Revisiting the Trump-Russia dossier: What's right, wrong and still unclear?

Posted at 3:15 PM, Jan 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-07 16:15:38-05

It's a document that became so famous — or infamous — in the two years since its existence was reported that it's now known by a simple two-word phrase: the dossier.

The controversial 35 pages of intelligence memos compiled by retired British spy Christopher Steele paint a picture of widespread conspiracy of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. To Democrats and President Donald Trump's critics, the documents tell a story that could amount to treason.

To Trump and some of his loudest defenders, the dossier was flawed from its inception, abused by the FBI to pursue an investigation into Trump's team that preceded the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump has said the memos are "phony" and full of lies, and has pointed out that the project was funded by his political opponents, including Hillary Clinton's campaign.

It was two years ago, January 6, 2017, that then-FBI Director James Comey briefed President-elect Trump about some details from the dossier. Days later, CNN broke the story of that briefing and reported that the FBI was investigating the accuracy of the allegations. CNN did not publish the dossier, because of its unverified status, but BuzzFeed soon posted all the memos online "so that Americans can make up their own minds."

The most salacious claims in the dossier remain unproven two years after it first burst into the public conversation, but many of the allegations that form the bulk of the intelligence memos have held up over time, or have proven to be at least partially true.

While the Steele dossier is largely known for one or two key unsavory details, here's the full rundown of how Steele's work holds up with what we now know about Trump's team, their contacts with Russians and Russian election meddling.

Contacts between Trump's team and Russians

The dossier contains allegations against several of Trump's campaign officials and associates of having secret contacts with Russians during the campaign. Steele's raw intelligence reports cited unnamed sources alleging these communications were part of a widespread effort to collude on the election and secure the White House for Trump.

When the memos spilled into public view, Trump and at least five other senior administration officials denied in emphatic and often sweeping terms that anyone involved in the campaign was in contact with Russians. But in the two years since those denials were issued, news reports and court filings revealed that at least 16 Trump associates had contacts with Russians during the campaign or transition.

Steele's memos lay out specific meetings that haven't been corroborated. But his claim that there was regular contact between Trump's campaign and Russians has held up over time. When he wrote his memos in 2016, hardly any of these contacts were publicly known. They have since been revealed in Mueller's court filings, countless news reports and testimony on Capitol Hill.

Trump and his associates who were named in the dossier continue to vehemently deny any collusion.

Russian meddling in the 2016 election

While Trump and his supporters have seized on the most salacious, uncorroborated claims to discredit the dossier as a "pile of garbage," much of Steele's memos focused on Russia's role interfering in the 2016 election. Steele's intelligence memos detail a pattern and preference for Trump that have since been confirmed by the US intelligence community and indictments against Russians brought by Mueller's investigation.

Steele, a former MI6 intelligence operative, has a history of working with US agencies, including the FBI, and helped with the corruption investigation into FIFA, the world soccer governing body. Steele's dossier eventually made its way to the FBI, which cross-referenced Steele's work with its own burgeoning investigation into Russian meddling.

Written in the midst of the campaign, Steele's memos contained allegations that Russia was waging a broad effort to interfere, and Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in the effort, motivated by his "fear and hatred" of Clinton. That assertion is now accepted as fact by the US intelligence community and Trump's handpicked intelligence leaders, though Trump himself has refused to unequivocally accept the conclusion that Putin was trying to help him.

Even Putin has seemingly endorsed the conclusion that he favored Trump's candidacy. Asked during his summit with Trump last year in Helsinki, Finland, if he wanted Trump to win the election, Putin responded: "Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the US-Russia relationship back to normal."

The dossier said that the hacks against Democrats, which were publicly released by WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign, were part of a wider Russian hacking effort. That has since been confirmed in Mueller's court filings, and last year, the special counsel indicted a dozen Russian intelligence agents in connection with the hacks.

The dossier also noted efforts from the Russian government to exploit political divisions within the US and the Democratic Party after the bruising primary fight between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders. A separate Mueller indictment dealt with disinformation efforts by a Kremlin-linked troll farm that played on those divisions. Since the 2016 election, social media companies have pulled thousands of accounts tied to Russia.

Trump's real estate dealings in Russia

The dossier claimed that the Russians tried to influence Trump by offering him "sweetener" real estate deals, in hopes of drawing him closer to Moscow. The specific details about these purported deals haven't been corroborated, but the dossier said Trump declined these offers.

Throughout the campaign, Trump said he had "nothing to do with Russia." When the dossier was first published, there wasn't any indication that Trump's company was involved in Russia beyond the Miss Universe pageant that he hosted in Moscow in 2013.

But it recently became public knowledge that Trump pursued a lucrative project in Moscow deep into the 2016 campaign, and that his then-attorney Michael Cohen sought help from the Kremlin to move the project along. Cohen admitted these shocking details when he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow proposal, which never came to fruition.

Steele's sources were right that Trump had recently explored business dealings in Russia. And his suggestion that it could be linked to the election has also been made by Mueller's team. In court fillings , the special counsel said that the proposal "likely required" help from the Kremlin and highlighted how it overlapped with "sustained efforts" by the Russians to influence the election.

Potential Russian leverage on Trump

The most sensational claim in the dossier memos is that Trump was involved with prostitutes while he stayed at The Ritz-Carlton in Moscow during his trip there for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant — and that the Russians had this blackmail, or kompromat, on Trump.

Nothing has come to light to corroborate that allegation, and Trump has denied that it happened. "Does anyone really believe that story?" Trump said in January 2017. "I'm also very much of a germaphobe."

Keith Schiller, who worked for years as Trump's body man and accompanied Trump on the 2013 trip, told the House Intelligence Committee that the allegations were false . But he also testified that he was offered five women to send to Trump's hotel room -- an offer he says he rejected and perceived as a joke, according to the GOP House Intelligence Committee Russia investigation report .

But not all leverage needs to be salacious in nature. The dossier included claims that Russian intelligence had compromising financial information about Trump.

Cohen's guilty plea in November revealed that he had a phone call with a Kremlin aide in 2016 about the Trump Tower Moscow project. While Trump publicly said his business had no Russian ties, the Kremlin knew about the Moscow deal and could have revealed it at any time, theoretically even with recordings of the Cohen call.

Michael Cohen's alleged trip to Prague

There still isn't any public evidence to confirm the explosive claim from the dossier that Cohen secretly met Russian officials in Prague to coordinate Kremlin interference in the election and do damage control if the alleged collusion was exposed or if Clinton won.

Last year, Cohen's lawyer at the time told the House Intelligence Committee that his client "has never traveled to Prague, Czech Republic, as evidenced by his US passport" and that Cohen "did not participate in meetings of any kind with Kremlin officials in Prague in August 2016."

Cohen repeated his blanket denials in recent weeks.

He has cooperated with Mueller, and prosecutors said in a court filing he provided "useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation." Cohen says he has shared "everything" with Mueller and that the Prague claims are false.

Michael Flynn's paid trip to Moscow

Another allegation that's proven true: Steele's sources noted that the Russian government had indirectly paid Michael Flynn to travel to Moscow, a reference to his attendance at a 2015 gala honoring the state-run broadcaster RT.

Flynn, who later advised Trump's campaign and was briefly Trump's national security adviser, denied during the campaign that he received any payments from Russia.

But a bipartisan inquiry by the House Oversight Committee in early 2017 revealed Flynn was paid more than $33,000 by the Kremlin-funded network to attend the black-tie event and participate in a question-and-answer session.

2016 Green Party nominee Jill Stein also attended the event and was seated at the same table as Flynn and Putin. The dossier said Stein was similarly paid to participate, and the Senate Intelligence Committee is looking into her Russian ties . She denies accepting any payments.

Carter Page's meetings with Russians

The dossier prominently features Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Trump's campaign. Declassified documents revealed that the FBI and Justice Department in 2016 used information from the dossier -- and other evidence that is still secret -- to convince federal judges to approve a foreign surveillance warrant on Page. The warrant, which included evidence that remains classified explaining what the surveillance had revealed, was renewed three times into 2017.

Page traveled to Russia in July 2016 for what he said was a personal trip. Steele wrote that Page met the president of Rosneft, a state-run oil company, and discussed a potential deal for Trump to lift US sanctions in exchange for future energy cooperation between the two countries. Steele's intelligence on Page's visit also includes sources claiming the Russians raised the prospect of political dirt with Page, dirt they had on both Clinton and Trump.

No public evidence has emerged to support these allegations, and Page has denied meeting with the president of Rosneft in dozens of interviews. But under questioning by the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors, Page admitted that he met a different official from Rosneft during the trip.

Page said he spoke with Andrey Baranov, Rosneft's head of investor relations. But he said he doesn't recall any conversation with Baranov about sanctions. They made plans to meet up, Page said, because they were friends when he worked in Russia as an energy consultant.

The Russian government owns a majority stake in Rosneft. The US Treasury Department sanctioned the company and its president after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Trump hasn't eased sanctions on Rosneft, and his administration has placed new sanctions on Russians.