A man of mystery in Moscow who fed a cache of anti-Trump hearsay to Christopher Steele in London for his notorious dossier relied on six sources: five friends and a 30-minute call from an anonymous person he never could identify, a newly declassified FBI document shows.
The dossier rocked Washington, empowered the liberal media, captivated the FBI and emboldened Democrats to try to oust President Trump. Yet Mr. Steele’s work was based on the words of a smattering of Moscow inhabitants with no firsthand knowledge of any supposed event, the FBI paper shows.
The alleged trip to Prague by Trump attorney Michael Cohen, for example, came from the Moscow source’s longtime childhood friend, who repeated gossip to him and later repudiated what she had said to the FBI.
The FBI notes show the dossier’s go-to source told agents “his social network is vast and he has other, random associates.”
The U.S. government officially calls the mystery man Mr. Steele’s “primary sub source” — in other words, the main dossier architect. He is a Russian-speaking foreigner who circulates in Moscow’s academic and consulting worlds and does his research from home.
After feeding Mr. Steele stunning allegations — plot lines about The Ritz-Carlton hotel, Prague, Trump-is-a-Russian-spy — the primary source conceded to the FBI that he took what his friends told him with “a grain of salt.”
The source’s profile, but not his name, is contained in a highly censored FBI report summarizing three interviews agents conducted with him in the Washington field office in January 2017. It is the first look at any detail of the group of people, or subsources, who provided now-discredited allegations against the president and his aides. Mr. Trump recently said Mr. Steele belongs in jail.
Together with the December report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the two narratives show a dossier compiled from raw second- and thirdhand gossip that was texted or phoned in, once while the primary source lounged by a pool. At some point in his collecting, the source and Mr. Steele, whom he first met in 2009 and went on his payroll, celebrated with a glass of champagne.
The debunked dossier was funded by the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Notable congressional Democrats freely quoted it in 2017 as a way to dislodge the president.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the debriefing shows that the FBI at that point should have stopped seeking dossier-based wiretap warrants on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.
Instead, the FBI sought two more warrants, vouching for the dossier’s accuracy, and used it to fuel the 22-month probe of special counsel Robert Mueller. The special counsel found no Trump-Russia election conspiracy.
Said Mr. Graham: “The document reveals that the primary ‘source’ of Steele’s election reporting was not some well-connected current or former Russian official, but a non-Russian-based contract employee of Christopher Steele’s firm. Moreover, it demonstrates that the information that Steele’s primary source provided him was second- and thirdhand information and rumor at best.”
Then there is the question of Kremlin disinformation. The profiles of the six sources show that some of them claimed to be conduits for Russian intelligence. The Horowitz report said intelligence agencies warned the FBI that Russian spies knew what Mr. Steele was up to and had infiltrated the primary source’s network.
Source 1: A Russian with contacts in the intelligence service and FSB, or Federal Security Service. The primary source met this person at a cafe in June 2016. The person was a source for the first dossier memo, No. 80.
This person apparently spoke with or heard secondhand information from “a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure and a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin.”
The memo claims that the Kremlin “had been feeding Trump and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents.” (This assertion, like so many others in the dossier, proved untrue.)
Source 2. This Russian supplied the rumor, also in memo No. 80, about Mr. Trump and prostitutes in The Ritz-Carlton Moscow hotel in 2013, when the Trump Organization staged the Miss Universe pageant.
The primary source had asked this person for any “compromising materials on Trump,” the FBI document says. Source 2 repeated a “well known story.” “Source 2 said the hotel is bugged and ‘heaven only knows’ who or what has been filmed by the FSB.”
The primary source interviewed hotel management and said he did not get a denial. He said he reported to Mr. Steele “Trump’s unorthodox sexual activity at the Ritz as ‘rumor and speculation’ and that he had not been able to confirm the story.”
Intelligence agencies warned the FBI that the Ritz story was Russian disinformation.
Source 3. This is perhaps the dossier’s most damaging contributor for Mr. Trump and aides. She is a female friend of the primary source. They have known each other for years. They have borrowed money from each other and gone shopping together.
She said Trump volunteer Carter Page, during a July 2016 trip to Moscow, met secretly with Igor Divyekin, a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Page has always denied this, and the Mueller report cleared him.
Source 3 also told the other big conspiracy story: that Trump attorney Michael Cohen secretly traveled to Prague in August 2016 to meet Putin aides and engineer a cover-up of their shared Democratic Party computer hacking. The FBI later concluded that Cohen never went to Prague.
More information about Source 3 emerged in April, when Republican senators won declassification of footnote No. 347, which had been completely censored in the Horowitz report.
The footnote said Source 3, described as a “sub-source,” had “personal and business ties” with the primary subsource. She also had contacts with Mr. Putin’s staff in June and July 2016, when Mr. Steele was compiling the dossier.
The woman also was “voicing strong support for candidate Clinton in the 2016 U.S. elections,” the footnote said.
Source 4. This person has ties to the FSB. The primary source said they enjoyed each other’s company and “drank heavily together.”
“I just overheard such and such about an issue” is how he would feed information to the primary source.
Source 5: A Russian woman with ties to Kremlin intelligence. She provided the other half of the Carter Page story — that he also met in Moscow with Igor Sechin, a Putin adviser who runs the state oil company.
Source 6: This U.S.-based person telephoned the primary source for 20 minutes. Never providing his name, Source 6 became the basis for Mr. Steele’s writing about an extensive conspiracy between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. Source 6’s phone call was used as evidence by the FBI to persuade judges to approve the Carter Page wiretaps.
Mr. Steele designated Source 6 as source E. The Horowitz report called him Person 1. This person has been described in media reports as having left the U.S. and not cooperating with Mr. Mueller.
After the three interviews in January 2017, the FBI talked to the primary source two more times. It was then when he made the “grain of salt” comment — essentially dismissing the entire dossier.
Those interview notes have not been declassified.
He said he never knew Mr. Steele planned to put what he told him into official reports. The Horowitz report said he told the FBI he made it clear to Mr. Steele that he was repeating “just talk” and “word of mouth and hearsay” and “conversations that [he] had with friends over beers.”
That February, agent Peter Strzok, who led the FBI’s Trump probe, made this comment in a declassified document after the primary source had been interviewed three times: “Recent interviews and investigation … reveal Steele may not be in a position to judge the reliability of his sub source network.”