President Donald Trump and his allies have long insisted that what he calls the “fake dirty dossier” was wholly “responsible for starting the totally and discredited witch hunt” by special counsel Robert Mueller.
But, beginning in July 2016, that so-called “dossier” actually sat for several weeks inside an organized crime unit at the FBI’s New York field office, even as counterintelligence agents in Washington, D.C. – unaware of the new allegations – were already investigating Russian efforts to hijack American democracy.
Trump doubled down on his “dossier” accusation this week, ordering the Justice Department and U.S. intelligence community to release a bigger slice of the classified information used to investigate one of his advisers, New York business consultant Carter Page, insisting again Tuesday that “what will be disclosed is that there was no basis” for the surveillance.
Despite what Trump and like-minded politicians have said, sources told ABC News the “dossier” was plainly not the initial basis for the federal investigation.
The following account, relayed to ABC News by several sources familiar with the federal probe, reflects how the FBI’s investigation into contacts between Russian operatives and Trump’s campaign team, including Page, was well underway in the summer of 2016 by the time a former British spy handed the FBI a packet of startling and salacious allegations tied to Trump.
In fact, the FBI already had an open counterintelligence case on Page when he became a volunteer on Trump’s foreign policy team in January 2016, according to sources familiar with the matter.
By then, Trump had publicly claimed to have “a good instinct” about Russian’s ruthless president, Vladimir Putin, had praised how Putin was “running his country,” and had compared the Kremlin’s assassinations of dissidents to the “plenty of killing” that happens inside the United States.
And three years earlier, when the FBI in 2013 was tracking two Russian spies in New York, agents secretly recorded one of the spies saying he wanted to “recruit” Page “as an intelligence source.” Page had previously lived in Moscow for three years.
Page was never charged with any crimes and says he cooperated with that previous investigation, but sources told ABC News his file, like many counterintelligence files, was never closed.
So, two months after Page started advising Trump’s campaign, the FBI paid him a visit in New York, asking about contacts with Russian intelligence, according to a government document.
At the time, in the spring of 2016, the U.S. intelligence community had no clue the Russian government was about to launch one of its most sophisticated and effective operations ever against the United States. Russian hackers stole hundreds of thousands of emails from Democratic institutions, and a global battalion of bots armed with “fake news” was deployed across social media.
“Under what circumstances is a hack considered an act of war?” a reporter asked the State Department spokesman on June 14, 2016, the day the Democratic National Committee revealed its systems had been breached. The government spokesman declined to answer.
Three weeks later, Carter Page showed up in Moscow. He was giving the commencement address at the New Economic School, tied to some of the Kremlin’s top officials, and the event was being broadcast live online.
“I am particularly grateful for my relationship with the faculty and staff at the New Economic School,” he said at the start of his remarks, insisting he was there “as a private citizen.”
The date was July 7, 2016. Page’s name wouldn’t first appear in the “dossier” for another two weeks.
The “dossier,” in fact, was not one single document but a series of 17 separate reports, compiled over six months by former British spy Christopher Steele.
Steele was working for someone he knew well in Washington, Glenn Simpson, whose firm, Fusion GPS, was hired by the DNC to conduct opposition research on Trump.
By mid-July 2016, Steele wanted to flag his findings to the U.S. government. He reached out to two old friends: Bruce Ohr, a senior Justice Department official whose wife worked for Fusion GPS and who, like him, closely tracked organized crime, and Jonathan Winer, an aide to then-Secretary of State John Kerry who has since spoken publicly about his contact with Steele.
It’s unclear if Ohr relayed Steele’s reporting to anyone at the time – no public evidence suggests Ohr passed it on then. But the State Department’s response to Steele was blunt: If you’re so concerned, take it to the FBI.
So that’s what Steele did.
In July 2016, Steele already had a long-term contact in the FBI, and he had a reputation for digging up solid, verifiable information, sources told ABC News.
He had been a reliable U.S. government informant, providing the State Department alone with nearly 120 documents about Russian efforts overseas with no connection to Trump.
A few years earlier, Steele helped an FBI agent in Rome piece together a massive web of corruption within international soccer. The case against FIFA made international headlines.
Trying to take advantage of that relationship in July 2016, Steele sent the FBI agent in Rome the opposition research on Trump he generated working for Fusion GPS.
The Rome-based agent then forwarded the reports to an agent he worked with in the FBI’s New York field office – an agent with expertise in criminal organizations and organized crime, not counterintelligence, sources told ABC News.
That was “the wrong person” to send the reports to, according to one source briefed on the Russia probe.
Steele’s research sat for weeks in the FBI’s New York field office, hundreds of miles away from the agents in Washington scrutinizing ties between Trump’s associates and the Russian government, sources said.
“It took a long period of time for the New York field office to see it and realize what it was,” another source told ABC News, referring to the "dossier.”
An account of the FBI investigation released in February by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee reflected the delay.
“Steele's reporting did not reach the counterintelligence team investigating Russia at FBI headquarters until mid-September 2016, more than seven weeks after the FBI opened its investigation, because the probe's existence was so closely held within the FBI,” the memo by House Democrats said.
“By then, the FBI had already opened sub-inquiries into [multiple] individuals linked to the Trump campaign,” including Carter Page,” the memo noted.
In particular, the FBI was also already taking a close look at Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
Manafort had spent years working pro-Russia projects in Ukraine, and the FBI actually interviewed him in 2013 and 2014 about those business dealings overseas. Then in September 2016, the Justice Department’s National Security Division sent Manafort a letter notifying him that he was in their crosshairs once again.
But what really prompted alarm within the FBI in the summer of 2016 was a tip from an Australian diplomat: Before the DNC hack ever became public, a low-level campaign staffer, George Papadopoulos, told him that the Kremlin had collected “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, namely thousands of emails.
In mid-September 2016, Peter Strzok, the now former FBI agent who was helping to lead the Russia probe, received an “initial batch” of Steele’s reports.
“The first time I am aware of the FBI having that information – the first time I saw it – was in mid-September,” he recently told lawmakers under oath.
In the days afterward, Comey himself was briefed on Steele’s findings, according to Comey’s public statements.
Steele, meanwhile, was meeting with reporters in Washington, looking to share with them some of what he had already given to the FBI. Steele did not show them copies of his reports, but he shared “indications” of “possible coordination of members of Trump’s campaign team and Russian government officials,” as Steele would later describe it in British court filings.
Within days, news outlets started publishing what Steele told them. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill then pressed Comey on the reports during a hearing on Sept. 28, 2016.
Comey wouldn’t answer specific questions, saying it would require him to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. But he offered this: “We are doing an awful lot of work through our counterintelligence investigators to understand just what mischief is Russia up to in connection with our election.”
It’s unclear if at that time the FBI was already drafting the application it would file with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to secretly monitor Page’s communications. Two sources, however, said it takes “weeks” to put an application like that together.
On Oct. 21, 2016, the FBI and Justice Department formally filed their application with the court. It was more than 50 pages long.
Based on a heavily redacted version since released by the FBI, five pages covered “Page’s connections” to Russian intelligence services, at least five pages summarized news reports about Page’s suspected connections to Russia, and as many as six pages covered information provided by Steele.
In particular, the application detailed Steele’s allegations that Page met with two of Putin’s closest associates while in Moscow two months earlier. Page has denied ever meeting them, and no evidence has publicly surfaced to support that portion of Steele’s reporting.
However, Page would later acknowledge that while in Moscow, he sent an email to Trump campaign staffers saying he had “a private conversation” with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich who “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump and a desire to work together” on “current international problems.”
Nevertheless, with the presidential election less than three weeks away, the FBI didn’t take any overt steps to move its investigation along.
As Comey later explained to internal investigators, he believed in a “take no action” rule so close to an election.
“[We] avoid taking any action that could have some impact, even if unknown, on an election, whether that’s a dogcatcher election or President of the United States,” he told the investigators.
While the FBI was holding off on taking any public steps in its investigation, Steele was becoming increasingly anxious about Trump in the late fall of 2016.
He even told Ohr he was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected,” as Ohr later recalled in notes.
But Steele lost his direct line to the FBI in the final days of October 2016, after the FBI realized he was talking to the press about his findings and his secret relationship with the U.S. government.
A week before the presidential election, the FBI suspended its relationship with Steele and told him “not to operate to obtain any intelligence whatsoever on behalf of the FBI,” according to FBI records since released.
Steele, however, was sharing his findings with Ohr, who became an avenue for the FBI to continue receiving the information that Steele was gathering.
In fact, according to congressional documents, in the month after Trump won the presidency, Ohr met twice with officials from the FBI, including FBI attorney Lisa Page and Strzok, the senior agent working the Russia probe who privately expressed his own misgivings about Trump.
Ohr notified other senior colleagues in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division about his contacts with Steele, but he did not notify his superiors in the deputy attorney general’s office, whom he reported to as associate deputy attorney general, sources with knowledge of the matter told ABC News.
In a private interview with lawmakers, Ohr said he didn’t inform his bosses because he was simply relaying information from a trusted source and didn’t believe he had to do so, according to one source familiar with Ohr’s congressional testimony.
By Thanksgiving 2016, it still “was not clear to us whether anyone at a high level of government was aware of the information that Chris had gathered and provided to the FBI,” Simpson later told congressional investigators.
So Steele and Simpson decided they would give Steele’s reports to Ohr – someone “higher up,” as Simpson described Ohr.
On Dec. 10, 2016, Simpson met Ohr at a coffee shop in Washington and handed Ohr at least one thumb drive. Ohr did not look at the contents of the thumb drive, though he suspected it might relate to Steele’s work on Trump, Ohr later told congressional investigators, according to a source familiar with the testimony.
The day before, the late Sen. John McCain hand-delivered his own copy of Steele’s reporting to Comey, according to sources familiar with the exchanges.
Separately, Ohr passed his newly-obtained material to the FBI.
“[Our FBI colleague] met with Bruce and got more stuff today,” Strzok told Lisa Page in a text message on Dec. 20, 2016.
“Yeah, lots to read, but it all stressed me out too much,” the FBI attorney responded.
Three weeks later, on Jan. 9, 2017, Steele’s reports became public when Buzzfeed published them online.
“Hey let me know when you can talk,” Strzok texted Lisa Page on Jan. 10, 2017. “We’re discussing whether, now that this is out, we use it as a pretext to go interview some people.”
The cat was out of the bag, and the public release of Steele’s reports gave the FBI a basis for taking more overt action.
Three days after first texting Lisa Page about it, Strzok started contacting people that the FBI identified as sources for Steele’s reports.
“[W]e just want to talk to him quietly,” Strzok recalled telling an attorney representing one of Steele’s sources.
“It’s about the stuff in the news, isn’t it?” Strzok quoted the attorney as responding.
Indeed, it was.
The FBI, meanwhile, was starting to focus on others completely unassociated with Steele’s reporting. For the first time, agents approached two key Trump associates for interviews: then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, and George Papadopoulos, the adviser who was told early on that Russia had stolen “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
In those interviews, later confirmed in their guilty pleas, Flynn lied about his contacts with Russian officials, and Papadopoulos lied about his own interactions with individuals tied to the Kremlin.
Those false statements in January 2017 “impeded the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the existence of any links or coordination between individuals associated with the [Trump] Campaign and Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election,” Flynn and Papadopoulos would each later admit in court.
Around the same time, the FBI submitted another application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, asking a federal judge for permission to continue monitoring Carter Page’s communications. The application noted that the FBI had suspended its relationship with Steele, but said his information was still deemed “reliable as previous reporting from [him] has been corroborated and used in criminal proceedings.”
The FBI’s latest submission was 66 pages long – nearly 16 pages longer than the initial application.
Meanwhile, FBI officials continued to meet with Ohr – speaking with him at least eight more times in the months after Trump’s inauguration, including twice after Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel in May 2017 and took over the broader investigation, according to congressional documents.
In June 2017, a month after Mueller’s appointment, the FBI filed yet another application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to continue tracking Carter Page. The application was 77 pages long.
A fourth – and final – application was filed three months later.
Heavily-redacted versions of the applications were released in July.
On Monday, Trump ordered that more portions of the application from June 2017 be released.
It’s unclear why Trump did not order the release of sections from the other applications, but the first application in October 2016 was based on information Steele provided himself, not information provided by Ohr, according to congressional investigators and public evidence presented so far.
Trump also ordered the release of the FBI’s notes from Ohr’s meetings with the agency about what Steele was telling him. The Justice Department and Director of National Intelligence are now undertaking a review of the documents covered by Trump's order and could request redactions.
Trump’s move to release more classified information came just days after several Republican House members held a press conference calling on him to declassify the documents, with Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, saying it’s time for the FBI and Justice Department “to come clean” about “the wrongdoing that took place.”
But Democrats swiftly condemned what they called Trump’s “clear abuse of power.”
"[He] has decided to intervene in a pending law enforcement investigation by ordering the selective release of materials he believes are helpful to his defense team and thinks will advance a false narrative,” the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement on Monday.
Trump’s order came three days after Manafort – in a case with no link to Steele’s reporting – pleaded guilty to financial-related crimes and agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s office.
“President Trump’s actions … are a direct and frantic response to the dramatic events that unfolded last Friday,” the top Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees -- Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. – said in a statement on Monday.
Having previously pleaded guilty to lying to authorities, Papadopoulos was recently sentenced to two weeks behind bars. His case also was not connected to Steele’s reporting.
Flynn, who also pleaded guilty to lying to authorities and agreed to cooperate with Mueller, is expected to be sentenced in the coming weeks – another case not tied to Steele’s reporting.
The broader federal probe, meanwhile, continues.
The FBI declined to comment for this article.