest in hearing Mr. Steele, who had worked as an informant on soccer scandals.

Agents cited the dossier as the primary piece of evidence to obtain at least one yearlong wiretap on Carter Page. Mr. Comey briefed President Obama on the dossier and later President-elect Trump.

FBI agents met with Mr. Steele a second time in Rome and agreed to pay him $50,000 to keep investigating Mr. Trump. The FBI eventually assigned a case agent to Mr. Steele in 2017 for continuous flow of anti-Trump information.

By that time, the Trump investigation was well underway. Australia notified the FBI in mid-July that Papadopoulos told one of its diplomats that he heard Moscow may own thousands of Mrs. Clinton’s emails. The Australian tip triggered Mr. Strzok to open an investigation.

The answer to exactly when Mr. Strzok and his unit first received dossier material is likely contained in a secret 113-page transcript. It is an interview by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence with Mr. Gaeta, the agent who met Mr. Steele in London on July 5.

The transcript of that hearing is now in the intelligence community’s hands. Agencies are determining how many of Mr. Gaeta’s words can be released to the public.

In the bestselling book “Russian Roulette,” reporters Michael Isikoff and David Corn write that Mr. Gaeta, after hearing Mr. Steele on July 5 recite Mr. Trump’s crimes, told the former spy, “I have to report this to headquarters.”

Tom Fitton, who heads the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, has acquired FBI-Russia documents through open documents lawsuits.

“They are giving us nothing on Gaeta. Unusually secretive on him and the whole cabal,” Mr. Fitton told The Times.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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