Christopher Steele joined MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA, right out of Cambridge in 1987. By 1990, he was in Moscow working as a spy with official diplomatic cover. He later went on to other postings both at home and in places like Paris and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. His most significant post was as the head of “The Russia Desk” at MI6, where he served from 2004 to 2009. In 2006, when Vladimir Putin’s agents poisoned Alexander Litvinenko to death in London with polonium-210, Steele served on MI6’s investigative team.
In early 2009, Steele entered the private sector by launching a private intelligence agency with another MI6 veteran. They named it Orbis Business Intelligence. The firm worked in collaboration with the FBI on an investigation into corruption by officials within FIFA, the world soccer body that decides which countries will host the World Cup. The connections Steele made with the FBI would become important later on after he began an investigation of Donald Trump’s connections to Russia. In September 2015, someone connected to a rival Republican presidential campaign hired the private Washington D.C. opposition research firm Fusion GPS. After Trump secured the Republican nomination, the Fusion GPS investigation continued but was now funded by Democratic operatives.
Probably due to Trump’s outlandish pro-Putin and pro-Russia comments on the campaign trail, the Democratic sponsors wanted Fusion GPS to look into Trump’s business connections to Russia, and that’s when Christopher Steele got involved. Fusion GPS reached out to Christopher Steele’s firm precisely because they knew it had the connections in Russia to do quality research.
Now, it should be acknowledged that Steele was hired to find dirt that could be used against Trump in a political campaign, and that that created an incentive to deliver something that could serve that purpose. He wasn’t seeking exculpatory information. He was seeking and in many cases paying for information that would make Trump look bad. But that doesn’t mean that what he discovered was made up. Here’s how David Corn described the process:
The former intelligence official went to work and contacted his network of sources in Russia and elsewhere. He soon received what he called “hair-raising” information. His sources told him, he said, that Trump had been “sexually compromised” by Russian intelligence in 2013 (when Trump was in Moscow for the Miss Universe contest) or earlier and that there was an “established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit.” He noted he was “shocked” by these allegations. By the end of June, he was sending reports of what he was finding to the American firm.
The former spy said he soon decided the information he was receiving was “sufficiently serious” for him to forward it to contacts he had at the FBI. He did this, he said, without permission from the American firm that had hired him. “This was an extraordinary situation,” he remarked.
The response to the information from the FBI, he recalled, was “shock and horror.” After a few weeks, the bureau asked him for information on his sources and their reliability and on how he had obtained his reports. He was also asked to continue to send copies of his subsequent reports to the bureau. These reports were not written, he noted, as finished work products; they were updates on what he was learning from his various sources. But he said, “My track record as a professional is second to no one.”
These reports become known as a “dossier” and the contents of that dossier became a poorly kept secret. Shortly after the election, Senator John McCain obtained a copy that he turned over to the FBI (which presumably already had it). The dossier was briefed and leaked to many media outlets who couldn’t independently verify the information and so did not publish it.
Even before the election, David Corn hinted at the contents of the dossier after having conversations with Steele.
For FBI Director James Comey, this was a sensitive situation. When he went to Trump Tower on January 6th with other top intelligence officers to brief president-elect Donald Trump on Russia’s interference in our election, he decided that he needed to brief Trump on the contents of the dossier because it had been a subject of interest to the intelligence community for quite some time and was in the hands of journalists who could publish it at any time.
“The [Intelligence community] leadership thought it important, for a variety of reasons, to alert the incoming President to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified,” Comey wrote of the January meeting.
The salacious part involved Donald Trump booking the same hotel room the Obamas had stayed in and allegedly paying Muscovite “hookers”—as James Comey put it in his Senate testimony—to sit on the bed and pee on each other in some form of private twisted revenge. According to the story, the Russian intelligence services were able to monitor this depravity and hold it over Trump as leverage.
This was hardly the most concerning aspect of the dossier, but it was the most likely to capture people’s attention. It was also the most delicate part of the conversation Comey felt he needed to have with the incoming president. According to Comey’s testimony, the president was so horrified by the “pee” allegation that he felt compelled to assure him that the FBI wasn’t investigating the charge and had no open counterintelligence investigation of Trump personally.
But Trump wouldn’t let the subject drop. On January 27th, Trump invited Comey to the White House for what turned out to be a private dinner:
“During the dinner, the President returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6, and, as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them,” Comey said. “He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative. He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it.”
What’s interesting about this is that Comey had been at pains to reassure the president on January 6th that the FBI did not have agents crawling around Moscow trying to figure out if he really did hire hookers to pee on the Obamas bed while he watched. But on January 27th, Trump was suggesting that he might order the FBI to do precisely that.
Flash forward to March 30th, and Trump brought up the pee story with Comey again:
On the morning of March 30, the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as “a cloud” that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to “lift the cloud.” I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.
Trump is a strange guy and I can’t really tell why he latched on to the part of the dossier that was salacious rather than focusing on the parts that were a more immediate threat to his presidency.
The dossier also states that the Russian government promoted Trump’s candidacy to create divisions in Western alliances, and that during his presidential campaign, at the heat of the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, there was exchange of information and collusion between Russian officials and people associated with Trump’s campaign.
It’s true that the point of the pee story is that it allowed the Russians to blackmail Trump, but the collusion aspects were where actual crimes might have been committed. Trump seemed more interested in clearing himself from the pee charges than from the ones that had some implications for the election. As Comey noted in his testimony, Trump never showed any interest in what the intelligence community had discovered about Russia’s efforts to hack into our election systems or how he might protect the country from such intrusions in the future. He wanted to be cleared of suspicion, but even here his main concern is that people not come to believe he’d hired hookers to pee on each other.
To my knowledge, the pee story has not been verified and perhaps the FBI has kept their promise not to investigate it even though Trump once pondered ordering them do to so. But many other aspects of the dossier have been verified or have become more credible at least. There’s a reason that Republican-controlled congressional committees are still investigating the collusion ties and Trump’s financial connections to Russia. It’s because there’s so much smoke that they can’t sweep it under the rug.
That Trump was presented with the Steele dossier and thought the real problem was the pee story is just one more example of how weird he is, and how detached from the reality that most of us live in.