Special Counsel Robert Mueller is continuing to use a controversial 35-page dossier financed by the Democratic National Committee and the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign as a "road map” for investigative leads, sources familiar with his investigation say.
Mueller’s team has also used information gleaned from surveillance court-approved wiretaps on former Trump adviser Carter Page that were secured by citing material in the dossier, the sources say.
And a detail previously reported last fall – that Mueller’s investigators traveled overseas last year to debrief the dossier’s London-based author, Christopher Steele, a former British spy – takes on a new cast with the disclosure this month that FBI agents abruptly stopped using Steele as an informant in late 2016 after concluding that he had lied to them.
“The FBI’s reliance on Steele’s past credibility was misplaced, since he concealed from the FBI unauthorized media contacts with numerous outlets and his anti-Trump bias,” according to an addendum to the so-called FISA memo released Feb. 2 by the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee.
Special Counsel’s Office spokesman Peter Carr told RealClearInvestigations, “We will decline to comment” on Steele and the dossier.
Mueller’s use of the dossier – opposition research described by former FBI Director James Comey as largely “salacious and unverified” – was reported by several news outlets last year. But word that Mueller has continued relying on it despite the House memo and other disclosures raises new questions about the special counsel’s investigation as it expands beyond indictments last week of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies.
While those charges highlighted an ineffective operation to propagate divisive political themes and generally “sow discord" on social media during the election, the dossier, largely based on unconfirmed reports from Russians with suspected ties to the Kremlin, may have been a far more consequential tactic for sowing American national discord.
It has served as basis for the ongoing, divisive investigation of the president of the United States; it was used to wiretap American citizens and it was central to a series of resignations and demotions of top officials at the FBI and Justice Department that undermined public confidence in the rule of law.
Law enforcement experts note that in typical circumstances, investigators’ use of unverified information is unexceptional. They necessarily sift and sort broad streams of information to arrive at the truth. But critics argue the dossier is different for its seminal role in sparking and guiding Muller’s investigation.
“There is no Mueller investigation without the dossier,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington-based government watchdog group.
Learning precisely how Mueller is using that information is complicated by restrictions the House Intelligence Committee has placed on itself, a concession to the vice chairman and ranking minority member, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif). Under the concession, the panel has not been investigating Mueller’s tenure.
“Consistent with its bipartisan commitment not to impede any ongoing investigation, the committee has not sought documents or information post-dating the appointment of the special counsel in May 2017,” says a recent set of House Intelligence Committee talking points defending the release of the FISA memo.
That means that much about Mueller’s work, and the extent to which it continues work begun under Comey’s FBI, could be kept out of the public eye, including details of his investigative leads and personnel. The latter include a senior investigator, Peter Strzok, and lawyer, Lisa Page -- who both worked on the email investigation that exonerated Hillary Clinton and had to be removed from the Mueller probe after text messages revealed their anti-Trump, pro-Clinton bias.
Fitton says the House’s self-imposed cutoff for its investigation is a mistake in light of the raft of new questions that have emerged from the investigation into the FBI’s dossier-based applications for surveillance warrants against the Trump camp.
He said Congress has a pressing oversight duty to find out when Mueller learned "that the dossier, which is apparently the basis for his entire investigation, was paid for by the DNC on behalf of the Clinton campaign.”
Fitton added that it’s imperative to know if Mueller hired Steele or any of the “researchers" he worked with on the dossier, including Glenn Simpson, the journalist-turned-opposition researcher who hired Steele on behalf of Clinton and the DNC.
In recent congressional testimony, Simpson said he and his company, Fusion GPS, are still investigating ties between President Trump’s 2016 election campaign and Russia, even though the Clinton campaign stopped paying him long ago.
Who are his new clients? Simpson refuses to say.
“What I do in terms of my other work is not something I am in a position to talk about,” Simpson told the House Intelligence Committee staff during his Nov. 14, 2017, closed-door hearing, according to a recently released transcript. “I am not going to get into my current work. … I am not going to answer that."
In response to other questions, Simpson conceded that he was personally "opposed to Donald Trump” while helping Steele compile the dossier on Trump for Clinton. He also allowed that Fusion GPS regularly contracts with attorneys in federal cases to help them dig up financial and other records during the discovery phase of their trials.
Congressional investigators say Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, has been feeding Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate investigations tips regarding Trump and his associates, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Last fall, Simpson urged Democrats specifically to look into the bank records of Deutsche Bank, which has financed some of Trump’s businesses, because he suspects some of the funding may be linked to Russia.
Around the time Simpson was working with Democratic investigators, Mueller subpoenaed Deutsche Bank for financial records on Manafort and other individuals affiliated with Trump.
Though Mueller didn't apply for the original warrants to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Page, sources familiar with his probe say his team has been privy to information collected from the warrants, which ran through at least September of last year, as well as warrants for other Trump officials obtained during the election campaign.
They say a federal grand jury impaneled by Mueller has interviewed Page at least once. The dossier alleges that Page agreed to take a bribe from Kremlin officials during the campaign in exchange for ending U.S. sanctions on Russia if Trump became president. Page has repeatedly denied the accusation under oath and claimed he never even met the officials named in the dossier.
Under federal investigation for the past 16 months, Page has not been charged with a crime, and he told RealClearInvestigations that he has not been warned by Mueller’s office to expect an indictment. He also said that he was interrogated for several hours last year by investigators for both Mueller and Comey, and that during those interviews “the dodgy dossier was the centerpiece of their questions."
Sources say Mueller’s office also inherited collections from a separate wiretap of Manafort, who, like Page, was the target of FBI eavesdropping during the election. (Manafort was indicted by Mueller for financial crimes unrelated to the Moscow “collusion” activities alleged against Manafort in the dossier.)
Sources add that Mueller’s investigators and prosecutors have access to any communications from Trump associates and officials swept up in the wiretaps of Page and Manafort. Trump’s own communications may have been "incidentally collected" as a result of the questionable, dossier-based surveillance warrants.
Among other unsubstantiated accusations of criminal activity, the dossier alleges that Trump and his campaign conspired with the Kremlin to hack the Democratic campaign and leak embarrassing emails to help Trump win the election. To date, none of the allegations of felonies has been confirmed.
Fitton and other critics assert that Mueller’s continued use of the dossier reveals a broader political bias on the part of investigators who seem receptive to scurrilous allegations against Trump.
At least 11 of the 16 publicly disclosed prosecutors and attorneys on his team have donated almost exclusively to Democratic candidates for public office, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. For instance, Mueller’s top prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, not only gave thousands of dollars to Clinton’s presidential campaign but attended her election-night party in New York City in November 2016.
There, in the Javits Center, some shocked and angry Clinton supporters were already talking -- even before the candidate herself had conceded — of impeaching the newly elected president.