Sadly, we must rely on Russian oligarchs to reveal truth on Trump dossier

Sadly, we must rely on Russian oligarchs to reveal truth on Trump dossier
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Congress has demonstrated its inability to solve the key unanswered questions of the Trump dossier — who paid for it and what were its sources? The dossier was compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele of Orbis Business Intelligence of London and was commissioned by Fusion GPS, a Washington, D.C.-based opposition research firm headed by former journalist Glen Simpson. 

But now we know at least part of the answer about the funding:

The Washington Post reports, citing credible sources, that the infamous Trump dossier was funded by the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Monica Lewinsky responds to viral HBO intern's mistake: 'It gets better' Virginia governor's race poses crucial test for GOP MORE campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). CNN responded to being scooped by declaring that this is “old news” — that CNN had already reported that the dossier had been funded by “Democrat sources.”

A New York Times reporter complained she had dropped the story after being “lied to” by persons involved in the dossier’s funding. CNN reacted with outrage when President Trump’s tweet suggested a conspiracy between the Russians and the Democrats. 

This is a huge story. The dossier was not funded by some rogue Democrat donor but by the Clinton campaign and the DNC itself. So far, neither the Clinton campaign nor the DNC have denied the accuracy of the story.

Among Fusion GPS’s clients were Russian entities that hired it to do opposition research to discredit the Magnitsky sanctions passed by Congress in 2012. Steele and Simpson shopped the dossier to various news outlets before BuzzFeed eventually published it.


Congressional committees in both the House and Senate have been stonewalled by witnesses from Orbis and Fusion, who refuse to disclose who paid for the dossier and its sources. Congressional requests for documents have been ignored, and key witnesses have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights rather than answer questions.


Minority Democrat committee members have acted as enablers of obstructionist witnesses, suggesting that they believe the truth might harm the anti-Trump cause. Timid committee heads haven't exercised their power to compel testimony. A public interested in answers shakes its head in frustration. 

The dossier purports to be a breathtaking peek into the highest echelons of Putin’s Kremlin. Dossier informants claim first-hand knowledge of important events, among them that Putin personally ordered the DNC hack, that Putin and his press secretary control a Hillary Clinton dossier and that the head of Russia’s national oil company offered a Trump associate a gargantuan bribe in return for a cancellation of sanctions.

Steele himself confirms that these sensational claims are unverified, but he and Simpson peddled them to media and Trump opponents anyway. Of course they are unverified, because who can verify the most intimate workings of rarified circles of Putin’s immediate entourage?

Skeptics need only ask why Kremlin intimates would spill the Kremlin’s most elusive secrets to an-ex MI6 agent, who has not been active in Russia for decades. The two likely conclusions are that they are either the product of runaway imaginations or deliberate plants by Russian disinformation specialists. If the latter, U.S. politics has been torn apart by a Russian disinformation campaign. 

The admittedly “unverified” material in the dossier accuses specific Russian oligarchs of specific criminal acts. The dossier accuses Cyprus-based Aleksei Gubarev, head of XBT and Florida-based Webzilla, of hacking DNC servers with viruses, bots and pornography as the actual perpetrator of the Democrat Party hack.

Even more incredibly, the dossier accuses Russia’s three most prominent bankers — Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan — of engaging in criminal conspiracies, illegal payments and money laundering in cahoots with none other than Vladimir Putin. By labelling the three bankers as criminals, the dossier identifies Putin as a criminal as well.

Anyone who writes about contemporary Russia understands that Russian oligarchs are among the best lawyered in the world. Gubarev, Fridman, Aven and Khan could scarcely let such statements, which they claim damage their reputations and businesses, go unanswered.

Accordingly, Gubarev filed on Feb. 3 for damages against Steele and BuzzFeed in London and also in Florida for “libelous, unverified and untrue allegations … in an intelligence dossier authored by Steele and Orbis and published by BuzzFeed.”

Gubarev predictably complained that, “We have worked hard to earn an unblemished reputation for providing exceptional customer service at unbeatable prices. We were shocked to see our good name wrongly included and published in this unsubstantiated report.”

The overwhelming share of his business is conducted outside of Russia. Being implicated in the Steele dossier could indeed damage his business. 

Fridman, Aven and Khan filed a defamation suit against Glen Simpson and Fusion GPS in a Washington, D.C., district court on Oct. 3. The suit claims that the dossier reports “are gravely damaging in that they falsely accuse the Plaintiffs ... of criminal conduct and alleged cooperation with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 presidential election. ... The Plaintiffs ... are collateral damage in a U.S. political operation — conducted by the Defendants — that has nothing to do with the Plaintiffs.” 

In court filings to date, Steele and Simpson have argued that the dossier funder and Steele’s intelligence sources are protected by the freedom of speech afforded to journalists. On this ground, Steele’s attorneys refused to answer the court’s request for the identity of the funder of the dossier as “not relevant to the inquiry,” and they justify their briefing of the news media of the contents of the dossier on national security grounds.

The lawyers for Aven, Fridman and Khan make short shrift of the plaintiffs’ assertion that they are “journalists” protected by the First Amendment. The three bankers note that:

“Opposition research is the gathering of information for the purpose of eventually discrediting or otherwise harming a candidate for a public office. Opposition research is neither objective nor neutral. Instead, it is skewed from the outset in favor of appearing to find negative information about individuals — the essence of the product that political opposition research practitioners are hired to produce.”




Steele and Simpson may be able to use political tricks and political allies to stymie congressional investigations. They will have less luck with courts in the United States and the U.K. that operate under established rules of discovery, legal precedent and time-proven legal procedures.

The Florida court has already rejected Steele’s legal maneuver to avoid testifying in the Florida court case by agreeing to let the Queen’s Bench Court question Steele in London. The Florida court case has been set for March 2018. Nor can Steele and Simpson count on outlasting the plaintiffs, who have much deeper pockets than the defendants.

Steele and Simpson have the reputation of being savvy players in the world of Washington and international politics, but the dossier suggests they may have little understanding of the contemporary world of Russian oligarchs.

They may ultimately pay for that ignorance. They will likely emerge from these lawsuits much poorer and with damaged reputations. Courts work slowly, but it is only a matter of time before Steele and Simpson must disclose who paid them and their sources.

Congressional Democrats can protect them from having to tell the truth before Congress but not before the courts.

What a mess! U.S, citizens must rely on Russian oligarchs — not their elected representatives or the Justice Department and FBI — to learn the truth of the Trump dossier, which continues to serve as the tottering foundation of the Trump-Russia collusion story.

Note: This piece has been updated to reflect news breaking on Tuesday evening regarding funding of the dossier by the DNC and the Clinton campaign.

Paul Gregory, Ph.D., is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Gregory has written extensively on Russia and the former Soviet Union, including, "The Political Economy of Stalinism," (Cambridge, 2004), which won the Hewett Prize, an award given annually for an outstanding monograph on the political economy of Russia, Eurasia and/or Eastern Europe, published in the previous year.