Journalist Charts The 'Bizarre Twists And Turns' Of The Trump-Russia Dossier

Mar 6, 2018
Originally published on March 7, 2018 11:18 am

As the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election continues, more and more attention has focused on the infamous Russia dossier on Donald Trump compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.

NPR has not detailed the contents of the dossier because it remains unverified, but journalist Jane Mayer has written a cover story about its origins for The New Yorker. Although Trump and his allies have sought to portray the 35-page dossier as Democratic-funded propaganda, the work that led to its creation initially started with Republicans themselves.

A GOP financier approached the private intelligence firm Fusion GPS to begin work researching Trump, but then discontinued that support. Later, after it was clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee, a law firm connected to the Clinton campaign began funding the work. Mayer says that Steele never knew precisely for whom he was ultimately working.

"The argument being made by the Republicans these days in Congress is that it was a huge conspiracy of the Clinton campaign with Christopher Steele," Mayer says. "But, in fact, if you really go back and look at the facts, Christopher Steele didn't know for months that he was working for the Clinton campaign — and the Clinton campaign never learned that Christopher Steele was on their payroll until it was in the press."

In her latest article, Mayer describes how the dossier was compiled and why so little was done about its findings during the campaign — even after Steele shared his information with the FBI.

She also reports on a short memo written in November 2016 alleging that a Russian source claimed to Steele that Moscow had intervened to block Trump from nominating Mitt Romney as secretary of state because he was perceived as being unfriendly to Russian interests.

If that memo is true, Mayer says: "It would be an unbelievable interference by a foreign power in picking and shaping [and] influencing the choice of the top foreign policy person in this country. It would mean that there was interference by Russia not just during the election but since the election, after the election, over a president."

There are no indications of how Russia might have exerted the influence about which one person boasted to Steele, according to Mayer. Romney declined to comment to Mayer. Mayer reports that the White House denied Romney was ever a first choice for secretary of state and it "declined to comment about any communications that the Trump team may have had with Russia on the subject."


Interview Highlights

On how the project of researching Trump's ties to Russia was started by a Republican financier

There are so many bizarre twists and turns in this story. ... This whole project of looking at Trump's ties to Russia starts, really, going back to 2015, but it's funded by a Republican New York financier named Paul Singer, who dislikes Trump and wants to knock him out. So he hires this firm, Fusion GPS — it's a private eye firm in Washington that also does business intelligence — and says, "Can you look into Trump's ties to Russia?" Everybody could see there was something hinky about this, but nobody knew exactly what was going on.

So Fusion starts doing this research for a Republican to try to knock out Trump in favor of other Republican nominees. But when it becomes clear to Paul Singer, who is paying them through something called the Free Beacon — it's a foundation [and news organization] he's set up, he's paying for this opposition research on Trump — and when it's clear to him that Trump's going to get the nomination, he sort of pulls the plug and says, "I'm out," and stops funding the research.

So Fusion GPS, the firm that was doing the research, had gotten some very damning leads and they're thinking, "Somebody ought to be interested in this," and so they then go to the Hillary Clinton campaign and say, "You know what? We found out some pretty weird things about Donald Trump and Russia. Would you like us to now do this research and continue it on your behalf?" And the Clinton campaign says, "OK." So [the campaign] then sign[s] on Fusion GPS and it's that point when Fusion then turns to this Englishman, Christopher Steele.

On Steele not initially knowing he was doing research for the Clinton campaign

Christopher Steele's very English, OK? So he's really not a part of our American political scene. He's a British expert on Russia living in London, and he's contacted by his friend Glenn Simpson at Fusion GPS whose firm is in Washington. They've worked together on other cases in the past, and Glenn Simpson says to him, "I've got these leads on Donald Trump and I can't get any further. I'm hitting kind of a dead end. Would you be interested in helping? Do you think you might be able to do this job?"

Steele says, "Sure, I'd be interested in looking into it." But he thinks he's working for Fusion GPS. He knows they have what they refer to as an "ultimate client," but the ultimate client, he's told, is a law firm. That is true. It's a law firm named Perkins Coie, but Perkins Coie is actually the law firm for Hillary Clinton's campaign and for the DNC. And it's the DNC and Clinton and the Clinton campaign who are paying for this research, but they never tell Christopher Steele this in the beginning. At least for months he doesn't know it. He's not an idiot, so he can obviously figure out that he's doing some kind of research — that he's looking at Trump in a negative light and he can deduce that it's likely for the presidential campaign; he just doesn't know specifically who.

On Steele going to the FBI once he sees troubling connections between Russia and Trump

He decided to do it almost at the very beginning. As soon as he got back information from his Russian sources, which would've been in the end of June 2016, he took a look at it and was shocked. It was devastating stuff about the possibility that Russia could blackmail Trump, possibly, and that there were all these ties going back and forth between various Trump people and the Kremlin. He looks at this material and he thinks he needs to go to the FBI right away, and by July 5 he went to the FBI. ...

He meets with an FBI agent who he's known in the past. He has said elsewhere that the reaction of the FBI agent was "shock and horror," but there seems to be a lag after that meeting [on] July 5 where nothing really happens at the FBI right away.

On what Steele did next, since he felt the FBI wasn't doing enough

By late July, August, he is beginning to feel — he's getting more and more information from his Russian sources that is looking like there is some kind of serious wheeling-dealing going on between the Trump campaign officials and Russian figures. And so he's getting more and more worried about it, and he tells a friend who works at the State Department that he's very concerned and the friend, named Jonathan Winer, takes it up through channels through the State Department. He meets with Steele, does a synopsis of this dossier with some of the most devastating information and eventually takes it all the way up to [Secretary of State] John Kerry. ...

[Kerry] puts it in a safe and says, "This looks political. We shouldn't get involved. Tell him to take it to the FBI." The campaign is raging at this point. ... And nobody in the Obama administration wants to be accused of interfering in some way. There are laws against it, something called the Hatch Act that bars people in federal office from using their offices to affect elections.

So they steer clear. ... Steele is trying to get someone to pay attention and more and more his hair is on fire, but he can't get anybody to take action. He's already dealing with the FBI, that's where they're telling him to go. And the FBI doesn't seem to be paying much attention.

On the CIA briefing intelligence committee members of the House and Senate before the election

In that meeting, which takes place in September, finally, by then the CIA is convinced that the ... Russians are interfering in the election and not just playing to create chaos, which was the first theory, and to kind of undermine the idea of democracy. ... But the CIA becomes convinced by the very end of the summer that the Russians are actually trying to help Trump, which is what Steele has been saying all the way along.

So the CIA then briefs the top leadership in Congress in both the House and the Senate and the intelligence committee members of this, and Obama is hoping that he can get these leaders on both the Republican side and the Democratic side to sign some kind of statement denouncing it and telling the public about it and warning everybody, all the election officials in all the states that are going to deal with the upcoming presidential election. But the Republicans, particularly Mitch McConnell, refuse to sign on to a bipartisan statement and [McConnell] won't sign anything that specifically mentions the Russians. He says he doesn't believe it and he just won't do it.

This is a real problem for Obama, because he had been wanting to have a bipartisan statement so that he and other Obama administration officials wouldn't be accused of playing politics with this thing, this bombshell having to do with Russia, but McConnell refuses to sign it, and so the Republicans won't do it and so at that point Obama just decides not to say anything.

On why the news that Russia hacked the DNC's email got lost in the cycle

They thought it was going to be kind of blockbuster news, that these top officials come out and say, "Russia is interfering in our election. We think Russia has hacked these emails that are from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee." And on any normal news day it would've gotten huge attention, I think, but it was the most abnormal of news days.

That was the same day and the same afternoon, in fact, that The Washington Post broke the story of Trump's Access Hollywood tape that had him saying lewd things about women, wanting to grab them by their crotches, or whatever, and that made incredible news.

And then, almost instantaneously, WikiLeaks starts to release more emails that sort of changes the subject. WikiLeaks starts releasing John Podesta's emails from the Clinton campaign and everybody jumps onto that and starts becoming fascinated by the private things that John Podesta, the chairman of the Clinton campaign, was saying to everybody else in the campaign, juicy gossip. And in all of that, the idea that the intelligence community is trying to warn the country of, which was that the Russians were behind this hacking, gets kind of lost.

On Steele being vilified by some Republicans in Congress

Because this dossier is part of the basis of the FBI investigation ... he's become a target of the Republicans who want to sort of stop the whole line of inquiry into Trump and Russia. So Trump has denounced it as "fake news" and has said it's a "witch hunt," and I suppose the person who they think is at the heart of this witch hunt is Steele. And so there's been kind of an effort on the part of some of the Republican leadership in Congress to villainize him and among other things they've suggested he may have lied to the FBI about his contacts with the press, which makes him vulnerable to potential felony charges, lying to the FBI. ...

If coming forward and trying to tip off American authorities to something that might be dangerous results in vilification, public trashing of your reputation and humongous legal fees, who's going to want to come forward and tell this country anything?

On Steele and his business partner debating whether or not to keep the lascivious allegations in the dossier on Trump

[As soon as the infamous lascivious allegation comes in as part of] Steele's investigation, he takes one look at it and calls in his partner Chris Burrows in the office, who also takes a look at it, and they're these two tough spies who have seen it all and they both realize that this is trouble. It's going to be accusing a potential president of the United States of this sort of perverted behavior, but also, more importantly, of behavior that has made him subject to blackmail and possibly giving the Russians leverage over him, that it's a terrible situation potentially and politically unbelievably damaging.

So Burrows, who is a little older than Steele, thinks maybe they should leave it out and just stick with the other information they have. And he just thinks the impact may be very difficult to deal with. But Steele — it's interesting, it's part of his character — he says, "Well, I don't think we should cherry-pick it and take out the things we don't like, because it will distort the information and the information is the information and we need to leave in the whole thing ... because otherwise you're not really giving the full picture." And he also says, "I think it's important, because if it's possible that a potential president of the United States could be blackmailed by Russia then people have got to know that."

Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Martina Stewart adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about the Trump dossier compiled during the 2016 election by former British spy Christopher Steele as opposition research for the Hillary Clinton campaign. There's been several gaps in the story, and my guest Jane Mayer has just filled in some important ones. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and her new article is titled "The Man Behind The Dossier: How Christopher Steele Compiled His Secret Report On Trump's Ties With Russia (ph)." The dossier suggests that the Trump campaign had accepted intelligence from the Kremlin on his political rivals, including Hillary Clinton. And it alleged that Trump had been cultivated as an asset by the Russians for five years and the Russians had compromising information they could use to blackmail him.

Trump tweeted that the dossier was, quote, "all cooked up by Hillary Clinton." But Mayer discovered, for reasons she'll explain, the Clinton campaign officials knew little of what was in the dossier and didn't feel they could use what they did know. Mayer writes about why Steele decided to tell the FBI what was in the dossier and why so little was done in response. And she writes about how Trump's defenders came to portray Steele not as a whistleblower but as a villain who'd fabricated false charges against Trump. One of the fascinating parts of her article is that Steele wrote a memo after the election reporting that a senior Russian official said he was hearing that Russia blocked Trump's first choice for secretary of state, Mitt Romney. We'll get to that later.

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this really fascinating piece you've written. So why did you want to write about the dossier, and what holes did you want to fill in?

JANE MAYER: Well, I actually got the chance to meet with Christopher Steele, the man who wrote the dossier, in the late summer before the 2016 election. I was one of the reporters that was brought in to meet him off the record. And I didn't write anything then, but I was kind of fascinated by him. He seemed incredibly intense and kind of distraught. And it was off the record, so I wouldn't talk about it, except that he has now mentioned it in court papers. And so I got a glimpse of him.

And then later, more recently, there have been these descriptions of him from Republicans in Congress who've basically accused him of being a liar and a - kind of a - someone who was part of a sort of dastardly plot with Hillary Clinton. And it certainly didn't jibe with the picture I had of him. And so I tried very hard to go back and figure out what was the truth.

GROSS: So would you just explain what kind of company Steele co-founded, Orbis? What do they do?

MAYER: So it's a kind of private business intelligence company. They - he used to be a spy with MI6, and he specializes in Russia, and what he has done is taken his knowledge of that part of the world and joined with another former spy from MI6. They have a little firm in London with I think fewer than 10 employees, and they sell their expertise to private clients, mostly law firms and businesses who want to get specialized information, particularly about Russia in the case of Christopher Steele. So if a company maybe is doing business in Russia or with a Russian firm, they'll come to Orbis, which is the name of their company, and sign a contract and try to get some information about the situation.

GROSS: So I've always been a little confused about how the investigation into Russian interference started with Republican opponents of Trump's in the Republican primary and then ended up being a dossier commissioned by Hillary's campaign. Can you explain the genesis of the dossier?

MAYER: Yeah, I mean, and it is - I mean, there are so many bizarre twists and turns in this stories - in this story, and that is one of them. I mean, so this whole project of looking at Trump's ties to Russia starts really going back to 2015. But it's funded by a Republican New York financier named Paul Singer, who dislikes Trump and wants to knock him out. And so he hires this firm Fusion GPS - it's sort of a private eye firm in Washington that also does business intelligence - and says, can you look into Trump's ties to Russia? Everybody could see there was something kind of hinky about this, but nobody knew exactly what was going on.

So Fusion starts doing this research for a Republican to try to knock out Trump in favor of other Republican nominees. But when it becomes clear to Paul Singer that Trump's going to get the nomination, he sort of pulls the plug and says, I'm out, and stops funding the research. So Fusion GPS, the firm that was doing the research, had gotten some very damning leads, and they're thinking, you know, somebody ought to be interested in this.

And so they then go to the Hillary Clinton campaign and say, you know what? We found out some pretty weird things about Donald Trump and Russia. Would you like us to now do this research and continue it on your behalf? And the Clinton campaign says, OK. So they then sign on Fusion GPS, and then it's that point when Fusion then turns to this Englishman Christopher Steele.

GROSS: So what did Christopher Steele know about who his actual client was - because it's Fusion GPS who actually hires him. They hire Steele on behalf of the Clinton campaign and the DNC, but what does Steele know about his - that he's really doing this for the Clinton campaign?

MAYER: He did not know. Christopher Steele's - he's very English, OK? So he's really not part of our American political scene. He's a British expert in Russia living in London, and he thinks he's working for Fusion GPS. He knows they have what they refer to as an ultimate client, but the ultimate client, he's told, is a law firm. That is true. It is a law firm named Perkins Coie, but Perkins Coie is actually the law firm for Hillary Clinton's campaign and for the DNC, and it's the DNC and the Clinton campaign who are paying for this research.

But they never tell Christopher Steele this. In the beginning, at least for months, he doesn't know it. But he's not an idiot, so he can obviously figure out that he's doing some kind of research on - you know, he's looking into Trump in a negative light, and it's - you know, he can deduce that it's - likely it's for the presidential campaign. He just doesn't know specifically who.

GROSS: Why not just come out and tell him?

MAYER: Well, you know, it's this world of kind of careful legal deniability. So the - just to back up, the whole thing begins with the Clinton campaign wanting to have opposition research on Trump but to be able to have - say that they don't know who dug it up. And so what you - the law firm - it's very typical. This is done in many campaigns. What the Clinton campaign does is they have a law firm that contracts with the investigators. And that way, there's a kind of a, you know, firewall between the campaign and the dirt digging that's going on. And then the Clinton campaign gets told what some of the dirt is, but they can say, well, they just don't know how - you know, how this came about. And they're protected from - for - legally.

And so there's this law firm standing in as a firewall, and the head of - the general counsel to the Clinton campaign is at that law firm. His name is Marc Elias, and he never tells the Clinton campaign who's doing the opposition research. Just, again, for sort of legal protection, he never says, I've hired Fusion GPS, and he never tells them that Fusion GPS has hired a former British spy named Christopher Steele.

So, you know, there's this theory going around - or the argument being made by the Republicans these days in Congress is that it was a huge conspiracy of the Clinton campaign with Christopher Steele. But in fact, if you really go back and look at the facts, Christopher Steele didn't know for months that he was working for the Clinton campaign, and the Clinton campaign never learned that Christopher Steele was on their payroll until it was in the press...

GROSS: But what is even more...

MAYER: ...That is, other than Marc Elias. But Hillary Clinton's people - I talked to John Podesta. I talked to Robby Mook. They are the chairman of the campaign and the general manager of the campaign. They'd never heard of Christopher Steele. They didn't know he existed.

GROSS: What's even more amazing than that is that they didn't know about the dossier. Their campaign is paying for this research. The research is remarkable, showing Russian interference in the election and possible connections with Trump. This is amazing information. The lawyer, Marc Elias, the lawyer for the Clinton campaign, has the information, and somehow it doesn't really get to the campaign. How could that be?

MAYER: Well, some of it gets through. I mean, Marc Elias - all right. So he - So Christopher Steele takes on this assignment. He starts writing these memos that are just like, mind-blowing about the ties between various people in the Trump world and Kremlin officials. And he starts sending in these memos. The memos go to Fusion. Then Fusion, to be extra careful, they don't hand anything in writing to the campaign. What they do is they orally brief the general counsel, this guy, Marc Elias. And Marc Elias is, you know, flabbergasted by what he's hearing. But a lot of it, frankly, to him is just, you know, it's Kremlinology. It's all these Russian names. It doesn't really - it's abstruse. It's hard to make head or, you know, tails of.

And so he passes on some of the information to the top people in the campaign, you know, sort of saying there's kind of these weird Russian ties to Trump. But he never gives them a copy of the dossier. He never actually has a copy of the dossier. So he doesn't have the - they don't get the whole picture. And, in fact, the strangest thing to me is Podesta and Robby Mook, they never saw the dossier until it was published in January, way after the election. So they don't know. You know, they hear little bits about Trump in Russia, but in fact, what they're really focused on is quite different at that point. They're trying to figure out who hacked their emails and how to stop it, and a much more sort of practical thing, not this big picture. They're just not aware of, you know, they can't kind of comprehend all the details that are in the dossier.

GROSS: OK. So the Clinton campaign isn't fully informed about the dossier, and Steele is starting to feel like this is really dangerous stuff, if the Russians are really interfering in the election, and particularly if Trump is connected to it in some way. So at some point, Steele decides he should go to the FBI. Why did he decide to do that, and when did he decide to do that?

MAYER: So he decided to do it almost at the very beginning. As soon as he got back information from his Russian sources, which would have been in the end of June 2016, he took a look at it and was shocked. It was devastating stuff about the possibility that Russia could blackmail Trump possibly, and that there were all these kind of ties going back and forth between various Trump people and the Kremlin. He looks at this material, and he thinks he needs to go to the FBI right away. And by July 5, he went to the FBI.

GROSS: And so who does he meet with at the FBI, and what is the outcome of that discussion?

MAYER: So he meets with an FBI agent who he's known in the past. And he has said elsewhere that the reaction of the FBI agent was, quote-unquote, "shock and horror." But there seems to be a lag after that meeting July 5 where nothing really happens at the FBI right away. But to explain a little bit about why Steele went to the FBI also is he has worked with the FBI a lot in the past. He left MI6, the British intelligence service, in 2009. And he's worked on a number of cases with the FBI since then when he's been in his sort of private company. So he has a lot of ties there. He has a tradition of working with government and working for government. And he had a sort of a pact with the partner with whom he founded the firm, that as soon as they started doing private work, if they came across anything with national security implications, they would go to authorities. So they've done it a number of times in the past. So this, he goes to the FBI. But, it's part of how his firm acts and has acted in the past.

GROSS: And the FBI has a lot of respect for him, and they usually gratefully accept his information.

MAYER: Absolutely. I mean, they've worked with him. They've paid him in the past to do work with them because he's been a very solid investigator and has a lot of knowledge of Russia. So he's helped them on cases involving Russian organized crime.

GROSS: OK. So at this suspenseful point, we're going to have to take a short break. (Laughter). So let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. She has a new investigative article called, "The Man Behind The Dossier: How Christopher Steele Compiled His Secret Report On Trump's Ties With Russia." We'll talk more after we take a very short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. Her new investigative piece is called "The Man Behind The Dossier," how Christopher Steele compiled his secret report on Trump's ties with Russia. So when we left off, we were talking about how Christopher Steele decided he needed to go to the FBI and tell them what he was learning about Russian interference in the election and Russia's connections to Donald Trump.

After Steele goes to the FBI, Steele becomes despondent that the FBI isn't doing more about this. At what point does he start to really worry about the lack of action and what does he do in response?

MAYER: So by late July, August, he is beginning to feel - he's getting more and more information from his Russian sources that are - that is looking like there is some kind of serious wheeling, dealing going on between the Trump campaign officials and Russian figures. And so he's getting more and more worried about it. And he tells a friend who works at the State Department that he's very concerned. And the friend, named Jonathan Winer, takes it up through channels through the State Department.

He meets with Steele, gets a kind of a copy of, you know - he does a synopsis of this dossier with some of the most devastating information and eventually takes it all the way up to John Kerry.

GROSS: And what does Kerry do?

MAYER: He puts it in a safe and says, this looks political. We shouldn't get involved. Tell him to take it to the FBI. The campaign is raging at this point, you know, the presidential campaign. And nobody in the Obama administration wants to be accused of interfering in some way. There are laws against it, something called the Hatch Act, that bars people in federal office from using their offices to affect elections. And so they steer clear - same with Victoria Nuland, who's a top official at the State Department dealing with Russian issues.

She too sees a copy of this in a synopsis and says, take it to the FBI. This is outside of my lane. And so Steele's trying to get someone to pay attention and more and more, his hair's on fire. But he can't get anybody to take action. He's already dealing with the FBI. That's where they're telling him to go, and the FBI doesn't seem to be paying much attention.

GROSS: So at some point, leaders of the intelligence community inform the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties and their ranking representatives on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, the gang of 12, that Russia was acting on behalf of President Trump to interfere in the election. So what do you know about that meeting and what was the after effect?

MAYER: Well, so in that meeting, which takes place in September finally, by then the CIA is convinced that the, as you say, that the Russians are interfering in the election and not just playing to create chaos, which was the first theory, and to kind of undermine the idea of democracy. But the CIA becomes convinced by the very end of the summer that the Russians are actually trying to help Trump, which is what Steele's been saying all the way along. And so the CIA then briefs the top leadership in Congress and both the House and the Senate and the intelligence committee members of this.

And Obama is hoping that he can get these leaders on both the Republican side and the Democratic side to sign some kind of statement denouncing it and telling the public about it and warning everybody, all the election officials in all the states that are going to deal with the upcoming presidential election. But the Republicans and particularly Mitch McConnell refuses to sign onto a bipartisan statement. And he won't sign anything that specifically mentions the Russians. He says he doesn't believe it, and he just won't do it.

And this is a real problem for Obama because he'd been wanting to have a bipartisan statement so that he and other Obama administration officials wouldn't be accused of playing politics with this thing, having this bombshell having to do with Russia. But McConnell refuses to sign it. And so the Republicans won't do it. And so at that point, Obama just decides not to say anything.

GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new article is called "The Man Behind The Dossier," how Christopher Steele compiled his secret report on Trump's ties with Russia. After a break, we'll talk more about the dossier and a memo Steele wrote after the election reporting that one of his sources was hearing Russia had blocked Trump's first choice for secretary of state, Mitt Romney. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker whose new article, "The Man Behind The Dossier," is about Christopher Steele and the dossier he compiled as opposition research for the Hillary Clinton campaign. The dossier helped trigger the current federal investigation into Donald Trump's ties with Russia. But during the campaign when Steele tried to warn the Clinton campaign, the FBI and the Obama administration about those ties, he was frustrated that no one seemed to be taking action.

So the Obama administration's first public statement about Russian interference is on October 7, one month before the election. And James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and Jeh Johnson, the head of Homeland Security, issued a joint statement saying that the U.S. intelligence community is confident that Russia had directed the hacking of the DNC's emails. That doesn't get a lot of traction either. Why not?

MAYER: So that was considered - they thought it was going to be kind of blockbuster news that these top officials come out and say, Russia's interfering in our election; we think Russia has hacked these emails that are from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. And on any normal news day, it would've gotten huge attention, I think, but it was the most abnormal of news days. That was the same day and the same afternoon, in fact, that The Washington Post broke the story of Trump's "Access Hollywood" tape that had him saying lewd things about women, wanting to grab them by their crotches or whatever. And that made incredible news.

And then, almost instantaneously, WikiLeaks starts to release more emails that sort of changes the subject. WikiLeaks starts releasing John Podesta's emails from the Clinton campaign, and everybody jumps onto that and starts, you know, becoming fascinated by the private things that John Podesta, the chairman of the Clinton campaign, was saying to everybody else in the campaign. It's sort of, you know, juicy gossip. And in all of that, the idea that the intelligence community is trying to warn the country of, which was that the Russians were behind this hacking, gets kind of lost.

GROSS: And the timing of the WikiLeaks release is probably not coincidental.

MAYER: Well, that's what people now think. There's been terrific reporting that shows that WikiLeaks was working with the Russians to try to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. And so as soon as the really damaging Trump story came out about him and the "Access Hollywood" tape, WikiLeaks goes up and dumps all this kind of counterprogramming, which is John Podesta's emails. And so it's as if they're sort of almost like an adjunct to the Trump campaign at this point.

GROSS: You write that as the election approached, Christopher Steele and the FBI's relationship grew increasingly tense and Steele couldn't understand why the FBI wasn't publicizing the Russian threat. And given what Steele knew, he, at that point, didn't want Trump to win because he thought he would be winning based on this Russian interference. So in the meantime, you say Steele was reassured that the FBI always kept quiet about prejudicial investigations of political figures, especially when the investigation was near an election. And then Comey comes out on October 28 with his letter to congressional leaders about new emails relating to the Hillary investigation. That's when the emails are found on Anthony Weiner's server. So what's Steele's reaction to Comey releasing information about these new emails and not going public about Russian interference in the election?

MAYER: Well, Steele just blows a gasket at this point. I mean, he's - he is a very self-contained, kind of cool character who is, you know, again, a former English spy and quite tight-lipped and discreet. But he, as you say, has been told for months that the reason no one is warning the American public about all of these ties between Trump and Russia was because you need to keep criminal investigations quiet in general and specifically very, very quiet if it's something that could be prejudicial in an election. If it's not proven, then they need to just not let the information out. So he's playing by the rules that he's told are inviable in America, which is, just keep this investigation quiet.

And when Comey comes out and then openly talks about an investigation into Hillary Clinton, he just can't understand it. And he thinks that they've broken their own rules, and it's incredibly unfair to the American public and that voters need to know that there's not just one investigation by the FBI into a presidential candidate, there's two, and the second one is into Trump, and it's been going on for months, and nobody really knew about it except he and a handful of other people. And so he decides at that point along with the Fusion GPS, the firm in Washington - they decide they're going to talk about it to the press on background. He won't use his name. He doesn't want anyone to know who he is. But he will background a reporter and let them know there's an FBI investigation, and it's serious, about Trump. And so he speaks to Mother Jones magazine.

GROSS: And Mother Jones writes a big story.

MAYER: They do, but he's not named. And the story mentions that there's an FBI investigation and that it's serious. But by then it's - OK, it's the very end of October. So much else is going on. It actually kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

GROSS: And then CNN breaks a story about the dossier. And then BuzzFeed actually publishes the dossier. Do you know how they decided to go public with it?

MAYER: So this is all after the election, finally. And it's over. Trump has won. And what happens is - this is in January of 2017. Trump hasn't yet been inaugurated, and it's Obama's last days in office, basically. And James Comey, who is the director of the FBI, decides he needs to background both the president and the president-elect about Christopher Steele's dossier, this thing that's been kind of like samizdat, moving around through various circles of the FBI and a couple reporters. It's never really been formally acknowledged by the FBI to the people running the country. And so on January 5, Comey first briefs Obama about it. And on January 6, he briefs Donald Trump, the president-elect, about it. And it doesn't take very long for news of it to leak out.

GROSS: So some of the information in the dossier is hard to understand if you don't have a background in Russian oligarchs and Russian politics. What's really easy for everybody to understand - you don't need any political, economic, social background for this - is the golden shower part, the allegation that Trump, in a hotel room in 2013 during the Miss Universe pageant - there are prostitutes in a room who urinate on a bed for Donald Trump's pleasure. That's the allegation in the dossier. Now, you write about the controversy between Christopher Steele and his partner at the Orbis investigative firm about whether they should have included that at all. Tell us about that debate within the firm.

MAYER: So as soon as this golden showers allegation comes in, which is in the very beginning of Steele's investigation, you know, he takes one look at it and calls in his partner, Chris Burrows, in the office, who also takes a look at it. And they were these sort of two, you know, tough spies who've seen it all, and they both realize that this is trouble. It's going to be accusing a potential president of the United States of this sort of perverted behavior, but also, more importantly, of behavior that has made him subject to blackmail and possibly given the Russians leverage over him, and that it's a terrible situation and - potentially - and politically, unbelievably damaging.

And so Burrows, who's a little older than Steele, thinks maybe they should leave it out and just stick with the other information they have. And he just thinks the impact may be very difficult to deal with. But Steele - he says, well, I don't think we should cherry-pick it and take out the things we don't like because it will distort the information. And he also says, I think it's important because if this - if it's possible that a potential president of the United States could be blackmailed by Russia, then people have got to know that. So he makes the decision to leave it in and send it on with the other information on up through the chain to the Clinton campaign. It's a very fateful decision.

GROSS: OK, I think we're going to have to take a short break right here and then we're going to pick up where we left off. My guest is New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, and her new investigative article is called "The Man Behind The Dossier," how Christopher Steele compiled his secret report on Trump's ties with Russia. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. Her new investigative article is called "The Man Behind The Dossier," how Christopher Steele compiled his secret report on Trump's ties with Russia. So the relationship between Steele, Christopher Steele, who compiled the dossier, and the FBI has grown rocky because Steele feels that although he's briefed the FBI, they're not doing anything or they're not doing enough. And then when the FBI does compile a report, the Steele dossier is included as an appendix.

But you say Steele was not notified that the FBI was going to do this, and Steele was very upset. Would you explain what Steele was upset about?

MAYER: Well, so when James Comey, the director of the FBI, finally gets around to briefing President Obama and Vice President Biden and then president-elect Trump in January of 2017 about this dossier, it's part of a much larger intelligence report that is about Russian interference in the campaign. But instead of just blending it into the intelligence report, the FBI decides to put it - to include the dossier as kind of a separate appendix. And the problem from Steele's standpoint is that it puts the spotlight on him.

It separates him out from the rest of the intelligence. And so inevitably, it seems it's going to leak. It's an incendiary document that's separate from everything else and word of it gets around. And indeed, it only takes, you know, a few days before word of it does leak. And he is soon outed. Somebody who's spent his whole life living in the shadows is suddenly in this glare of the international spotlight.

GROSS: And now he might end up on some kind of charges. There's a criminal referral. Senators Graham and Grassley referred Steele's name to the Department of Justice for possible criminal investigation in January. Would you explain that?

MAYER: Right. He's become a target of the Republicans who want to sort of stop the whole line of inquiry into Trump and Russia. And so Trump has denounced that it's fake news and has said that it's a witch hunt. And I suppose the person, you know, who they think is at the heart of this witch hunt is Steele. And so there's been a kind of an effort on the part of some of the Republican leadership in Congress to villainize him. And among other things, they've suggested that he may have lied to the FBI about his contacts with the press, which makes him vulnerable to potential felony charges, lying to the FBI.

GROSS: Now, I know you weren't able to talk directly with Steele. But you did talk with his partner at Orbis, the investigation company that they cofounded. So do you know through Steele's partner what Steele's reaction is to Steele being vilified?

MAYER: Yeah, he's just - he's shocked. He's completely shocked that the American allies, who he really stuck his neck out to try to protect and has worked really for almost 30 years in close partnership with, that they've turned on him and referred to him as a potential criminal. He described how he and his wife sat in the living room and talked late and thought, you know, would they be ruined by lawsuits that come out of this? Would he end up in a federal penitentiary because he's been accused of a potential felony, lying to the FBI?

Or would the Russians come after him? I mean, there had been some very, very spooky looking characters that were skulking around the house trying to sort of peer in the windows after the news broke. And, you know, they worry that they might be even in physical danger. So it's been just a kind of indescribably terrible situation for him, really.

GROSS: Now, this is super interesting in your piece. After Christopher Steele's relationship with the Hillary Clinton campaign ended 'cause the relationship was over, he wrote another memo based on one source saying that Russia intervened to block president-elect Trump's first choice for secretary of state, Mitt Romney. What can you tell us about that?

MAYER: Yeah, this is kind of the missing memo from Christopher Steele. And it's a short memo. And as you mention, it's only based on one source who was in and around the Russian foreign ministry. But it was written in November of 2016, after the election and at a time when Mitt Romney was being courted, it seemed, by Donald Trump to be secretary of state. And yet this whole process of picking Mitt Romney or not seemed kind of weirdly prolonged. And what the memo says is that the Kremlin was intervening and that they were going to try to stop Trump from picking Romney because Romney was a real hawk on Russia. He'd made a big point of saying, when he ran for president in 2012, that Russia was America's No. 1 enemy. And he was certainly not going to lift the sanctions that Russia would like to see lifted on it.

And so according to this memo, they tried to intervene, stop Trump from picking Romney and push him towards picking somebody that was - they've regarded as friendlier to their interests. It's very hard to know how much weight to give it, I have to say. But I, of course, called the White House and - to get their reaction. And the interesting thing to me was, they denied the first part. They said Romney was never the first choice of Trump, which would be hard - you know, it didn't look that way at that time, but that's what they said. But then I went back to them and said, what about the second part? Did you have any communications with Russia about who Trump would pick for secretary of state? And they haven't answered.

GROSS: And Rex Tillerson, who became secretary of state - did Russia consider him more friendly to their interests?

MAYER: Very much so. Rex Tillerson had been the CEO of Exxon Mobil. And at Exxon Mobil, he had engineered a huge deal with the Russian oil company Rosneft, and worked very closely with Russia and was very familiar with top people in the Kremlin. And, you know, it's hard to know what Tillerson's views really are independent of Trump's. But you can say that neither of them have so far imposed the new sanctions that Congress demanded as retaliation for Russia's interference in the election.

GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. My guest is New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. We're talking about her new investigative article called "The Man Behind The Dossier: How Christopher Steele Compiled His Secret Report On Trump's Ties With Russia." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about the Christopher Steele dossier. My guest is New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, and her new article is an investigative piece called "The Man Behind The Dossier: How Christopher Steele Compiled His Secret Report On Trump's Ties With Russia." She's also the author of the best-seller about the Koch brothers titled "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right."

Something that you pointed out is that when Steele - like, before Steele took on the Hillary Clinton campaign as a client, he had taken on other cases that Trump was connected with and that - yeah. Go ahead.

MAYER: Yeah. I mean, and so what I found - I mean, there is a - there's the caricature of Christopher Steele, which is this picture of him that's been painted by Congressman Devin Nunes, the chairman - the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, and by Chuck Grassley, who's the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And that picture of him is that he connived with the Hillary campaign to get Trump and that that's what this is all about.

And as I started digging into it, what I discovered was that couldn't be more wrong and that, in fact, Christopher Steele started tripping over Trump Tower and Trump's world years before the 2016 campaign, had nothing to do with the presidential election. But almost as early as he went into private business after leaving MI6, which he - which was in 2009, he started doing - working with the FBI on various cases just to do research for them on Russian matters. And in several cases, oddly, the chief culprits in these cases lived in Trump Tower. And he began to wonder - what is it about Trump Tower? - and sort of talked to friends. At one point, one friend said he would - he said, you know, it seems like all criminal roads seem to lead to Trump Tower in New York City.

GROSS: So part of the reason why Steele was commissioned to compile this dossier by Fusion GPS, which was representing the Clinton campaign, was the founder of Fusion GPS was wondering, why did Donald Trump make all these trips to Russia and yet not really land any business deals there? What were those trips about?

MAYER: So and we still don't really have an answer. That is the original question that was gnawing on Glenn Simpson, who was doing the opposition research for Hillary Clinton's campaign. And he wanted some help from Steele. And he said it seems like Trump kept going to Russia over and over, but he didn't have any big, solid business deals. So that's what Steele thought he was going to be going there to look for. And he thought he would come up with a few dodgy business deals, and that would be the end of the assignment. And instead, what he came back with was this information that Trump was being offered all kinds of dirt on the Hillary campaign and had been kind of cultivated by Russian officials for five years, who were sort of dangling business deals in front of him and doing various kinds of - they - sort of just trying to sort of recruit him in various ways, sort of - which is what they do do. So it was - he was sort of drawn into a web, a little bit.

GROSS: I, like a lot of people, have been wondering for the people in Congress - for those of them who are refusing to acknowledge the possibility of Russian interference and of cooperation by the Trump campaign - cooperation or collusion, whatever word you want to use - and not wanting to further investigate it, like, what - like, why? Why - if there's any chance that our democracy has been subverted by the Russians, like, why wouldn't you want to learn more? Why wouldn't you want to investigate that as much as possible? And I'm wondering, like, given the research that you've got done, given the investigation that you've done, do you have any answer to that?

MAYER: I think there's really only one answer that seems obvious, which is that it's about politics and protecting the president. It could be devastating. And that's - I think there's a - you know, a great threat being posed by Robert Mueller's investigation. And I - again, I don't know whether it means that it would reach Trump himself. But, you know, we've already seen four people who were immediately around him indicted. And three of them - these are Americans. Four of - four sort of campaign aides were indicted. Three have pled guilty and are presumed to be cooperating. And then in addition, you've got 13 Russian nationals who've now been indicted for trying to sort of conduct cyberwarfare against Hillary Clinton on behalf of, you know, to - helping Trump's campaign - not necessarily working with them, but helping it. And so you've - the picture is growing more grave every day. And the threat is growing bigger every day. And the - you know, this business about trying to make - discredit Steele is an effort to discredit the whole line of investigation.

GROSS: OK. So Christopher Steele has talked with Mueller. Where do you think that's heading?

MAYER: Yeah, it's so - of course, it's all very secret, and neither Steele will talk about it, nor will Mueller. But my guess, talking to people who know Steele well, is that he takes the subject so seriously, I am betting that he's probably told Mueller almost everything he knows. And I think that, in a way, it's going to be Mueller who will render the final verdict on how much of Steele's dossier is true and how much is not because Mueller has the power, the tools to really corroborate it or not. He's got subpoena power. He can get bank records. He can get travel records. He can look at surveillance tapes and, you know, foreign intel, you know, police tapes, all kinds of things like that to sort of batten down the details and see whether they are right or wrong. So I think probably Mueller's investigation will tell us a lot about how Steele looks - you know, how his dossier stands up.

GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you so much for talking with us and coming back to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for your reporting.

MAYER: Well, thanks for having me, Terry. It was my pleasure.

GROSS: Jane Mayer is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her new investigative piece is called "The Man Behind The Dossier." Tomorrow, John Oliver returns to our show. He hosts the HBO satirical series "Last Week Tonight" on which he takes a deep dive into one story which is always both really funny and really informative. His approach has been described as investigative comedy. He first became known as a correspondent on "The Daily Show." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

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