THE ONE REMAINING QUESTION: INSIDE THE GOP’S SECRET EFFORT TO SMEAR CHRISTOPHER STEELE

Excerpted from The Black Ledger: How Trump Brought Putin’s Disinformation War to America, Ch. 3 “A Genius Killer,” Ch. 4 “A Secret Peace” and Ch. 5 “The Fatal Stain”

Yesterday, Lindsey Graham wanted the public to know that in 2009, the FBI investigated the primary sub-source of information from the Steele Dossier as a possible Russian intelligence asset. He did not want to let you know what the results of that investigation were. Most importantly, he does not want you to know about the secret effort the GOP undertook to out and then smear Steele and this sub-source. Until yesterday we did not know what the smear was regarding this sub-source. The answer Graham provided was the fact that the sub-source had a lot of contacts with Russian counter-intelligence officers and that the FBI had investigated if that meant that the sub-source was a Russian Intelligence asset. Senator Graham has chosen not to inform us more.

The origin story of the efforts to smear the sub-source stretch back nearly four years. In mid-November 2016, David Kramer, a Director of the McCain Institute was attending the Halifax International Security Conference. Sir Andrew Wood, former UK Ambassador to Russia pulled him aside and told him he recently had become aware of some troubling information developed by Orbis Intelligence in the UK. Wood was an informal advisor to one of its principals, former MI-6 Russia Desk head, Christopher Steele. Steele, Sir Andrew said, had discovered that the Russian government may have potentially compromising material on the President-Elect in the form of a tape involving prostitutes and that evidence existed that the Trump Campaign had colluded with the Russian interference campaign in the 2016 election.

McCain, Kramer, Wood and McCain’s Chief-of-Staff Chris Brose met in a room where Sir Andrew explained what he knew of the Steele Dossier. McCain, alarmed, turned to Kramer and asked him to fly to London to meet with Steele.

“I’m in a blue jacket holding a Financial Times.” 

Sir Andrew told Kramer that he would be contacted upon arrival in London. Kramer booked a flight with his own miles. Upon landing, Kramer received a text from a number: “I’m in a blue jacket holding a Financial Times.”  Steele was ever the spy. After meeting, the two drove to Steele’s suburban home and sat down. Two documents were on the table the Steele Dossier and a list of the sources identified by letter in Dossier. Four names were Russian, and one was “from the region.” He recognized two of them as “serious people.”

Steele expressed that the information needed to be verified. Steele told Kramer that he would arrange for Kramer to get a copy in the United States.  Steele was worried because he had heard nothing from the FBI for months. Kramer met the next day with Steele’s client, Glenn Simpson, the owner of Fusion GPS who gave Kramer a copy of the dossier. McCain and Kramer met the next day. McCain asked Kramer what he should do. Kramer said he should give it to the head of the CIA and the Director of the FBI.

In a series of phone calls to Kramer, Steele admitted there were two things he was concerned might not be correct in the dossier–that Cohen had met in Prague and which of Cohen’s relatives connected him to Ukraine. The meeting may have been in Czech countryside or even in Budapest and it could be Cohen’s father-in-law who had connections to Ukraine.

Steele also told Kramer in these conversations that some information was not in the Dossier—that General Flynn had had an extramarital affair with a Russian woman in London and that the Russians may have another compromising tape of Trump.

In late December, Steele asked if it would be OK if Kramer met with Buzzfeed’s Ken Bensinger and CNN’s Carl Bernstein. Kramer agreed. Bensinger met with Kramer in Washington and asked he could take photos of the Dossier. Kramer declined.  Bensinger read it slowly and Kramer eventually left the room to make a phone call.

On January 10, 2017, Buzzfeed published the Steele Dossier. The story included photographs of the Dossier taken by Bensinger. Kramer was furious and asked if the photographs could be taken down because “you’re going to get people killed.”

Junior Varsity Gamesmanship”

In late 2017, the GOP-led House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was conducting a fractious inquiry into the Russian active measures operation against the U.S Presidential election. Although Chair Devin Nunes had technically recused himself from the inquiry, unusually, he had retained subpoena power in the investigation.

David Kramer had been asked to testify in the probe and was represented by Larry Robbins a lawyer who and had been around the Washington investigation game for years. Kramer was appearing voluntarily.

Kramer told his story of meeting Sir Andrew and then his travel to meet Steele. He admitted he was a “Never Trumper” Republican.

Committee Chair K. Michael Conaway asked about the Buzzfeed article and Robbins told the Committee he feared leaks which would draw Kramer into libel cases involving the Dossier. Conaway reassured him: “the transcript will remain executive session material.” Kramer then recounted the story of how Buzzfeed got the Dossier.

Kramer told of Steele’s insistence that the material in the Dossier needed to be verified and his concerns about the Cohen information in the dossier. Schiff pointedly asked him if the Budapest information that triggered any associations and Kramer alluded to the fact that Carter Page had mentioned being in Budapest at the same time.

The Committee majority then turned to their real goal—the sources of the Dossier. They appeared to have information held in confidence they wanted released. Robbins expressed concern physical danger to Kramer and those he might name. Conaway insisted that “we all have concern for people’s lives.” Conaway backed off when Schiff mentioned Kramer was appearing voluntarily, but the Chair stated the Committee reserved the right to subpoena the witness.

Less than an hour after the interview ended later the first leak hit the Internet from the Hill’s Katie Bo Williams. Michael Cohen’s defense counsel, Stephen Ryan contacted Robbins and told that a “little birdie” from the House had informed him that some parts of the Steele Dossier involving Michael Cohen might be inaccurate and asked that Robbins help Cohen’s defense by writing a letter to the Committee. Robbins responded by asking Ryan if he would mind disclosing his source. Ryan declined.

Robbins refused to confirm or deny anything regarding Kramer’s testimony and refused to write a letter to the Committee. Ryan then asked that the call be kept from the Committee. Robbins said he would do what was in his client’s best interest. Robbins wrote a letter to the Committee asking for an investigation of the leakers.

At 2:49 on December 27th Robbins was served with subpoena from the Committee for Kramer, signed by Devin Nunes. The committee only wanted one thing: the names of Christopher Steele’s sources. Exactly ten minutes later Byron York published a story in the Washington Examiner detailing Kramer, the subpoenas and the Committee’s desire to know the names of Steele’s sources. York wrote that some on the Committee had a new theory which absolved Trump and they needed the names to confirm it. We learned yesterday that this theory revolved around the prior FBI counter-intelligence investigation of Steele’s primary sub-source.

Robbins asked Kash Patel for more time to appear based on his upcoming cancer treatments and Patel told him he would move the testimony by one day—Robbins replied he would like to have the day before the treatments off. Committee staff began negotiating for a new date, but surprised Robbins the evening prior to the hearing with notice that Kramer must appear the next day.

Kramer took the first flight to Washington and Robbins wrote a twelve-page letter to the Committee on the reasons why his client should not be forced to answer the “one remaining question” of the Committee. At the hearing Conaway admitted that he did not expect the witness to appear due to Robbins’ cancer treatments.

Robbins expressed dismay at the leaks, calling it “junior varsity gamesmanship” designed to “to tell some false narrative to the press about Mr. Kramer’s unwillingness to cooperate with this committee.”

Robbins then argued the subpoena should be withdrawn because it could endanger the lives of his client and the sub-sources. Robbins final argument: Donald Trump could not be counted to act lawfully with his control of government: “the President of the United States, has repeatedly characterized the dossier and its dissemination as a hoax . . .He has said that the Justice Department is within his control. . . recent events disclose that the Justice Department is responsive to the suggestions of the President.” Robbins argued the President and the Justice Department could not be trusted to not engage in illegal political prosecution.

Acting Chairman Conaway recessed to huddle with his lawyers. Returning, Conaway allowed the witness to take the Fifth and the Committee’s lawyer said the Chair could rule Kramer’s invocation of his right not to incriminate himself out of order and demand the names. That later date never came. On March 7th, 2017, CNN ran a story stating testimony was leaked to Cohen’s lawyer. Conaway’s spokesperson called the charges “unequivocally false,” but the committee backed off. More details regarding the sub-source have dribbled out over this summer. Until yesterday, the specific reasons for why the sub-source was a target were not announced. Now, we know.

Copyright 2020 by Cobra y Craneo, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“The Black Ledger: How Trump Brought Putin’s Disinformation War to America. @BlackLedgerBook

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