Republicans have two new targets in their effort to discredit the dossier on Donald Trump and Russia written by ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele: the State Department under President Barack Obama and Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Republicans are effectively accusing the Obama State Department of providing Steele information from Clinton associates which he then used to reinforce his own dossier that he eventually gave to the FBI.
While the veracity and significance of the information given to Steele are not yet clear, the impact is already being felt as key Republican leaders suggest publicly that they see evidence of a partisan bias against Trump that fueled Steele’s dossier.
Steele provided part of the report along with his own memos to the FBI, noting similarities between the two but acknowledging that he had not verified the sources or the information, according to The Washington Post.
Republicans are alleging that Steele received material on Trump and Russia written by Cody Shearer, a freelance journalist who they claim is a Clinton partisan. According to a source with knowledge of the matter, Shearer’s raw collection of notes – which Republicans are calling a second dossier – made its way to Steele on this path: from Shearer to Blumenthal, who gave it to an official at the State Department, who then passed it along to Steele.
Steele then gave it to the FBI, explaining it was passed along by the State Department and someone connected to a “friend of Clinton’s,” according to a report from the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
After targeting the FBI and the Justice Department in his first memo, the Shearer matter appears to be the next item on the agenda for House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-California, who has said he’s preparing more memos – including targeting the State Department – to follow last week’s allegations involving Steele and the dossier.
Shearer’s notes are also a topic that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is probing as part of his investigation into the dossier, which prompted a criminal referral of Steele to the Justice Department last month.
House Intelligence Committee Democrats say they’re once again being kept in the dark about the new Republican investigations, just as they were caught by surprise when the House Intelligence Committee first voted to make the Nunes memo available to House members last month.
Here’s what is known about Steele, Shearer, Blumenthal and the investigations into the matter:
How Shearer’s notes got to Steele
Shearer, an independent journalist, decided to investigate potential Trump-Russia connections after seeing stories about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the source said.
Shearer’s so-called dossier is actually a set of notes based on conversations with reporters and other sources, according to the person who spoke to CNN, and he circulated those notes to assorted journalists, as well as to Blumenthal.
Blumenthal then passed the notes to Jonathan Winer, who was a State Department special envoy for Libya under former Secretary of State John Kerry, the source said. Winer had a previous relationship with Steele, and he passed it along to Steele in order to get his assessment.
Blumenthal, according to the source, did not know that Winer would consult Steele on the Shearer document, and said Winer made that decision on his own.
After Winer gave Steele the notes from Shearer, Steele wrote that he found it interesting and it tended to corroborate some of what he found, but he also noted that it was uncorroborated, the source said.
Shearer’s notes, a copy of which were obtained by CNN, make uncorroborated allegations involving Trump and Russia, and they cite unnamed Russian intelligence and Turkish sources.
Steele provided Shearer’s notes to the FBI in October 2016.
What are the GOP allegations?
Steele was being paid for his research by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which was hired by a law firm on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. A key allegation in last week’s Nunes memo was that Steele’s political connections to Democrats were not told to the FISA court, and Republicans are charging that Shearer’s involvement could show Steele was receiving information from Clinton associates that went into the dossier he gave to the FBI.
The criminal referral from Grassley and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham – which was unclassified with some redactions this week – states that Shearer’s notes went to Steele through an official at the State Department and another person who was a “friend of the Clinton’s.”
“It is troubling enough that the Clinton Campaign funded Mr. Steele’s work, but that these Clinton associates were contemporaneously feeding Mr. Steele’s allegations raises additional concerns about his credibility,” the senators wrote in the criminal referral, which does not accuse Steele of wrongdoing but urges the Justice Department to investigate the matter.
Winer worked with Steele from 2014 through 2016, according to another source familiar with their interactions. Steele provided Winer with reports related to the conflict in Ukraine and Russia as a courtesy, which was not unusual and considered one source among many used for assessing the situation on the ground in Ukraine, the source said.
Steele also gave the dossier to Winer, who flagged to his superiors at the State Department, according to the source. Kerry was eventually briefed on its existence, and that it wasn’t known how much was true. Senior State Department officials showed the dossier to Kerry once it was clear the document was in wide circulation around Washington, according to the source.
Kerry was not briefed on the Shearer document, the source said.
Lee Wolosky, an attorney for Winer, said in a statement that Winer was “concerned in 2016 about information that a candidate for the presidency may have been compromised by a hostile foreign power.”
“Any actions he took were grounded in those concerns,” Wolosky said. “Today’s attacks are nothing more than a further attempt to undermine the independence and credibility of special (counsel Robert) Mueller’s ongoing investigation into those and related issues.”
What are Republicans saying?
Republicans haven’t come out and accused Blumenthal of any wrongdoing, but they’ve hinted in public appearances that raw intelligence may have been distributed for partisan purposes.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chairs the House Oversight Committee and is a senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, discussed Nunes’ State Department investigation a Fox News interview Tuesday, saying he was “troubled” by the role the State Department played.
Gowdy read the classified FISA documents that the Justice Department gave congressional committees access to on the condition that only one member of the majority and minority would view them.
“When you hear who the source, or one of the sources of that information is, you’re going to think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve heard that name somewhere before. Where could he possibly have been?’” the South Carolina Republican said.
“A domestic source. I’m trying to think of Secretary Clinton defined him. I think she said he was an old friend who emailed her from time to time,” Gowdy continued.
“Sidney Blumenthal?” Fox News’ Martha MacCallum asked.
“That would be really warm,” Gowdy concluded.
Nunes made headlines over the weekend when he predicted more memos would be coming from his committee, but he says that the investigation into the State Department has already been in the works.
“We have an active investigation into the State Department. That has been ongoing for a while now,” Nunes told Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
Nunes has repeatedly declined to discuss his investigations with CNN, saying he doesn’t discuss committee business “in the halls.”
Graham declined to discuss Blumenthal’s role in the committee’s investigation into Steele, but said the State Department is one element of it.
“There’s some connections outside the Department of Justice and the dossier that we’re looking at. One of them goes to the State Department,” Graham told CNN. “It’s clear to me he was using the dossier for political purposes and that should have been more alarming than it was.”
Who are the players?
Blumenthal is no stranger to congressional investigations, playing a role in the House Benghazi Select Committee investigation that was led by Gowdy.
Blumenthal testified behind closed doors as part of the Benghazi investigation, and he provided the committee with emails he exchanged with Clinton, who was secretary of state when the 2012 Benghazi attack occurred. Blumenthal sent Clinton dozens of emails while she was secretary of state on various foreign policy topics, some of which were unsolicited and others that were requested by Clinton.
A former journalist, Blumenthal has known the Clintons for more than 30 years, and he worked in the Clinton White House as senior adviser from 1997 to 2001.
He’s been by the family’s side during difficult moments, including President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.