Chuck Ross on June 21, 2018
Drip by drip, details have emerged over the past several months showing the Department of State under the Obama administration played a larger role at key junctures in the Trump-Russia probe than previously known.
State Department officials obtained and reviewed parts of the infamous Steele dossier by mid-July 2016, well before FBI headquarters had access to the document. The U.S. embassy in London was also an early recipient of information about former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that the FBI would use to justify opening its counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016. And in a little-noticed Senate hearing on Wednesday, it was revealed that dossier author Christopher Steele briefed State Department officials at Foggy Bottom in October 2016.
The briefing suggests closer contacts between Steele and the State Department than the agency has acknowledged.
Three diplomats — Victoria Nuland, Jonathan Winer and Elizabeth Dibble — appear to be key to the State Department’s role in handling Trump-related Russia information.
Nuland, who was the Obama State Department’s top Russia expert, received excerpts of Steele’s dossier in mid-July 2016, about two months before the salacious document would reportedly make its way to the FBI team investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government.
Dibble, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in London, was reportedly one of the first U.S. officials to receive information about a May 2016 conversation that Papadopoulos, the Trump adviser, had with Alexander Downer, the Australian High Commissioner to the U.K.
The meeting, held May 10, 2016, in which Downer says Papadopoulos mentioned Hillary Clinton and Russians, would later prompt the FBI to start its counterintelligence investigation, known as Crossfire Hurricane.
Winer, who served until 2017 as special envoy to Libya, met personally with Steele. He also exchanged documents with the former MI6 officer and prepared a two-page summary of Steele’s dossier for the State Department.
Winer was also a source for two journalists who wrote the only articles prior to 2016 that were based on Steele’s dossier. On top of that, Winer provided Steele with a second dossier written by longtime Clinton ally Cody Shearer. Steele gave the document to the FBI despite Shearer’s history of embellishment and various political misdeeds.
The State Department’s involvement in Trump-Russia matters has received little media attention, but it has grabbed the interest of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. The Republican has said he is investigating “major irregularities” in how the State Department handled unspecified information used in the Russia investigation.
One claim that Nunes has made is that information about Papadopoulos did not go to the FBI through proper intelligence channels.
The State Department’s involvement in the Russia matter first came to light only in December 2017, nearly a year after the publication of the Steele dossier.
That’s because Winer, a former Senate aide to former Secretary of State John Kerry, disclosed in a little-noticed MSNBC documentary that he met with Steele during the summer of 2016.
Nuland came forward to acknowledge that she received and handled information from Steele in an interview on Feb. 4. Winer then wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on Feb. 8 asserting that he was being unfairly targeted by Nunes.
Winer and Nuland suggested in their disclosures that they determined Steele’s reports were too hot for the State Department to handle. They have both claimed they referred the information to the FBI, which was better suited to verify Steele’s still-unverified allegations.
But there is plenty of evidence that the State Department did not merely refer Trump-Russia information to the FBI.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr revealed in a hearing on Wednesday that State Department visitor logs showed Steele visited Foggy Bottom just weeks before the 2016 election.
Burr did not provide a specific date for Steele’s visit, but the retired spy is known to have been in the U.S. in mid-October 2016. He disclosed in court filings in London during 2017 that he briefed journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yahoo News. Those briefings were a follow-up to briefings he provided a month earlier at the request of his client, Fusion GPS.
It remains unclear whether Steele was accompanied to the State Department and whom he met with once he was there.
Nuland was not aware of the Steele briefing until well after it occurred, she said Wednesday. But she also told Burr, a North Carolina Republican, that she “actively” chose not to be part of the meeting. Nuland could not be reached for comment.
Nuland, the ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during the George W. Bush administration, said she became aware of Steele’s investigation into Trump’s possible ties to Russia soon after the former spy began work on the dossier.
It has previously been reported that she was the official who signed off on a July 5, 2016, meeting between the FBI’s legal attaché in Rome and Steele. By that point, Steele had written the first of 17 memos that would later comprise the full dossier. The first memo, dated June 20, 2016, contained the salacious but unverified claim that the Kremlin had blackmail material on Trump.
“I was first shown excerpts from the dossier, I believe in mid-July of 2016. It wasn’t the complete thing, which I didn’t see until it was published in the U.S. press,” Nuland testified on Wednesday.
While some in the FBI were aware of Steele’s work on the dossier, the unverified document did not make its way to the core Crossfire Hurricane team until mid-September 2016.
Nuland has downplayed her and the State Department’s interest in the dossier, saying in previous interviews that she viewed the report as part of the FBI’s purview.
“This needs to go to the FBI, if there is any concern here that one candidate or the election as a whole might be influenced by the Russian federation. That’s something for the FBI to investigate,” she said in a Feb. 4 interview with CBS News.
Winer, who served in the Clinton administration’s State Department, has given a slightly different version of Nuland’s handling of the dossier.
Winer claimed he met with Steele in September 2016, according to his Washington Post op-ed. He reviewed a copy of the dossier and prepared a two-page summary of the document. He shared it with Nuland who “indicated that … she felt that [Sec. of State John Kerry] needed to be made aware of this material.”
Winer’s timeline appears to conflict with Nuland’s claim that when she encountered the dossier two months earlier, she found no use for it at the State Department.
Winer had other interactions with Steele, whom he has known since 2009.
He gave Steele an eight-page report about Trump that was compiled by Shearer, the old Clinton hand, he wrote in his op-ed. Sidney Blumenthal, another Clinton crony and a friend of Shearer’s, gave the report to Winer. Winer claimed in his op-ed that he did not share the so-called Shearer dossier with the State Department, but he did say he gave it to Steele, who in turn passed it to his FBI contacts.
Winer would later serve as a source for Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff and Mother Jones reporter David Corn, the two veteran reporters revealed in their recent book, “Russian Roulette.” Winer vouched for Steele to both Isikoff and Corn, the only two reporters to write stories before the election about Steele’s allegations.
Even less is known about the State Department’s involvement in the Papadopoulos matter.
Dibble, the London embassy official, was who first received information about Papadopoulos’s interactions with Downer, the Australian diplomat, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Details remain murky, but Downer has claimed that Papadopoulos mentioned Russia had derogatory information about Hillary Clinton.
How the information went from Downer to Dibble is a mystery, but a source who worked in the London embassy recently told The Daily Caller News Foundation the two diplomats met frequently at social gatherings in London.
Papadopoulos met in London two weeks before the Downer meeting with Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor who claimed Russian government officials said they had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands” of her emails. Papadopoulos has told associates he believed Mifsud was exaggerating his contacts and that he believed he was talking about the 30,000 emails that Clinton deleted from her private email server.
The State Department declined to provide an on-the-record statement for this article.