Trump-Russia investigators close in on sources named in explosive dossier

Efforts to get ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele to testify in US have fallen short, but Mueller's probe appears to be making steady progress

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Wednesday 27 September 2017 18:28 BST
Some Republicans view the controversial dossier as a politically motivated document
Some Republicans view the controversial dossier as a politically motivated document (AP)

Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer who was at the centre of a storm over his explosive and contentious dossier on Donald Trump, is keeping a determinedly low profile.

But his account of the US President’s Russian connections is very much a part of the investigations closing in around a beleaguered White House.

The man who hired Mr Steele to compile the report has given ten hours of testimony behind closed doors to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of the political research firm Fusion GPS, stressed afterwards that he stood by the allegations which were made and committee officials privately say that the material was being treated extremely seriously.

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Meanwhile, the team of special counsel Robert Mueller, leading a separate investigation into the Kremlins’ activities, have contacted and taken evidence from a number of figures named in the dossier, including one, The Independent has learned, who has been providing important information.

Concerted attempts were made to dismiss Mr Steele’s report as fantasy when news of its existence broke at the beginning of the year by Mr Trump, his supporters and right wing media outlets in the US and UK.

Since then, however, many of his claims have proved to be true. There is now rivalry between three ongoing inquiries into Mr Trump – by former FBI director Mr Mueller, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee – to get Mr Steele to testify.

Mr Steele, however, has decided not to travel to the US and is also disinclined, for the time being, to be interviewed by Trump investigators elsewhere.

His company Orbis Business Intelligence, where he is a co-director along with Christopher Burrows, formerly of the Foreign Office, has been recovering from the deluge of publicity over the Trump dossier and Mr Steele is said to feel that he wants to get back “in the shadows” for both personal and professional reasons.

Last month two staffers from the House Intelligence Committee arrived unannounced in Britain to try and persuade Mr Steele to speak. They visited the offices of Mr Steele’s company in London as well as the office of his lawyer.

The trip provoked a furious row in Washington. The two men had been sent by Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee without informing Democrats on that Committee, the Senate Committee or the Special Counsel.

Mr Mueller’s team were particularly worried that the heavy handed approach may hinder chances of Mr Steele testifying. Some Democrats believe, however, that was the precise aim of the Republicans, to sabotage any appearance by the former MI6 officer. The first Republican chairman of the House Committee, Devin Nunes, was forced to recuse himself and was replaced after revelations about his close liaison with the White House.

Some Republicans in the House Committee are keen, however, to speak to Mr Steele and Glenn Wilson about the fact that the report was commissioned by opponents of Mr Trump, first Republican and then Democrats, thus making it, in their eyes, a politically motivated document. They also want to question Mr Steele about his relationship with the FBI while he was carrying out his inquiries into Mr Trump.

The Republicans have sent a series of subpoenas to the Bureau which they believe will show that the relations between it and Mr Steele was closer than hitherto known and will provide ammunition against James Comey, the then Director, who was sacked by the President and has come to be viewed by the Trump camp as one of its many enemies.

Mr Steele handed out the results of some of his research to an agent he had from of the FBI’s Eurasian Joint Organised Crime Squad based in Rome in August 2016. The full report was handed to Mr Comey by Senator John McCain, who had sent a former State Department official, David Kramer, across the Atlantic to collect it, in December that year.

Mr Mueller’s team, meanwhile, appears to be making steady progress. The home of Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s former campaign manager, was raided with computers and documents seized. The inquiry has been expanded to look at work Mr Manafort carried out as campaign manager for Viktor Yanukovych, The pro-Moscow former president of Ukraine and £12m he is alleged to have received from Mr Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Mr Manafort denies getting the money.

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Mr Manafort, who was secretly wiretapped by the FBI, has been told by prosecutors that he may face indictment over alleged violations of tax laws, money laundering and lobbying for a foreign power. Roger Stone, a long-time advisor to Mr Trump, said this week that Mr Manafort had confirmed to him that he expects to be indicted.

A full 15 months ago Mr Steele’s report referred repeatedly to Mr Manafort’s alleged “off the books” payment from Mr Yanukovych’s party and Russian concern that revelations of this may damage the Kremlin operation to support Mr Trump.

The Manafort affair is just one example of claims made by Mr Steele which have subsequently proved to be true. According to memos sent to Mr Simpson among Mr Steele’s informants were Source A, “a senior Russian foreign ministry figure”; Source B, “a former top intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin”; Source D “is a close associate of Mr Trump who had organised and managed his recent trips to Moscow”; and Source E "an ethnic Russian” and “close associate of … Donald Trump”.

It has been reported that “Source D” and “Source E” may be the same person, a Belarusan businessman called Sergei Millain, who was born Siarhei Kukuts. Mr Millain has denied being Mr Steele’s informant, declaring that allegations against him are part of a “witch hunt” and that Mr Trump’s election is “God’s will”.

But some with inside knowledge of the Steele report say that one of the “sources” could be Felix Sater, a Russian whose family emigrated to New York when he was six years old. Mr Sater was jailed for stabbing a man in the face with a cocktail glass. He was also convicted of investment fraud involving the Russian mafia targeting the elderly including Holocaust survivors, but avoided a potential 20 years sentence by becoming an informer.

Mr Sater is a former business associate of Mr Trump and had accompanied him on trips to Russia. At Mr Trump’s behest he had chaperoned Donald junior and Ivanka on a Moscow visit during which he was influential enough to engineer that Ivanka got to sit on President Putin’s chair in the Kremlin.

Mr Sater (aka Felix Sheferovsky) was a childhood friend of Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s personal lawyer. Mr Cohen was named in the Steele dossier as a key conduit between the Trump camp and the Russians and that Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was tasked with carrying out a covert campaign to undermine Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign (which Mr Peskov denies).

Mr Cohen had denied having “any dealings” whatsoever with the Russians in his work for Mr Trump. But newly leaked emails show that Mr Cohen asked for Mr Peskov’s help with a Trump real estate project, Trump Tower, in Moscow in 2016. This was when Mr Trump was already campaigning to secure the Republican nomination for the Presidency.

The leaks also revealed emails from Mr Sater to Mr Cohen. One said excitedly: “Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a President.” Another said: “Our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it … I will get Putin on this programme and we will get Trump elected.”

Andrew Weissmann, the federal prosecutor who “turned” Mr Sater during the fraud investigation, is now on Mr Mueller’s team. Mr Sater is helping federal authorities in a Kazakh money laundering scheme in which some of the money was supposedly laundered through a Trump property. The claims of Mr Trump being the Muscovian Candidate for the US Presidency, raised by Mr Steele, continue to grow and reverberate.

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