The Steele Dossier and WaPo’s Trump Tower Scoop

For some reason, many people who’re convinced the Trump Russia investigation will hit paydirt but who haven’t been particularly attentive believe the Steele dossier must all be true. This, in spite of the fact that some parts of it clearly are not true. The best example of that is report 086, labeled as July 25, 2015 (but which must actually date to July 2016), which quotes a former senior Russian intelligence official claiming FSB was having difficulty compromising western and G7 government targets. In the previous year, the Russians had been enjoying quite a lot of success against just those kinds of targets, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Russia’s APT 29 is also believed to have compromised the DNC in July 2015), making it surprising anyone following Russian matters even marginally closely could present that report as credible.

The Steele dossier is not a document that is either credible or not as a whole; it is a series of raw intelligence reports based off a series of sources, some of which conflict with each other, some of which may be credible, others of which are less so. Moreover, there are a number of details about the dossier as we received it or as we’ve since learned about its production that raise legitimate questions about its quality.

Two seemingly contradictory claims provide one example that is especially noteworthy given WaPo’s report that the Trump organization inked a branding deal in Russia in late 2015. The very first report released as the Steele dossier, dated June 20, claims that the FSB has, for years, been trying to cultivate Trump by offering him “lucrative real estate development deals in Russia” but “for reasons unknown, TRUMP had not taken up any of these.”

The sourcing on this claim definitely includes “a close associate of TRUMP who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow” (though how would they know FSB was dangling real estate to compromise Trump unless they were themselves tied to FSB?) and may include the trusted compatriot of a “senior Foreign Ministry figure.”

Compare that with the undated report (it probably dates to between July 19 and July 30, 2016) crediting “a separate source with direct knowledge” claiming that Trump’s “claimed minimal investment profile in Russia … had not been for want of trying.”

Which is it? Has Trump been pushing for real estate deals but failing, or have figures close to Putin been trying to entice him with such deals only to have him respond with remarkable coyness?

A September 14 report, reported second-hand from two people in Petersburg, goes so far as to claim Trump had even paid bribes to get business deals in the city, but offered little more. Significantly, the sources said Aras Agalarov — who was involved in the June 9, 2016 meeting offering dirt on Clinton in New York’s Trump Tower — would have any details on real estate deals and sex parties and the clean-up thereof.

All of which is to say that in three different reports, Steele’s sources offered conflicting details about whether Trump was trying to get business in Russia but had failed, or Russia was trying to suck Trump into business deals as part of a program to compromise him, only to have him inexplicably resist.

Which brings us to the WaPo’s latest scoop, which reveals that between November 2015 and January 2016, the Trump organization signed a licensing deal for a big real estate project in Moscow, which ended up flopping because there was actually no deal behind it.

As part of the discussions, a Russian-born real estate developer urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested he could get President Vladimir Putin to say “great things” about Trump, according to several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.

The developer, Felix Sater, predicted in a November 2015 email that he and Trump Organization leaders would soon be celebrating — both one of the biggest residential projects in real estate history and Donald Trump’s election as president, according to two of the people with knowledge of the exchange.

Sater wrote to Trump Organization Executive Vice President Michael Cohen, “something to the effect of, ‘Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a president?’ ” said one person briefed on the email exchange. Sater emigrated to the United States from what was then the Soviet Union when he was 8 and grew up in Brooklyn.

Trump never went to Moscow as Sater proposed. And although investors and Trump’s company signed a letter of intent, they lacked the land and permits to proceed and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.

[snip]

Discussions about the Moscow project began in earnest in September 2015, according to people briefed on the deal. An unidentified investor planned to build the project and, under a licensing agreement, put Trump’s name on it. Cohen acted as a lead negotiator for the Trump Organization. It is unclear how involved or aware Trump was of the negotiations.

For six months, Christopher Steele pushed his sources for information on any deals Trump had planned in Russia. And only one of them — the one suggesting his go-between consult with Agalarov — offered any hint that a deal might have actually been done. Yet just months earlier, a deal had purportedly been signed, a deal personally involving Michael Cohen, who figures prominently throughout the dossier.

At least on their face, those are contradictory claims, ones that (because the WaPo story is backed by documents Congress will shortly vet) either emphasize how limited Steele’s collection was, even on one of his key targets like Cohen, or may even hint he was getting disinformation.

Or perhaps reading them in tandem can elucidate both?

First, some comments on the WaPo story.

It seems the real story here is as much the details as the fact that the deal was proposed. For example, I’m as interested that Felix Sater, from whom (as the story notes) Trump has been trying to distance himself publicly for years, was still brokering deals for the Trump organization as late as November 2015 as any other part of the story. See this post for some reasons why that’s so interesting.

It’s also quite significant that whoever leaked this to the WaPo did not explain who the investors were. Schedule another scoop in a week or so for when some outlet reveals that detail, because I suspect that’s as big a part of the story as the fact that the deal got signed. What entity came to Cohen months after Trump had kicked off his presidential campaign, and offered up the kind of branding deal that Trump loves (and which at least some of Steele’s sources say Trump had been seeking for over a decade), yet without the permits that would be a cinch if Putin and the FSB were really pushing the deal as part of a plan to compromise the candidate?

The sourcing, too, is of particular interest. WaPo describes its story as coming from, “several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers;” in another place it describes its sources as, “several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.”  It explains that the emails are going to be turned over to Congress soon.

The new details from the emails, which are scheduled to be turned over to congressional investigators soon, also point to the likelihood of additional contacts between Russia-connected individuals and Trump associates during his presidential bid.

This all feels like an attempt, on the part of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, to reveal to Trump via non-obstructive channels what he has found in a review of documents he’s about to turn over, with an emphasis on some of the most damning parts (Sater and the timing), but without yet revealing the public detail of the investors. By releasing it in this form, Cohen’s associates give Trump warning of what’s about to come, while blunting the damage the revelation will have in more fleshed out form.

Finally, the WaPo emphasizes Sater’s push for Trump to get Putin to say nice things. Particularly given the lack of permits here, that suggests Sater recognized the deal was not actually done, it needed powerful push from Putin. A push that, given the January collapse, apparently didn’t come in timely fashion. That may be the more interesting take-away here. The deal was, when Sater bragged about it to the guy who (according to Steele’s dossier) would shortly go on to clean up Paul Manafort’s earlier corrupt discussions with Russia, illusory. But it makes it clear that Cohen, if and when he had those discussions, was aware of the Trump organization’s earlier, failed effort to finally brand a building in Moscow. It would mean that if those dodgy meetings in Prague actually happened, they came against the backdrop of Putin deciding not offer the help needed to make the Trump deal happen in the months before the election started.

All that may suggest the Steele dossier may instead be rich disinformation on a key point, disinformation that hid how active such discussions really were.

In any case, the WaPo story is not definitive one way or another. It may be utterly damning, the kind of hard evidence Cohen is about to turn over that he is aware could really blow the investigation into Trump wide open, or it could be yet more proof that Trump continued to resist the allure of real estate deals in Russia, as some of Steele’s sources claimed. But it does raise some important questions that reflect back on the Steele dossier.

Update: NYT got the actual language of two of the Sater emails, which have now been delivered to HPSCI.

Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.

[snip]

Michael we can own this story. Donald doesn’t stare down, he negotiates and understand the economic issues and Putin only want to deal with a pragmatic leader, and a successful business man is a good candidate for someone who knows how to negotiate. “Business, politics, whatever it allis the same for someone who knows how to deal.”

Why does Sater tie the Trump Tower deal so closely with getting Trump elected?

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

19 replies
  1. Rugger9 says:

    Intel is notorious for being as reliable as gossip at times. Disinformation was a Warsaw Pact staple in their interactions with NATO, and FWIW, Steele was aware of this and understands that Putin operates like a Soviet spy. As time goes on, however, I suspect we will discover that he got more right than wrong. After all, he forwarded this dossier to be checked out and confirmed, not as proven facts already in the bag.

    Those that believe that Caesar Disgustus would play coy when there is money to be made must assume (that nasty word) that he cared about the Russian optics enough to decline the opportunity. Between the iffy finances (much of it covered by VEB and Alfa) and the fact that the courtier press were all over HRC’s email story and deliberately ignoring already published reports about Trump and the Russians on top of his narcissism I can’t see C.D. turning this down, especially if Vlad ensured it would stay quiet until after the election.

    However, the trick (and the danger) of a limited hangout is ensuring containment to the topics that help the cause, nothing else and no strings to pull. It failed for Tricky Dick in Watergate, it failed for Junior in the “adoption” meeting, and so the trouble for Michael Cohen is that a relatively rapid LexisNexis search can highlight connections to other inconvenient items, such as why Felix Sater is still trying to do deals for C.D. (who ‘doesn’t know him’ at this time) in late 2015, while he had been announced as a candidate. I think this will be a gift that keeps giving like Junior’s June 9 meeting.

    Pardons all around!!!

  2. orionATL says:

    the steele “dossier” is gossip on its face; it was never anything more – just snippets of conversations stapled together. it served a major purpose, though, by being the lantern in the church tower about russian involvement in 2016 elections. without boing-boing’s public release – which our real media just could not bring their journalistically fastidious little selves to release – the public would still be hearing only occassional disjointed info about russian involvement in our elections. and that being slowly buried by trump allies in key government positions in his adninistration, e. g., pompeo assuming severe oversight of the cia counterintelligence branch doing work on russia’s meddling in our elections.

    what underlies the entirety of this gossipy collection, though, is a persist theme of great russian government and quasi-government awareness of and interest in donald trump. an interesting speculation along this line is whether steele could have put together a similar multipoint russian gossip “dossier” on any other major american public/political personality. why was it that trump was of such great, shall we say “fascination”, to russians in power ?

  3. pseudonymous in nc says:

    If this is Cohen trying some kind of signalling or inoculation-dose release, which seems very plausible, then it’s also a kind of silent auction against Sater, who in that early August NYmag piece predicted he’d start making headlines “[i]n about the next 30 to 35 days.” Do we know of any Labor Day deadlines for disclosure, or was he just channelling Andrew Card?

    Sater is extraordinarily chatty, a bullshitter, and also seems remarkably sanguine about his prospects. That puts him in the same category as Carter Page, though from different trajectories, and I still don’t have a clue what Page’s long game looks like.

    We’re going to find out the investor’s name soon enough. The WaPo piece also noticeably avoided any mention of the Agalarovs for the Don Jr meeting, even though it discussed the other participants. Hmm.

  4. Rugger9 says:

    I think Trump was already compromised via the finances and his narcissism, so his trap was already snapped shut. Add to that the lack of equally compelling levers to use on HRC and the choice was clear about who should be backed to keep the USA distracted away from the adventures in the Ukraine, etc. and that is why we have a Russian mole in the White House.

  5. Charles says:

    One way to get Trump in Russia to compromise him might be to dangle potential deals if only he’ll travel to Russia, then hook him up with prostitutes. And, of course, if the deals fall through, he stays on the hook. Trump might look forward to visits to Russia where he can get professional sex services away from Melania, and not be too disappointed when deals fall through.

    So, I don’t see that the dossier is *necessarily* internally contradictory. The FSB might be dangling and then frustrating the deals, specifically to keep the fish on the line.

  6. pseudonymous in nc says:

    A quick rejoinder from Maggie Haberman: that Cohen’s email was sent to a generic Kremlin comms address, not Peskov’s personal email.

    Seems like the NYT and WaPo are sitting on two slightly different doc troves and sets of sources (with NYT closest to Cohen) and are going to be ping-ponging stories for the entire week. Which shouldn’t blind us to the NYC-FBI bill of clean health and the lack of press pushback on any of this in 2016.

    • greengiant says:

      Personally I suspect Sater’s and Cohen’s emails to be known disinformation by them and expect the WaPo and NYTimes have covered themselves in mud.   Sater in particular has surfed the oligarchs, mafia, FBI, DOJ, CIA, FSB, and US court system.  About the only entertaining thing left is which if any of Sater’s handlers are not just mobbed up but are in fact triple agents.  Some dossier info was covered in the press in the summer and fall of 2016.  One key date is Putin’s Oct 6th or so approval of Rosneft’s purchase of Bashneft.

      • SpaceLifeForm says:

        Wth you in the trifecta angle. Not double-double, but true triple, with two (or all three) legs inside US IC.

        Until any TLA proves their worth, none can be trusted.

        It’s all about money. And the leaks continue.

  7. SpaceLifeForm says:

    OT: Spy vs Spy – Attack via media

    Attacking FBI? Or disinformation?

    Suspect some in IC do not like Kaspersky antivir because it may be stopping some warez.

    Recall that Kaspersky offered to show the source code to US Government.

    https://www.cyberscoop.com/kaspersky-fbi-investigation-nsa-cia-dia/

    “Kaspersky Lab routinely assists law enforcement agencies and governments, including the United States, by providing technical expertise on malware and cyberattacks,” a Kaspersky Lab spokesperson told CyberScoop. “The company has never helped, nor will help, any government with its cyberespionage efforts, as Kaspersky Lab is committed to fighting cybercrime and making the digital world safer for everyone.”

  8. SpaceLifeForm says:

    OT: @MalwareJake

    Do not assume that ExpressLane is only exfiltrating biometric data.

    More likely than not, it is exfiltrating the admin credentials.

  9. SpaceLifeForm says:

    OT: Worried about IoT botnet? Worry about your cellphone first. Just because this was Android, do not assume iPhone is immune.

    https://blog.cloudflare.com/the-wirex-botnet/

    Researchers from Akamai, Cloudflare, Flashpoint, Google, Oracle Dyn, RiskIQ, Team Cymru, and other organizations cooperated to combat this botnet

  10. Craxis says:

    Another possibility is Steel made most of it up. He imagined it. Why? He was giving his clients what they wanted to hear. And he was getting paid. It all reads like a disjointed spy novel. Including all the parts where Steel has the ability to get Trump people to confess their criminality.

    Why not? Guccifer 2.0 is an obvious fake too.

  11. Craxis says:

    Not quite sure what you mean, bmaz, but all these guys make money by giving their payers what they want.

    Or do you believe Chris Steel is the MOST AMAZING SPY EVER! Who has secret agents that can just walk into the Kremlin and get numerous people to give up top secrets!. EVEN MORE AMAZING Steel gets Trump’s own people the reveal their criminality and money transfers for nefarious purposes!

    Why are you not demanding to know why the CIA and NSA doesn’t have the AMAZING abilities of Chris Steel?

    It is sure the “long reputation” of the FBI agents who used or believed Steele’s fantasies to make sure they find something to save their careers.

    The fact that the government is allowing the FBI to continue this investigation, and to use Mueller, shows that it is not serious. The FBI should be investigated, not be the investigators.

    BTW, if you believe Steel, why is Peskov still alive? Why hasn’t Putin done away with him somehow?

    • bmaz says:

      I am sorry, if you are not even informed enough to spell his name correctly, I am going to assume you are completely full of shit.

Comments are closed.