Clinton, Trump and the Russia dossier: What you need to know
The revelation that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) helped fund an explosive dossier about President Trump has roiled the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Republicans are on the offensive, claiming the new funding revelations as evidence the investigations into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia were fixed against them from the start. Democrats are trying to keep the focus on the contents of the memo and say it doesn’t matter who paid for it.
The saga took another bizarre twist on Friday when the conservative news outlet Washington Free Beacon said it paid the same opposition research firm used by the Democrats for dirt on Trump and other GOP candidates about six months earlier.
Here is a look at what we know about the controversial document at the center of the Russia investigation after the latest turn of events.
What is the dossier?
The 35-page opposition research document compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele has the look of an official government intelligence report. It carries the title: “U.S. presidential election: Republican candidate Donald Trump’s activities in Russia and compromising relationship with the Kremlin.”
The document was passed around in Washington during the 2016 election, but was not widely known about until CNN reported that former FBI director James Comey had briefed President Trump and former President Obama on its existence. Shortly after that, BuzzFeed published it online.
Citing senior Russian government officials and intelligence officers, the dossier claims that Russia has been “cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years.” Steele writes that Trump and his inner circle “accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin” on Hillary Clinton.
Steele also alleges that Trump has deep financial ties to key Russian figures that the Kremlin could use to blackmail him, and it contains a series of lewd allegations about the president.
Trump has called the memo “fake” and disputes all of the allegations. Comey described the memo as “salacious and unverified” in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Some of the allegations appear to have been debunked, like a claim that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen travelled to Prague during the election to meet with a Russian official.
The specific claims about campaign collusion have not been verified and are under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and his team.
But the broad outline of the memo — that the Russians sought to interfere in U.S. politics through email hacking and disinformation campaigns — has been confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Who paid for it?
The Washington Post reported this week that Clinton’s campaign and the DNC funded the dossier.
The transaction passed through Democratic lawyer Marc Elias of the law firm Perkins Coie. Elias contracted the work out to opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which had the connection to Steele, the former British spy.
While none of the principals have denied that the Clinton campaign and DNC funded the dossier through payments to Perkins Coie, everyone involved is claiming they did not know about the project.
Clinton has said she did not know about it. Current DNC chairman Tom Perez, who was elected in April of this year, deflected to past DNC leadership. Former DNC chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said she had no knowledge of it.
CNN reported that both Wasserman Schultz and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta testified in a closed-door briefing with congressional investigators that they knew nothing about it. Notably, Elias is Podesta’s lawyer and was present for that meeting with lawmakers, raising questions about whether he should have interjected.
The story took on another layer of complexity on Friday, when the conservative news outlet Washington Free Beacon told congressional investigators it hired Fusion GPS — the opposition research firm used by the Democrats — for opposition research on Trump and all of the GOP candidates in September 2015.
The Free Beacon insists that the work was separate from the dossier — that it had no connection to the British spy or the Democratic law firm and that none of the information it gathered ended up in the Steele memo.
The Clinton campaign and the DNC are believed to have taken over the project in April 2016, once Trump became the nominee, and oversaw the compilation and completion of the dossier from there.
Democrats insist that the content of the memo is more important than who paid for it.
But their involvement has given ammunition to Trump and Republicans to claim that Mueller’s investigation is a political witch hunt based on Clinton-backed opposition research.
They argue that Donald Trump Jr. was put through the ringer for trying and failing to secure Clinton campaign dirt from a Russian lawyer in 2016. The dossier is evidence the Clinton campaign successfully secured and published opposition research from a foreign spy based on Russian government sources during the campaign, Republicans say.
Who put it together?
The document was produced by Fusion GPS, a Washington strategic intelligence firm cofounded by former Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson in 2012.
In 2016, the firm hired Steele to dig into any connections between Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate, and the Russian government.
The firm has produced research for Democrats battling Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Planned Parenthood, in addition to other clients.
But it has attracted particular scrutiny for its work for a U.S. law firm that defended Prevezon Holdings, which until May was locked in a legal battle with the U.S. government over allegations the company’s executives fraudulently obtained a $230 million tax refund from the Russian treasury.
Also working the case defending Prevezon was Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 before which Donald Trump Jr. was offered damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Veselnitskaya is known for her work lobbying against the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 U.S. law aimed at punishing human rights abusers in Russia.
Bill Browder, a proponent of the Magnitsky Act, has accused Fusion GPS of taking money from the Russian government and contributing to a campaign against the law in the spring and summer of 2016.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is now investigating whether the firm violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Simpson met with Senate Judiciary Committees staffers in August.
The firm maintains that its actions were lawful.
Still, the developments have provided fodder for Republicans, and those seeking to discredit the firm have cited its alleged ties to the Russian government.
What is the FBI’s involvement?
In late 2016, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) passed the dossier to FBI investigators, who were by then probing possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
But it’s unclear how central the information it contained became to the bureau’s investigation, which is now being handled by the special counsel. Steele has reportedly briefed federal investigators on the sources behind his report.
And some reports have also suggested that the dossier made up at least part of the basis for an application for a surveillance warrant on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
A summary of the memos was attached to a classified report prepared by the Obama administration assessing that the Russian government attempted to swing the 2016 election.
Still, former CIA Director John Brennan has testified publicly that the summary “was not in any way used as a basis for the intelligence community assessment that was done.”
But some Republicans — as well as the White House — have sought to cast doubt on the veracity and motivation behind the dossier’s creation and suggested that it’s the basis of the federal investigation.
What is Congress doing about it?
Information on the dossier — its origins, its contents and its use — has been a hotly-sought commodity on Capitol Hill for months.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has for weeks pressed the FBI to explain how it sought to ensure that the dossier was not the source of foreign intelligence used in its Russia investigation.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) in August issued unilateral subpoenas to the FBI and the Justice Department to turn over documents that would shed light on the bureau’s relationship with Steele. He has been wrangling with Justice Department lawyers through several missed deadlines since then.
On Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) revealed that the bureau has pledged to turn over the sought-after documents, raising the possibility that Congress will soon know much more about what the FBI did with the information collected by Steele.