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The top lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign told House Intelligence Committee investigators that he was aware of Fusion GPS’s plans to have British ex-spy Christopher Steele brief reporters about his controversial anti-Trump research during the 2016 contest.
The December 2017 testimony of Marc Elias, the Clinton campaign’s general counsel, was revealed through the release of dozens of Russia investigation witness interviews last week. Elias, the head of the Perkins Coie political law group, hired Fusion on behalf of the campaign.
Then-Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina asked whether Elias knew that Fusion sent Steele to talk to media outlets during 2016, and Elias said he was “aware that he talked to media outlets in that time period” and admitted that he knew about the meetings before they happened. He said he was not involved in deciding which journalists Steele would meet but was present when the discussions setting up the meetings happened. He said the decision by Fusion GPS may have been made during a meeting at his Washington office.
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s December report criticized the Justice Department and the FBI for at least 17 “significant errors and omissions” related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and for the bureau’s reliance on Steele’s dossier. Steele put his research together at the behest of Fusion GPS, funded by Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Declassified footnotes show the FBI knew Steele’s dossier may have been compromised by Russian disinformation.
Horowitz noted that “with Fusion GPS’s authorization” in late September 2016, Steele traveled to D.C. and met with “numerous persons outside the FBI to discuss the intelligence he had obtained.” These included meetings with Elias at his D.C. office, DOJ official Bruce Ohr, and others. Steele later met with State Department officials such as Kathleen Kavalec and Jonathan Winer.
During Steele’s September visit, he also met with numerous journalists at the behest of Fusion, briefing reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker, and CNN.
A legal filing by Steele noted that these journalist meetings, arranged and attended by Fusion GPS, “involved the disclosure of limited intelligence regarding indications of Russian interference with the U.S. election process and the possible coordination of members of Trump’s campaign team and Russian government officials.”
Steele told Horowitz’s team that the press briefings were “taskings” by Fusion GPS that “his firm had to honor.” Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson attended them with Steele.
Steele called the reporter discussions “off the record” and said he referenced his dossier findings but did not distribute copies. Steele claimed these discussions covered “general themes” and said he dodged questions about whether he reported his findings to the FBI. Steele claimed he did not recall the FBI telling him he could not talk to journalists, calling the dossier a “pipeline one” project for Fusion GPS. He claimed any efforts by the FBI to set terms like that would’ve been a “showstopper” for him and emphasized that his work was done for Fusion GPS, which “controlled and directed the terms for interactions with third parties,” such as reporters.
Steele was the source for a late September 2016 Yahoo News article about Carter Page titled “U.S. intel officials probe ties between Trump adviser and Kremlin.” The article cited a “well-placed Western intelligence source” who claimed that Page met with longtime Putin associate and Rosneft energy company chairman Igor Sechin. Page denies this meeting took place, and the FBI found no evidence of it. That Yahoo News article was repeatedly referenced in FISA applications against Page.
Steele was also the source for a late October 2016 Mother Jones piece citing “a former senior intelligence officer for a Western country” and noting that “in recent months he provided the bureau with memos … contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump.”
The former MI6 agent was terminated as an official FBI confidential human source due to his leaks to the media, although Ohr continued to serve as a back channel between Steele and the bureau.
Gowdy also asked whether Elias knew whether Fusion GPS paid reporters, and Elias said he had “no reason to think that that’s true.”
Elias said he had seen “some” of the dossier “but not all of it” during the campaign. He said he started getting briefing on Steele’s findings, either in hard copy, orally, or in person, in late June or early July 2016, and he likely first heard Steele’s name in early July 2016 from one of Fusion GPS’s founders.
When discussing what sort of information from Steele and Fusion he passed along to the Clinton campaign, Elias said, “If I received information and it was useful and it was verifiable and it was information that I felt comfortable with, then it went in one bucket. If it was information that wasn’t, it wasn’t.”
Perkins Coie was paid more than $12 million between 2016 and 2017 for its work representing Clinton and the DNC. According to Simpson, Fusion was paid $50,000 per month from Perkins Coie. Elias testified it was $60,000. Fusion GPS disclosed that it paid Steele $168,000 for his work. Perkins Coie claimed Fusion approached them in March 2016 knowing Perkins Coie represented Clinton.
Steele met with another Perkins Coie lawyer, Michael Sussmann, in 2016, testifying in British court that the Democratic attorney provided him with claims about Alfa Bank’s purported ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a July meeting. These allegations made their way into the Steele dossier.
Robert Mueller’s special counsel report found the Russians interfered in the 2016 election but “did not establish” any criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia.
Clinton’s former presidential campaign manager Robby Mook said in 2017 that he authorized Elias to hire a firm to dig up dirt on Trump’s connections with Russia and said Elias periodically briefed the Clinton campaign about Fusion’s findings.
“We were getting briefings that were put together by the law firm with information,” Mook said. “I’m proud that we were able to assemble some of the research that has brought this to light.”
The FBI told Steele in October 2016 it was looking into Page as well as Trump campaign associate George Papadopoulos, future Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Steele passed along at least some of this information to Fusion GPS.