Sticking with what can be verified in public reports, it would appear that in September, 2015, unknown Republican rivals of Donald Trump hired the investigation firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on Donald Trump. Hiring researchers to dig dirt on one's opponents is a normal, routine, completely acceptable practice in politics known as opposition research, or oppo research. After Trump secured the nomination, the firm transferred its services to the Democrats. In June, 2016 the research effort was joined Christopher Steele, a former agent of M-16, the British intelligence services. Steele had worked in Russia and cultivated extensive Russian contacts, and was hired to use them to dig dirt on Trump. Exactly what anyone expected to find is unclear, possibly evidence of shady business ties to Russia.
What he found was explosive. The first memo we have, dated June 20, 2016, have claims that the Russians had been cultivating ties with Trump for five years (since 2011), had been blackmailing him since 2013, and were feeding him information throughout the campaign. As Steele continued to uncover more and more evidence of complicity between the Trump campaign and the Russians, he became sufficiently alarmed that he informed the FBI. (I seem to recall August given as the date). In September, he gathered the most explosive material into a single document and submitted it to the FBI. But he continued gathering material even after the election; some of the memos are dated as late as December. It was not just the FBI or the intelligence community that got the memos. Apparently they were widely circulated in our ruling circles in Congress and among the press. No one published the memos because the were unsubstantiated.
Eleven days before the election, FBI Director James Comey dropped a bombshell -- the FBI was reopening its investigation of Hillary Clinton's State Department e-mails sent on a private server. Normally the FBI does not comment on sensitive investigations in the 90 days before an election. In this case, the investigation proved to be a complete nothing-burger, but the damage was done. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid accused the FBI of sitting on explosive material about Trump and Russian ties. Alarmed that these disclosures were threatening to get Trump elected, Steele approached lefty journalist David Corn of Mother Jones with his story, on the condition that his name, intelligence service, and nationality would not be revealed. Corn published a story essentially giving the background on how Steele began his investigation, became increasingly alarmed at what he saw, went to the intelligence community, and provided his information to the FBI. Like many journalists, Corn saw the memos but declined to publish the contents because they were not proven. He did, however, drop a few hints:
The first memo, based on the former intelligence officer's conversations with Russian sources, noted, "Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance." It maintained that Trump "and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals." It claimed that Russian intelligence had "compromised" Trump during his visits to Moscow and could "blackmail him." It also reported that Russian intelligence had compiled a dossier on Hillary Clinton based on "bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls."About the same time Slate magazine published an alarming story that a server with the Trump organization had a mysterious pattern of communications with a Russian bank called Alfa. Computer scientists who discovered the link did not know what was being communicated, but whatever it was was highly secretive and well coded to keep everyone else out. The story also reported that the New York Times was aware of the link and was investigating it.
Neither of these stories made much of an impression at the time. Mother Jones and Slate are generally considered lefty publications outside of the mainstream, and the thought of a major party candidate for President being a Russian spy was simply too fantastic to be taken seriously. Besides, these stories, coming as they did so soon after a disclosure that was highly damaging to Hillary Clinton, looked very much as if they had been planted by the Clinton campaign as the desperate flailings of a campaign in deep trouble. And such talk was put to rest by an article in the New York Times dismissing such talk as mere partisanship and saying that the FBI had concluded that the communications between servers were mere spam or marketing. The story was actually rather thin and flimsy compared to the tech-heavy Slate account. And the entire nature of marketing material and spam is wide disbursement. To send them to only one server, and in a highly secretive manner, makes no sense whatever.
And then, of course, Trump was elected. As President elect, he had increased access to top secret intelligence, yet he continued to insist in the face of all evidence that there was no proof that Russia was behind the hacks. The intelligence community arranged a special briefing in which they would lay out the evidence that Russia was behind the hacks. CNN reported that the briefing was conducted by the heads of the FBI, CIA, NSA and Director of National Intelligence (DNI). After the briefing, FBI directory James Comey apparently took Trump aside and told him that it had Steele's memos and gave a brief summary of the contents. CNN reported that the "compromising material" the intelligence chiefs presented was based on a 35-page memo from a British intelligence operative. They also attributed the information to "multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings." Given that the briefings were supposed to be highly secretive, this suggests a lot of leaking going on. CNN stated that it had seen the memos and declined to reveal the contents because they were unverified. But it did darkly hint that that the synopsis "included allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government."
Whether this story would by itself have had legs is anybody's guess, though coming as it did after weeks of Trump denying the obvious, my guess would be yes. But when Buzz Feed posted the actual memos in all their glory, the story grew enough legs to become a veritable millipede.
As soon as his nationality came out, the British spy went underground, fearing for his life and knowing it was only a matter of time before his identity would be revealed. (Of course, once the whole report took off, that was probably inevitable anyway). He was soon outed as Christopher Steele, and various British sources have come forward to defend their countryman's credibility. The Guardian reported that the FBI had sought a FISA warrant against four members of Trump's team in the summer, but been refused as too broad. Paul Wood of the BBC reported that, after two applications were rejected as as too broad, a FISA warrant was granted October 15 to investigate two Russian banks. The source was purportedly not the Steel memorandums, but an intelligence agency in a Baltic country, and the investigation was part of a six-agency task force investigating three Trump associates and ultimately aimed at Trump. And the Guardian article links an unconfirmed source (American) saying that the warrant was granted in October and that the two banks were Alfa and SVB Bank, and that the subject of the investigation was that very same server that we read about in Slate and that the New York Times was so quick to dismiss. (The author adds that the investigation was secret enough that the agents interviewed by the Times may not have been aware of it).
And most recently McClatchy has come out with a story that the FBI and five other agencies are investigating the Russian hacks and possible Trump ties. McClatchy identifies the same six agencies as the BBC, and days that the investigation began in the spring, before Christopher Steele even began his investigation. (Once again, this matches Wood, who says that the investigation began in April). The McClatchy story focuses mostly on the investigation of the Russian leaks. One interesting new account it has is that the FBI investigated whether the use of the pension system used to pay emigre pensioners might also have been used to pay hackers. This possibilities was raised in the Steele memos, though the article does not say whether the memos were the main source. It does say that the memos would not have been evidence enough to qualify for a FISA warrant, so there must have been other sources as well. This is significant. It means that the hacks did not necessarily take place overseas, but may have involved operatives in the US. I suppose it is even possible that Wikileaks did not know that the hackers in question were Russian agents, although that would probably fit in the category of willful ignorance. The vast majority of the article deals with Russian leaks and not with evidence of complicity by the Trump team. But it did say that some members of Trump's campaign and business empire are also targets.
Next up: My utterly amateurish and uninformed thoughts on the Steele memos.