The news that Christopher Steele knew Ivanka Trump personally, and had discussed working together on foreign business projects, seriously undercuts the claims of the US president and his supporters that the former MI6 officer was motivated by malice when compiling his explosive Russiagate dossier.
There have been rumours of past links between Steele and the Trump camp for months. Now extraordinary details have emerged in a report looking at what prompted investigations into the Kremlin’s interference in the US presidential election.
The report had been ordered by Attorney General William Barr with the express aim of proving probes into such interference were driven by politically partisan bias.
The 476-page document by the inspector general of the Justice Department, Michael Horowitz, dismissed the allegations of bias against the FBI, stating “no political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open” the investigations.
It absolved Steele of “bad faith” in putting together his dossier but also held that there had been a “lack of judgment” on his part in putting forward some of his conclusions.
But the Horowitz report has also given Steele the opportunity to deny in his testimony that he was vindictive towards the Trump family from the start.
The idea was “ridiculous”, insisted the former MI6 officer, stressing that if anything, he was “favourably disposed towards the Trump family before he began his research”. He told Department of Justice officials that he had met “a Trump family member at Trump Tower and ‘been friendly’ with [the family member] for years” even giving that person “a family tartan”.
They were close enough to discuss, in an exchange of emails in 2008, meeting for dinner at a restaurant near Trump Tower in New York.
The Justice Department document did not name the Trump family member. The identity was provided by the broadcaster, ABC, which had seen emails between Steele and Ivanka Trump.
Steele, who co-founded the business intelligence firm Orbis in London after leaving MI6, where he had headed the Russia desk, was hired by opponents of Trump to inquire into his Russian links through the US company Fusion GPS.
Steel told the Horowitz inquiry that his report was “not designed to be a finished product and instead had to be briefed off of orally versus consumed as a written product”. His document was “mostly single source reporting” but included “background research and his judgement as an intelligence professional”.
Trump supporters have regularly claimed it was Steele’s report that led to the investigations by the US intelligence and security services, the special counsel and various congressional committees.
In fact the beginning of the investigations lay with information passed to the then Australian High Commissioner in London, Alexander Downer, by George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign, in May 2016. This information was passed on to the FBI by Australia’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO).
Steele, nevertheless, has become regular target for vilification by the Trump camp. The US president has called him, variously, “a failed spy”, “a fraud”, “of the fraudulent dossier fame” with “ties to Crooked Hillary”.
There is no evidence that Ivanka Trump and Steele entered into a business relationship.
Ivanka Trump’s name, however, has surfaced a number of times during the investigation into Trump and the Russia connection by special counsel Robert Mueller and others.
She and her brother, Donald Jr, are said to have received regular updates from Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, now in prison after being arrested in the Mueller inquiry, about a Trump organisation project, Moscow Tower, in the Russian capital.
Ivanka Trump held that she was “only minimally involved”. Trump Jr had told the House Judiciary Committee that he was “peripherally aware of it” in testimony given in September 2017.
Around the same time, details emerged about the involvement of Felix Sater, a childhood friend of Cohen, with the Trump family.
Sater, born Felix Sheferovsky in Russia, was once jailed for stabbing a man in the neck and face with the stem of a broken cocktail glass (he was drinking a margarita), and prosecuted again, in 1998, for his role in an investment scam in which Russian and American organised crime targeted the elderly.
He avoided prison and a potential sentence of 20 years by becoming an FBI informer, eventually paying a $25,000 fine. According to prosecution papers he became a source of information including on the mafia and al-Qaeda.
Sater later went into business with Trump and became a partner of the future president through a company called Bayrock, in connection with the construction of the Trump Soho hotel. The two men appeared at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for joint projects and went on business trips together.
Sater boasted that he was so close to the Trump family that he was asked by Donald to squire Donald Jr and Ivanka on a trip to Moscow. A man of obvious connections, he arranged during the trip for Ivanka to sit in Putin’s chair in the president’s office in the Kremlin.
Ivanka Trump recalled that her trip to Moscow included “a brief tour of Red Square and the Kremlin”, and this may have involved sitting at Putin’s desk. She could not quite remember, however, whether she had done so.