Senate Republicans are touting newly declassified information that suggests Russian disinformation, in two instances, may have been passed onto ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele when he compiled an opposition research dossier on Donald Trump and Russia in 2016.
The newly unredacted footnotes from a Justice Department inspector general report bolster criticisms of the FBI’s handling of the dossier, and two Senate Republican chairmen received the material with the help of senior Trump administration officials skeptical of the FBI’s Russia investigation into Trump.
The new information provided to the Republicans this week and earlier this month comes from previously classified footnotes in DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on the FBI’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants obtained on former Trump adviser Carter Page. The inspector general report outlined 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the four applications for the Page warrants in 2016 and 2017, including the use of Steele’s unverified intelligence reports.
Despite the problems in handling Steele, the inspector general found that the FBI investigation was properly initiated, with enough predication to probe suspicious ties between people associated with the Trump campaign and suspected Russian agents. The Mueller investigation also found evidence that people inside and associated with the Trump campaign welcomed and encouraged Russian activity that they thought could help their candidate win.
The questions about Steele’s sources surround two of the most contentious and controversial elements of the dossier: claims that Trump’s then-personal lawyer Michael Cohen traveled to Prague and that Russia had obtained kompromat on Trump during his visit to Moscow in 2013. While other elements of the dossier were borne out partially or fully, those two passages were angrily denounced as false and no evidence has ever emerged to substantiate either one.
Republicans, including Trump, have repeatedly seized on the claims made about Cohen and Trump in the dossier in an effort to discredit the FBI’s Russia investigation and later former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
Steele’s report played no role in the opening of the FBI investigation, according to Horowitz, and he found that the most salacious allegations weren’t proven.
Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin first sought to have the classified footnotes in the report released publicly in January, receiving two sets of declassified footnotes from the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The footnotes, which were previously classified in the inspector general report and still contain some redactions, show the FBI was warned in 2017 that some of the information Steele received could have been part of a Russian disinformation campaign. The declassified material also shows the intelligence community told the FBI in 2017 that “two persons affiliated” with Russian intelligence were aware of Steele’s investigation in July 2016.
“As we can see from these now-declassified footnotes in the IG’s report, Russian intelligence was aware of the dossier before the FBI even began its investigation and the FBI had reports in hand that their central piece of evidence was most likely tainted with Russian disinformation,” Grassley and Johnson said in a joint statement.
On Thursday, Grassley and Johnson sent a new letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray requesting additional information on the Russia investigation based on what they learned in the footnotes.
In an April 2 letter, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd provided the senators with three footnotes, while keeping a fourth redacted. On Wednesday, acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell declassified additional footnotes, including information that was redacted in the material the Justice Department turned over.
“I consulted with the Attorney General William Barr, and he has authorized the ODNI to say that he concurs in the declassification insofar as it relates to DOJ equities,” Grenell wrote to the lawmakers.
Grenell, a fierce Trump loyalist, was US ambassador to Germany before Trump tapped him to replace the former acting director, Joseph Maguire, last month. And Barr, who has launched his own investigation into the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Trump and his team, has publicly said that he has been pushing for more of the inspector general’s report to be produced unredacted.
The newly disclosed information raises additional questions about the material Steele provided to the FBI from his opposition research dossier compiled on behalf of a law firm working with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. The FBI opened its investigation into members of Trump’s team in July 2016 upon learning of a conversation George Papadopoulos had with an Australian diplomat about Russian dirt, but the Steele dossier was used to obtain and renew FISA warrants on Page.
Horowitz’s footnotes state that a January 2017 report provided the FBI information outlining an inaccuracy in Steele’s reporting on Trump’s then-personal attorney Michael Cohen, who was accused of traveling to Prague but did not do so. The report assessed “the referenced subset was part of a Russian disinformation campaign to denigrate US foreign relations,” according to the inspector general’s footnote.
In addition, a February 2017 intelligence community report said that the allegations raised about Trump’s activities in Moscow in 2013 were false, and the product of Russian intelligence “infiltrate(ing) a source into the network.”