Targets of Christopher Steele‘s discredited 2016 anti-Trump dossier have battered him and his facilitators in eight lawsuits, but courtroom victories remain elusive. Of the eight, judges dismissed five, one was dropped and one is pending.
The lone court win was a small fine delivered to three billionaire Russian bankers for an isolated dossier claim that went back years, pertained to Russian President Vladimir Putin and had no link to Mr. Steele‘s main quarry, former President Donald Trump and his allies.
“Like in the classic film, ‘Absence of Malice,’ there isn’t much legal protection against defamation, especially for public figures,” J.D. Gordon, a national security analyst on One America News, told The Washington Times. “While Christopher Steele and others closely associated with his anti-Trump dossier have seen their reputations destroyed, that’s likely the extent of justice they will face.”
Although Mr. Steele accused Mr. Trump and associates of about a dozen election-interference crimes, only one figure — campaign volunteer Carter Page — was still pursuing redress this year. Earlier this month, a judge in Delaware dismissed his defamation lawsuit against news media sites.
Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen filed a lawsuit against investigative firm Fusion GPS, which handled Mr. Steele, and BuzzFeed, which published the 35-page dossier. But the civil complaint was short-lived. Cohen faced his own criminal investigation in 2018 and dropped his case.
A nearly three-year Justice Department probe, plus a Justice Department inspector general report, left the dossier in shatters.
The FBI at first embraced it but then came to the conclusion it was a mix of inaccuracies and Kremlin disinformation. Senate Republicans obtained internal FBI narratives that showed Mr. Steele‘s main source, a Russia-born scholar once employed by the Brookings Institution, relied on unverified secondhand and thirdhand Kremlin gossip.
But turning bogus opposition research into legal victories has proven elusive to the victims. American law sets a high bar for winning a libel case. As public figures, the aggrieved must show not only falsity but also that the defendants knew this and published anyway.
Dossier allegations — though not backed up by Mr. Steele with any named sources or documents such as texts, emails or memos — helped drive special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which failed to find an election conspiracy, according to his March 2019 report.
That is one reason Mr. Steele and his facilitators appeared vulnerable to legal challenges and big payoffs for those named. But that scenario has not materialized.
BuzzFeed — which published the dossier on Jan. 10, 2017, jolting Mr. Trump and his team prepared to take control of the White House — won a libel lawsuit brought by Russian cyber entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev. The dossier’s final December 2016 memo said he personally hacked Democratic Party computers under pressure from Russian security. He has always denied this as preposterous.
A U.S. District judge in Florida threw out Mr. Gubarev‘s case, not because of truth, but because the FBI relied on the dossier to investigate the Trump campaign, making it a privileged document for journalists to report. Mr. Gubarev, a Cyprus-based provider of computer servers, has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
In Delaware, a judge this month dismissed Mr. Page‘s defamation complaint against news media sites including Yahoo and HuffPost. U.S. District Judge Craig Karsnitz said that a 2016 Yahoo story about an FBI investigation accurately reported what was going on, not that claims against Mr. Page about Russian associations were true. The Yahoo story was based largely on information anonymously provided by Mr. Steele.
The dossier falsely reported that Mr. Page conspired with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and the Kremlin to intervene in the 2016 election. Mr. Mueller’s report cleared the two men. There was no proof the two ever met or spoke to each other. Mr. Page also said he never met with two Russian kingpins, another unproven Steele claim.
Previously, a 2020 Page lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee, which financed the dossier with the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, was thrown out. A U.S. District judge ruled that Mr. Page’s lawsuit venue of Illinois lacked jurisdiction.
In Washington, three Russian banking oligarchs sued Mr. Steele and Fusion GPS, which hooked Mr. Steele up with D.C. reporters and spread the dossier in Washington, including to the FBI, through an intermediary.
In D.C. Superior Court, Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan, who own Russia‘s Alfa Bank, sued Mr. Steele. The offending dossier passages included one that said Alfa had delivered bribes in the 1990s to Mr. Putin.
The lower court ruled, and the D.C. appeals court agreed, that the three are public figures and must show that deliberate untruths by Mr. Steele (actual malice), which they did not. Case dismissed.
In U.S. District Court in Washington, the three bankers’ October 2017 defamation complaint against Fusion GPS is still active. The defamation, they say, is the dossier false linking them to Russian election interference
Another setting for dossier lawsuits was London, headquarters for Mr. Steele‘s Orbis Business Intelligence.
There, Mr. Steele suffered his first loss. Justice Mark Warby found that Mr. Steele libeled the Alfa oligarchs when he said they arranged for large bribes to Mr. Putin in the 1990s. Justice Warby concluded the claim was “inaccurate and misleading,” but imposed a small fine of $22,000.
A second London trial featured Mr. Gubarev‘s first legal move against Mr. Steele himself. At trial, where Mr. Steele took the stand, his defense did not assert that the hacking allegation was true, just that he is not the one who published the December 2016 dossier memo.
Justice Warby also presided over that case. In his final ruling on Oct. 30, the judge delivered a boost to Mr. Gubarev‘s business reputation by saying the dossier claim against him was indeed defamatory, meaning it was false.
But the judge dismissed the case, writing: “The words complained of, in their context, meant that there were good reasons to suspect the claimants of having, under duress from the Russian Secret Service, taken part in hacking the computers used by the Democratic Party leadership, and using the access they unlawfully gained in that way to transmit virus, plant bugs, steal data and alter files and software. That imputation is defamatory of Mr. Gubarev at common law, and its publication in this jurisdiction and the EU caused serious harm to his reputation.”
The judge concluded: “He would have been entitled to substantial damages, if he had proved that the defendants are responsible in law for the publication complained of. But he has failed to prove that. So, Mr. Gubarev‘s claim must be dismissed.”
The dossier’s importance in American political history is immense. Democrats used the document in an attempt to cripple, and perhaps oust, Mr. Trump.
Rep. Adam Schiff, California Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, brandished the allegations to accuse Mr. Trump of colluding with Russia. The dossier spawned scores of media stories alleging Russia-Trump collusions.
The FBI relied on Mr. Steele‘s claims to pursue a number of Trump allies, none more so than Carter Page. The FBI singled him out for four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) wiretaps in 2016-17. The bureau’s vital evidence to convince a judge to approve warrants: the dossier. In addition to the wiretaps, the FBI assigned former Cambridge University professor Stefan Halper to spy on him with recorded conversations. They produced nothing incriminating, just denials of dossier claims.
Mr. Page declined to comment to The Washington Times.
Through evidence discovery, what the two Gubarev lawsuits did accomplish was to force Mr. Steele to speak on-the-record about what he did. Otherwise, he remained in the shadows, speaking to reporters anonymously.
His first sworn court declaration in London disclosed he had not confirmed his source’s claims and had told Washington journalists they must first run down the leads.
In the Florida case, Mr. Steele said the Gubarev hacking allegation came unsolicited. He said he tried to confirm it through a site, CNN iReport, which turns out to be gossipy information unrelated to the cable channel.
David J. Kramer also provided a deposition, testifying that Mr. Steele pressed him to spread the anti-Trump claims all over Washington. The associate of the late Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, was a key post-election dossier player. Mr. Kramer acquired a copy through Fusion GPS and in December 2016 passed material to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt, CNN’s Carl Bernstein, National Public Radio and McClatchy news service
His most momentous meeting was with Ken Bensinger of BuzzFeed. The reporter photographed each page, all of which appeared on the news site on Jan. 10, 2017.
“Now, we suggest that Mr. Kramer was working his socks off, collecting detailed inquiries from the media, referring them to you, and reporting back, and effectively he was acting as your agent for communicating with the media whom you did not personally want to meet. Right or wrong?”
Replied Mr. Steele: “I disagree with that.”
Steele attorney Gavin Millar said Mr. Kramer lied when he asserted that the former spy pushed him to spread the dossier to the news media.
Mr. Millar talked of Mr. Kramer’s “admitted/apparent propensity to lie and dissemble, his motives to cover himself.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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