For aficionados of the 2016 Trump-Russia dossier, its creator’s defamation trial in London was full of twists and turns, though the plot is relatively simple:
• Russian technology CEO Aleksej Gubarev is suing former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele for libel. The last of the dossier’s 17 memos, all financed by the Democratic Party, said Mr. Gubarev hacked into 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s computers under pressure from Moscow intelligence. He immediately denied the claim. His lawyer, Andrew Caldecott, argued in court that because Mr. Steele orchestrated press coverage on his dossier in Washington (he made three trips), he is to blame.
• Mr. Steele’s defense is that BuzzFeed published the December 2016 memo, along with the entire dossier, without his knowledge. His lawyer, Gavin Millar, blames David J. Kramer, an associate of the late Sen. John McCain. During the winter holidays, Mr. Kramer met with BuzzFeed reporter Ken Bensinger, who photographed each page of the dossier after Mr. Kramer had left the room. The dossier was posted on Jan. 10, 2017, prompting Mr. Steele into hiding and disrupting Donald Trump’s transition and presidency.
That was the plot during the July 20-24 trial. Now Justice Mark Warby, a judge of the High Court of England and Wales, must issue an ending.
Mr. Millar quickly threw Mr. Kramer under the bus, saying McCain’s associate lied to Mr. Steele when he told him that he didn’t know how the dossier ended up on BuzzFeed’s website. Mr. Millar also disputed Mr. Kramer’s written testimony that Mr. Steele had urged him to meet with reporters in Washington.
“Now, it’s true there are a couple of self-serving disputed assertions about Mr. Steele in the Kramer question-and-answers in the U.S., viz that Mr. Steele asked them to meet Carl Bernstein and Mr. Steele knew he had given a copy of the pre-election memorandum to The Washington Post,” Mr. Millar said, according to a court transcript provided to The Washington Times.
“As I say, they are self-serving, they are hotly disputed assertions and we invite the court to accept what would be Mr. Steele’s evidence of fact, denying that he was ever told this by Mr. Kramer, and make the appropriate secondary finding of fact, and we don’t imagine the court will have any difficulty doing so, given Mr. Kramer’s admitted/apparent propensity to lie and dissemble, his motives to cover himself, the absence of any evidence whatsoever from him in these proceedings — as I say he is not being called as a witness — and the inherent probability of all this. There endeth the diversion into the world of Mr. Kramer.”
As background, Mr. Steele had messaged a copy of the dossier to his American handler, Fusion GPS and its co-founder, Glenn Simpson. The purpose: to broaden the dossier’s political reach by providing it to McCain, a Republican Trump detractor who could prompt investigations.
McCain hand-delivered the dossier on Dec. 9 to FBI Director James B. Comey, who already possessed most its memos via Mr. Steele’s emissary, Justice Department official Bruce Ohr. (The dossier leveled about a dozen felony allegations against President Trump and his aides, none of which proved true.)
Mr. Millar also targeted then-BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, who is now The New York Times’ watchdog news media critic.
“This raises a further issue, a further stage down the line in the chain of causation which I’ve not really even touched on in the analysis so far, namely that what happened as a matter of fact after Bensinger imaged the pages, assuming that’s what happened, and the editor of BuzzFeed sitting in his room somewhere deciding what to publish the next day, got his hands on a copy of the memo,” Mr. Millar said.
“How do you, how should you, as a court looking at this now, characterize Mr. Smith’s startling but conscious decision to place the 17 memos online, publishing them to the world at large in the form that he did, effectively unredacted. This, of course, was what we lawyers call the proximate cause of the harm complained of in this litigation.”
As background, Mr. Gubarev’s American lawyers sued BuzzFeed for libel in a federal court in Florida. The judge threw out the case, ruling that BuzzFeed had a reporting privilege, given the fact that the FBI used the unverified dossier to investigate the Trump campaign.
One of the trial’s new disclosures was messaging between Mr. Kramer and Mr. Steele as the McCain associate was taking dossier material all over Washington, from news bureaus to the White House.
Cross-examining Mr. Steele, Mr. Caldecott quoted Mr. Kramer as telling him, “CNN reporting it now. Carl never got back.”
This is a reference to CNN disclosing the dossier’s existence before the BuzzFeed post. “Carl” is Carl Bernstein.
“Now, we suggest that Mr. Kramer was working his socks off, collecting detailed enquiries from the media, referring them to you, and reporting back, and effectively he was acting as your agent for communicating with the media whom you did not personally want to meet. Right or wrong?”
Replied Mr. Steele: “I disagree with that.”
To rebut Mr. Caldecott’s assertion, Mr. Millar read from a Jan. 23, 2017, message — roughly two weeks after the BuzzFeed post — from his client to Mr. Kramer.
The message, he said, “is [the] clearest possible indicator of how Mr. Steele regarded the BuzzFeed editor’s decision of publication in its immediate aftermath. Again, it’s wholly inconsistent with any suggestion that he intended or authorized or foresaw such publication.”
Mr. Steele, who at the time still did not know Mr. Kramer’s role in the dossier ending up with BuzzFeed, bemoans the leak of his prized intelligence project meant to damage Mr. Trump from the shadows.
“I wonder if BuzzFeed have reflected on the lives and livelihoods they put at risk by publishing the dossier, or the shutter it has drawn down on any further collection efforts on this issue and others by anybody or any government agency,” Mr. Steele said in a message. “In my view BuzzFeed did the Kremlin’s work for them because they were determined not to lose the scoop entirely after CNN broke the original story. One of the most irresponsible journalistic acts.”
Another message shows Mr. Steele had a conspiratorial side. Ten days after Mr. Comey received the dossier from McCain, Mr. Steele impatiently wondered if wealthy Republicans were “buying off the critics.”
Mr. Steele had complained before the election that the FBI was slow to act on his anti-Trump claims.
Mr. Steele was on WhatsApp messaging to contact Sir Andrew Wood, Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow. It was Mr. Wood whom Mr. Steele tapped in November, after Mr. Trump had won, to approach McCain about the dossier at a defense conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. With McCain was Mr. Kramer, who would be dispatched to visit Mr. Steele in London.
Mr. Caldecott decoded the names in brackets: “A [that’s Andrew], JM [that’s Senator John McCain] appears to have bottled it and left DK [that’s Mr. Kramer] exposed. Indications are that wealthy R [that’s obviously Republican] donors are buying off the critics. So much for patriotism, but John McCain has the information and therefore is compromised anyway. All quite depressing. Maybe let’s catch up in person later in the week. Best, Chris.”
Mr. Wood answered: “Yes, but not surprising. I thought the stratagem unlikely to succeed. What we see in the defense is the shiny white tip of the iceberg, but there are clearly other agendas lurking beneath.”