Former MI6 spy could be wildcard in investigations into Trump's Russia ties
The saga of British intelligence veteran Christopher Steele, embroiled in a lawsuit over the publication of a dossier he compiled on the US president's links to Russia, could become critical to the administration's grip on the Oval Office
When news broke in January that the FBI was in possession of a dossier of salacious allegations about Donald Trump compiled by a former British agent in Moscow, the man at the eye of the story quickly disappeared.
Christopher Steele’s home in the Surrey countryside south of London did not feel abandoned. The driveway was open, the curtains were not drawn and the cats were at a neighbour's house.
It was as one might expect from an MI6 veteran. A meticulous exercise in making himself and his family scarce while not disrupting the surface normality of his existence.
Mr Steele has so far remained in control of his story. In spring, he returned to his offices in a Georgian mansion in central London, shooting a video by the marble columns at its doorway to declare the furore would not stop his business activities.
But the Cambridge University-educated former spy is embroiled in a series of lawsuits and investigations that every now and again pierce the surface of normality.
A row broke out last week after Republican congressional staff linked to the House of Representatives committee investigating Mr Trump turned up at the Steele office doorsteps near Victoria train station. After spending some time badgering Mr Steele’s staff for access to the boss, the hapless duo flew back to Washington with nothing to show for their trans-Atlantic excursion.
News of the trip further soured relations on the inquiry. The staffers were linked to Devin Nunes, the committee chairman and a Trump ally. Nunes had to recuse himself from the Russia hearings after he took secret briefings from the White House. It has since emerged that the doorstep adventure could jeopardise bipartisan efforts by the Republicans and Democrats to meet with Mr Steele.
Separately, the 53-year old is fighting off attempts by an American businessman to sue for defamation as a result of the dossier leak. A Florida judge also last week demanded the British courts take a deposition from Mr Steele to explain his findings.
Never intended for publication was a series of intelligence-style documents written for US consultants working for the Democratic presidential campaign. It made two assertions. The first that Mr Trump had progressively fallen under Russian influence over a period of years.
It was the second set of allegations that captured the headlines. Russians and Trump associates were quoted claiming the candidate was involved in sexual activities in Moscow. After the election, the implication was that these could have rendered the new president vulnerable to Kremlin blackmail.
The release of the Steele dossier backed Mr Trump and the Republicans into a corner. The FBI investigation and the congressional inquiries that dominates so much of the narrative of the Trump presidency are its direct consequence.
More than one newspaper cartoonist treated Mr Trump’s ramped up rhetoric against North Korea as a diversionary tactic to take the focus away from his Russia vulnerabilities. Given the stakes, that is far too glib to be believeable. It may be more accurate to suggest that of all the fights that Mr Trump is embroiled in at this early stage of his presidency, the Steele saga remains the most critical to his hold on the Oval Office.
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Mr Trump says the allegations of Russian help to win the presidency are garbage. For good measure, the president has attacked Mr Steele and others behind the dossier as “phony” operators who manufacture fake news.
As former British diplomat Arthur Snell wrote in the London Review of Books after the dossier was exposed, credibility is the lifeblood of intelligence. Mr Snell points out that the client must have trust in the author without knowing who the sources are or what means have been employed to gather the information.
That equation is bound to be put to the test when the US inquiry’s findings are made known or if the court actions against Mr Steele are allowed to proceed.
The implications could be widely felt, especially among the industry of consultants that deals in such information. For the right fees, clients obtain material that is either raw documentation or commissioned reports that have been further developed.
There are many firms like Mr Steele's in London, where there is no parallel with the US culture of regulation and registration of firms that are in close proximity to officials and politicians. A high proportion of employees, though by no means all, have intelligence backgrounds.
In his video, Mr Steele appeared unflappable. There is no sign that the controversy has impinged on his business. Real tests lie ahead when the spotlight inevitably returns.
As incredible as it seems the Trump presidency has, up to now, merely fought skirmishes over its Russian troubles. The full blown battles are yet to come.
A leafy square in central London not far from Buckingham Palace is certain to be thrust back onto television screens as events unfold in the weeks ahead.
Damien McElroy is The National's London bureau chief
Updated: August 12, 2017 02:44 PM