Oleg Deripaska, far right, with Vladimir Putin. Deripaska tapped the services of key promoters of the Trump-Russia collusion theory, including Christopher Steele and, below left, Jonathan Winer, a top aide to Obama Secretary of State John Kerry.
By Eric Felten, RealClearInvestigations
August 25, 2020
Jonathan Winer, a former top aide to Secretary of State John Kerry who was a key conduit for disseminating the discredited Steele dossier in the U.S. government, worked as a lobbyist for Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in years preceding the Russiagate affair. This revelation raises new questions about Russian efforts to influence American foreign policy -- far afield from any Kremlin efforts to favor Donald Trump.
Winer’s connection to Deripaska came to light through last week’s release of the fifth and final volume of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. The Senate report also found that at different times ex-British spy Christopher Steele had worked for the powerful oligarch with ties to President Vladimir Putin, and sent scores of reports from his intelligence firm on to Winer, who admitted to the panel destroying many of them before leaving the State Department. Further, the Senate developed evidence that Glenn Simpson – whose company Fusion GPS contracted with Steele for the dossier – also did work for Deripaska. Simpson denied that, telling senators, “I don’t think I’ve knowingly had any contact with his organization.”
In his initial interview with the Senate committee, Winer claimed never to have met the oligarch. In a second interview Winer revised this answer. He conceded that, beginning in 2003, Deripaska had hired the law firm Alston & Bird, where Winer was a partner. He worked on the Deripaska account but, asserting attorney-client privilege, refused to say what exactly he had done on Deripaska’s behalf. RealClearInvestigations sent questions to Alston & Bird’s spokesman but received no reply.
RealClearInvestigations has found that as an employee of the government affairs and public relations firm APCO Worldwide, Winer also worked on behalf of the Russian government’s nuclear agency in 2010 and 2011. Winer also drummed up business for Steele among lobbyists he knew from his work promoting Russia’s nuclear interests. RealClearInvestigations contacted both Winer and APCO; neither responded.
Winer used his position as a top State Department official to distribute the lurid dossier prepared by Steele, which accused Donald Trump of conspiring with Russia to steal the 2016 election. But the dossier was not the first questionable Steele product Winer put in the hands of policymakers. He had been passing Steele-produced briefs to senior State Department colleagues for years. The memos were “free” for the government because the department didn’t pay for them. But that doesn’t mean Steele wasn’t getting paid.
While at the State Department during President Barack Obama’s second term, Winer disseminated to his colleagues over 100 memos written by Steele’s company, Orbis Business Intelligence. Among them were memos apparently intended to help influence U.S. foreign policy in favor of Steele’s Russian client, billionaire Putin loyalist Deripaska.
The Senate revelations establish that Winer was a key but little-known figure in Russiagate. He, along with former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr – whose wife worked for Fusion GPS – have emerged as prime vehicles for the dissemination of the Steele dossier to the highest reaches of the U.S. government.
Winer was for a decade an aide to Sen. John Kerry. From 1994 to 1999 he was a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of State. From government he went to the international lobby and law firm Alston & Bird. Winer moved to APCO Worldwide in 2008, about the time he met Steele, who had just left British intelligence and was setting up his own shop. Winer told the Senate that in his private sector jobs he “was still engaged in various types of Russian representation all over the map.” Pro-Putin, anti-Putin: Winer didn’t care, he told senators: “It was any work that was consistent with their needs and my values.”
When Kerry became secretary of state, he named his old Senate aide to a top position at the department – special envoy to Libya. Winer seems to have used that position in ways that promoted Steele’s business. Winer’s efforts on his friend’s behalf included sending policymakers memos on Ukraine and Russia produced by Steele’s Orbis Business Intelligence. They were frequent enough to be called by a shorthand – “O Reports.” From the time he rejoined the State Department in 2013, through 2015, Winer distributed over 100 of Steele’s memos.
In an email obtained by Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information request, Winer promoted Steele’s reports to Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and her deputy, Paul W. Jones (now the chargé d’affaires to Pakistan): “Toria and Paul, Three reports from Orbis,” Winer wrote the afternoon of Nov. 19, 2014. He added, “The man behind them and Orbis, Chris Steele (as previously mentioned, former MI6 Russia expert, and a trusted friend of mine) is in DC next couple of days. If you’d like to meet with him, let me know and I can put it together.”
Once Steele’s “O Reports” had become routine, Winer relied on Nuland’s assistant, Nina Miller, to circulate his friend’s reports. For example, on Feb. 12, 2015, Winer sent an “O Report” to Miller “concerning company said to be secretly owned by Putin, Putin’s Mistress and Friends.” It was sent with these instructions: “Nina please send high side to three usual persons.” The State Department did not respond to questions about the memos.
Winer testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that Steele’s memos had no purpose other than to provide the State Department with helpful information on Russian and Ukrainian affairs. But that’s not how Steele viewed his State Department connection. He made it clear that his “reports” were intended to shape U.S. policy. For example, Steele used his in at Foggy Bottom to try to improve diplomatic attitudes toward Deripaska, whom the Senate Intelligence Committee describes as “a key implementer of Russian influence operations around the globe.” The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has accused Deripaska of “holding assets and laundering funds on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
Deripaska has dismissed the accusations as “guesses, rumors and balderdash.”
Early in 2016 – not long before Steele began creating opposition research on Trump for Fusion GPS – Steele reached out to his friend at the Justice Department, Bruce Ohr. Page 883 of the Senate report states that Steele emailed Ohr to say he had heard from Deripaska’s lawyers, Paul H[auser] and Adam W[aldman], that the oligarch had been “granted an official visa to visit the US this week.” Steele urged Ohr to promote Deripaska’s trip to the States: “[Y]ou should be pushing at an open door,” Steele wrote.
There was a problem, though: Steele anticipated “counter squalls from State.” It was a problem that had a two-part solution. The first involved Ohr. Steele encouraged his friend to take advantage of “an inter-agency meeting on him [Deripaska] this week which I guess you will be attending.” The second part of Steele’s strategy involved putting his memos to work. We “are circulating some recent sensitive Orbis reporting on the RF [Russian Federation] leadership’s targeting of certain business figures.” The reports, Steele told Ohr, would suggest that Deripaska “is not the leadership tool some have alleged.”
Winer’s distribution of “O Reports” enabled Steele to influence U.S. policy for clients such as Deripaska. That may explain why, at Steele’s direction, Winer collected and destroyed as many copies of Steele’s reports as he could before leaving his job. “So I destroyed them,” Winer admitted to the intelligence committee. “I basically destroyed all the correspondence I had with him.”
RealClearInvestigations contacted Orbis with questions for Steele. There was no response.
Winer’s promotion of Steele and his business extended beyond the government. For example, when the London-based Steele visited Washington in November 2014, Winer pitched him to Nelson Cunningham, president of the Clinton-connected lobbying firm McLarty Associates. The email, almost otherwise completely redacted, can be found in the State Department archive of responses to Freedom of Information Act requests. After describing Steele as “an old friend,” Winer told Cunningham that Steele was in town for a few days. “He was in my office catching up and it occurred to me there might be value for McClarty Global knowing him and his capabilities in terms of real time and longer term analysis of developments” in the former Soviet Union.
In another message sent from his State Department email account, Winer also touted Steele to an executive at APCO Worldwide – Ariuna Namsrai.
“Ariuna, my friend Chris Steele from London is in town and working on Russian matters as always,” Winer emailed Namsrai on Nov. 20, 2014. “I thought it might make sense for the two of you to get together if you had any time tomorrow.”
“Great to hear from you!” she enthused in reply. “I met Chris before so it’s nice to hear that he is in DC.” In the same email, Namsrai asks, “Chris – what time is convenient for you?”
The arrangements having been made for Namsrai to meet with Steele, she closed by saying “Miss you Jonathan, and hope to see you soon! Hugs, Ariuna.”
As one lawyer who specializes in federal employment law told RealClearInvestigations, it is “wildly inappropriate” for a State Department official to be recommending contractors to lobbyists with business before the department.
But there’s more to it. Who, after all, is Ariuna Namsrai, with whom Winer is on a “hugs” basis? She is APCO’s managing director for Russia. Born in Mongolia, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
APCO is of particular interest because Winer was a senior director and “business diplomacy consultant” for the firm from May 2008 to August 2013. After he left the State Department in 2017, Winer returned to APCO as a “senior counselor.”
During his first stint, Winer worked with Namsrai representing a Russian nuclear power company called Techsnabexport. Or at least they did their best to make it appear they were primarily working for that company when they were actually working for the Russian government.
APCO’s 2011 Foreign Agents Representation Act filing names Techsnabexport as the “foreign principal” for which it was working. The firm described their client as “an open joint stock company wholly owned by the JSC Atomenergoprom.” In the fine print one discovers that that company in turn is “wholly owned by State corporation for Atomic Energy, ‘Rosatom,’ which is wholly owned by the Russian government.”
A “Contract for Lobbying Services and Consulting Services” was drawn up by APCO in April 2010, a copy of which was attached as a secondary appendix to the FARA filing. The “Scope of Work” includes “Creating and promoting a new image of State Atomic Energy corporation ‘Rosatom,” supporting “the interests of Rosatom in the USA,” and overcoming “existing political and trade barriers.
In October 2010, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States approved Rosatom’s controversial acquisition of Uranium One, a Canadian company with extensive mining projects in the US.
Namsrai did not respond to emails from RealClearInvestigations asking why APCO listed Techsnabexport as its “foreign principal” client and not the official Russian state nuclear power enterprise, Rosatom, and whether Steele performed any work for the company.
As Winer’s connections with Russia and the Steele dossier emerge, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson says he wants to hear more from him. But, Johnson said, the committee’s ranking Democratic member, Gary Peters, is trying to derail his efforts to enforce the committee’s subpoena and interview Winer under oath. Peters’ spokesperson did not respond to questions from RealClearInvestigations.
“Among other issues, Mr. Winer’s admitted destruction of his records related to his contacts with Christopher Steele is concerning and deserves an explanation,” Johnson said. “I am looking forward to learning more from Mr. Winer in spite of Democrat attempts to further delay our investigation.”