Tuesday, January 31, 2017

So, What is in the Steele Memos

So, what is in the now-infamous collection of memos on Donald Trump, gathered by British spy Christopher Steele and published by BuzzFeed?

Naturally the most salacious part has caught the public attention.  The first memo (No. 80, pp. 1-3) claims that Trump, while staying at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow, rented the same suite used by the Obamas and hired some Russian prostitutes to urinate on the Obamas' bed.  It further claims that the Russian intelligence bureau filmed the whole episode and used it to blackmail Trump into being their agent.  No date was given for this episode, except that it was probably in 2013.  And in fact Trump is known to have been in Moscow in November, 2013, attending the Miss Universe contest.  Some people have actually taken the accusation seriously enough to obtain floor plans for the suite showing that there was another room in the suite where Trump could have slept after rendering the bed used by the Obamas unfit for use.

The same memo also hints that there may be other such tapes, since Trump's "unorthodox behavior" in Russia "over the years" provided enough "embarrassing material" to give ample room for blackmail.  Apparently the intelligence agencies agree and believe that there is "more than one tape" on "more than one date" in "more than one place" that can be used for blackmail.

But really the salacious parts are only a small portion of the memos.  There are plenty of other allegations which are, if less titillating, even more explosive.  Now, just to be clear, I know nothing whatever about intelligence gathering and analysis, so what follows is purely an Enlightened Layperson's take on the contents.

After reading it through, what jumped out at me?

First of all, the first memo, besides being the most salacious, is also the most thoroughly sourced.  It lists no less than seven sources, identified by letter rather than number as (A) "a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure," (B) "a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin, (C) "a Russian financial official," (D) "a close associate of Trump who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow," (E) so sensitive that the description is blacked out, (F) a female staffer at the hotel where Trump stayed, and (G) "a Kremlin official."  Steele does not appear to have had direct access to A, B or G, but rather to a source they confided in, the same source for A and B, presumably a different one for G.  So the information is second-hand at best.  But D, E and F all appear to have first-hand knowledge of the black mail tape, and B said that Trump's "unorthodox behavior" in Russia over the years gave the Russians plenty of blackmail material on him.  That three separate sources claimed first-hand knowledge of the episode gives it credibility to this Enlightened Layperson.  Also significant in the first memo -- allegations by both A and D that Russian intelligence had been feeding Trump information on his opponents for several years.  It also said that Trump had very little investment in Russia, even though the authorities offered him many lucrative deals.

The first memo is dated June 20.  It is numbered 80.  Steele was apparently first hired to research Trump in June.  He must have been busy!*  After the first, his sourcing becomes much sloppier, often citing to a single, second-hand source.  It may be that Steele produced his first 80 memos not expecting them to be made public and therefore was less cautious in giving possible identifying details about his sources (a female staffer at the Ritz Carlton when Trump stayed there in 2013 presumably is not all that large a group to choose from).  Once he started circulating his memos, Steele may have become conscious that they might some day see the light of day and therefore become more careful about concealing identifying details on his sources, at the expense of making his report less verifiable.

Memo 95 (pages 7-8), undated, although presumably between Memo 94 dated July 19 and Memo 97 dated July 30 says that Trump had been providing the Russians with information on Russian oligarchs living in the US for several years.  It also says that his investments in Russia were minimal although (contrary to Memo 80), he had been trying to get in for some time.  It says that there was a well-developed conspiracy between the Trump organization and Russian leadership, with campaign manager Paul Manafort (forced out August 19) managing the ties on Trump's side and using Carter Page as a go-between.  Source: an ethnic Russian close associate of Trump.

Two other things are significant about this memo.  One is that it refers to Russian hackers in the US and specifically that Russian intelligence made payments to them disguised through its pension system, through diplomatic staff in "key cities such as New York, Washington DC and Miami."  This has been taken as discrediting the memo because Russia apparently does not have a consulate in Miami.

Second, it says that in return for Russia's assistance in the election, Trump promised to sideline Russian intervention in the Ukraine as an issue and raise NATO defense commitments to the Baltics. Indeed, Trump is believed to have intervened at the Russian National Convention to ask the party to take its condemnation of Russia's invasion of the Ukraine off the party platform.  The Convention  took place on July 18-21, so this had already happened when the memo was prepared.  Trump also questioned the US commitment to defending the Baltics in the first presidential debate.  The debates did not take place until September, so to that extent the memo might be taken as correctly anticipating future events.  I do not know if Trump had raised the question of our commitment to the Baltics before then.  Make of it what you will.

Memo 97 (pages 11-12), dated July 30 says that there had been a mutual exchange of information between the Trump organization and Russian intelligence for eight years, i.e., since 2008.  The information Trump supplied was mostly about Russian oligarchs living in the US.  The source as "a Russian emigre close to the campaign."  This may be the same source cited in the previous memo, although that is not clear.

A good many memos deal with the panic in the Trump camp and in the Kremlin as their leaks of Hillary's e-mails proved less damaging than they anticipated and the anger over Russian influence in the campaign proved stronger than they had foreseen.  I find this part comforting, really.  Too often our side has shown signs of succumbing to paranoia, thinking of the Russian State as a vast, unstoppable colossus, and the rest of us as its mere puppets.  Hearing about Russian leaders fighting among themselves and believing they had failed is a good reminder that it is not so.

Memo 102 (page 17), dated August 10, says that Russia's leak of e-mails showing Democratic machinations against Bernie Sanders was Carter Page's idea.  He suggested it to the Russians, saying that it would split the Democratic voters by turning Sanders supporters against Clinton.  There is no direct evidence of this, but to me it does seem plausible, simply because I would expect an American to have a better understanding of the intricacies of US politics than a Russian would have.

Memo 112 (pages 25-26) dated September 14 is intriguing.  It discusses the Alfa Group (misspelled as the Alpha Group). which it describes as a group of businesses led by oligarchs Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan and discussed at some length their rather nebulous relationship with Putin.  No mention of Trump is made.  But remember that Slate article?  The one that mentioned some mysterious communications between the Trump organization and Alfa Bank?  It refers to its leaders as Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, so clearly this is the same organization.  Admittedly the Steele memos (at least the ones made public) do not mention any ties between Trump and the Alfa Group.  But it is a tantalizing straw in the wind.

Memo 94 (pages 9-10) dated July 19 and Memo 134 (pages 30-31) dated October 18 may be the most explosive, both because they contain some of the most detailed, verifiable information, and because there appears to be at least some verification of them.  Memo 94 discusses a meeting between Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and Igor Sechin, CEO of Rosneft, a Russian oil company that is publicly traded, but with a controlling interest in the hands of the Russian government.  According the the memo, a "source close" to Sechin said that Sechin and Page had a "recent" secret meeting to discuss future bilateral energy cooperation and the lifting of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of the Ukraine.  According to this memo, Page reacted positively, but Sechin was non-committal.  It also mentioned Page meeting with another Russian official who provided embarrassing information on Hillary Clinton, but warned that they had such information on Trump as well.

Memo 134 appears to be more details about the same meeting.  This memo says that the meeting took place on either July 7 or 8, the day of or the day after Page giving a public speech to the Higher Economic School in Moscow.  (This part should be verifiable, I would think).  The memo says that at the meeting Sechin offered Page or Trump's associates a 19% stake in Rosneft in return for lifting the sanctions.  Page appeared interested and confirmed that, if elected, Trump would lift the sanctions. Page did not expressly say that he was speaking for Trump, but he implied it.  The memo also says that by October 17 (one day before the memo was written), Sechin had come to believe that Trump would not be elected and started looking for another buyer.  The source give is a "trusted compatriot" of a "close associate" of Sechin.

While these memos contain a great deal of gossip and second hand information and no doubt much of them are false and (almost) all unverified, there just might be some confirmation of this part.  On December 26, Oleg Erovinkin, Sechin's chief-of-staff/treasurer/liaison to Putin turned up dead in his car.  It was first reported as a murder, later as a heart attack.  So we don't know whether Erovinkin was the "close associate" listed in Steele's account, or whether there was foul play involved.  But it looks suspicious.  If this isn't exactly confirmation, it may be grounds not to dismiss the story out of hand.

And another part of this story has been confirmed.  Rosneft really did sell a 19.5% stake on December 7 to a Singaporan investment vehicle on behalf of a joint Swiss-Qatari venture, fronting for a mystery offshore account in the Cayman Islands.  Obviously, now, there is no evidence that the mystery buyer(s) have anything to do with Donald Trump or any of his associates.  Since Memo 134 says that the Russian leadership was looking for another buyer it is possible that they were already looking for another buyer and considered Trump one of many possibilities.  And maybe everyone in the know was aware of the proposed sale, so it shows nothing special that Steele reported it.  And since I would expect agreements of this sort to have a level of trust somewhat below your average drug deal, it seems implausible that the Russians would transfer their interest in Rosneft to anyone associated with Trump before he lifted the sanctions.  Or could the sale be to an intermediary who will turn over the company upon actual lifting of the sanctions?  Who knows?

On the other hand, some of the memos have been decisively disproven.

Memo 134 cites the same source as saying that after Page and Manafort departed the Trump team, Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen took over as liaison, followed by several sections so sensitive that they have been blacked out.

Memo 135 (pages 32-33), dated October 19 reports the Cohen had met secretly with the Russians somewhere in the EU in August to discuss cover-up.  The Russians decided that it was now too dangerous to have any direct meetings between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and that contacts would have to take place through unofficial representatives of the Russian state.

Memo 136 (pages 18-19 (Don't ask)), dated October 20, presumably citing the same source, says that the meeting took place in Prague and that the unofficial Russian contacts would be the parastatal organization Rossotrudnichevsto and Duma member Konstantin Kosachev.

This part of the dossier, at least, has been proven false.  Cohen's US associates and Czech intelligence have established he was in the US at the time of the alleged crime.  Possible a different Michael Cohen with a non-US passport may have been in Prague at the time, presumably on an innocent errand.

There is one other, very strange memo, Memo 166 (pages 34-35).  What is so strange about it is that it is dated December 13, 2016, which is not only after the election, but after the memos appear to have been widely circulated in elite circles, and after John McCain brought the memo to the FBI on December 9, 2016.  All other memos in the collection pre-date the election predate David Corn's scoop on October 31, 2016.  This has led some to suspect that BuzzFeed got its copy from the intelligence community directly.  Whatever the story there, Memo 66 gives further details about Cohen's disproven visit to Prague.  It says that the meeting took place in the last week of August or the first week of September, that Cohen was accompanied by three associates, that he met with Rossotrudnischevsto official Oleg Solodukin, and that they discussed how to make but conceal cash payments to the hackers involved.  Details were given about how the hackers would be concealed. It also says that the Trump organization as well as the Kremlin paid the hackers, but that their ultimate loyalty was to the Kremlin.

So, clearly there is a lot more there than just the salacious parts.  There is the allegation that Trump has been a Russian intelligence asset since 2008; that he received tips from Russians about his political rivals; that there was extensive collaboration between Trump and the Russians on the leaks, with Trump associates suggesting strategy to the Russians; and that the Trump campaign offered the Russians specific policy concessions (dropping the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as a campaign subject, raising questions about US commitment to defend the Baltics) in exchange for support.  The point has been made a number of times that many if not most of these allegations are probably false.  But if any are true, that is grounds for impeachment, if not worse.

Some allegations, particularly the ones about alleged meetings between Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and Russian intermediaries Prague, have been proven false.  That would probably also disprove the allegation that that meeting specifically discussed direct payments to the hackers by the Trump organization.

On the other hand, there is possible collaboration of the allegations of a meeting between Carter Page and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin.  Allegedly, Sechin offered Trump and his associates a very large bribe, specifically, a 19% stake in their parastatal oil company in exchange for lifting the sanctions.  Since then the possible source of this leak has turned up dead under mysterious circumstances and the 19% stake has been sold to a mystery buyer.

Is Trump a Russian spy?  There is not enough evidence to say.  But no one has even asked such a question about any earlier US President.

*He does appear prolific, at least once prolific, at least once producing three memos on a single day (Nos. 111, 112 and 113 are all dated September 14).

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