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Critics of the federal investigation into claims President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government have latched onto a theory that the inquiry only began after the FBI received a controversial dossier funded by Democrats and littered with unproven allegations.
But that, too, is unproven.
On CNN Jan. 2, Florida International University law professor Elizabeth Foley claimed that the 35-page collection of research memos, which has come to be called the Steele Dossier, started a chain of events that led to the wiretapping of Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Here’s what she said, and how CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Jeffrey Toobin reacted.
"On July 7, Carter Page goes to Moscow to give a speech at a University," Foley said. "On July 19, this is 2016, (former British intelligence officer Christopher) Steele submits a salacious dossier to the FBI about some sort of quid pro quo being discussed between Page and Russian oligarchs. He submits that to the FBI on July 19. About a month later we have the FBI going to the foreign intelligence surveillance court to get a wiretap, to get surveillance of Carter Page. And this is all based on a dossier."
"You have no proof of that!" Cooper interrupted.
"You don’t know that!" echoed panelist Jeffrey Toobin.
"That’s what Jim Comey has suggested," Foley said. "That’s what CNN reported in April (2017). And that’s also what the New York Times previously reported in April 2017. So, all of sudden now they are trying to walk back the genesis of this investigation and switch it to (Trump adviser George) Papadopoulos. If they really believe national security was at risk and there was some collusion why would they have waited four months?"
"I'll double check this, professor, but I don’t believe that we reported that was the basis for this," Cooper responded. "But I’ll double check it."
Cooper did look into it, and so did we.
We can’t say what motivated the FBI to begin an investigation into Page, but the reporting that Foley said traced the genesis of the Page investigation to the Steele Dossier isn’t cut-and-dried.
The dossier in question was compiled by a former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele and contained numerous explosive but unverified claims.
The memos were compiled by a research firm called Fusion GPS, who was first hired by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication that was reporting on the Republican primary field.
After the Republican primary, Fusion GPS was hired on behalf of Clinton’s campaign. That’s when the firm hired Steele.
The dossier circulated among Washington lawmakers, intelligence agents and journalists for months before becoming public knowledge, when unnamed U.S. officials told CNN in January 2017 that intelligence officers presented Trump with a summary of the document. (Then BuzzFeed published its entirety.)
The dossier claims that Page met with Russians and discussed quid-pro-quo deals relating to sanctions and Russia's interference in the election. Trump, himself, has blamed the dossier for launching the FBI probe into his campaign.
Shortly after the original CNN broadcast where Foley made the claim, Cooper did his own fact-check of Foley’s claim. He read aloud an excerpt of a story CNN published on April 17. CNN reported that the FBI used the Russian dossier as "part of the justification" — not the only reason — to win approval to secretly monitor Carter.
It went on to paraphrase unnamed officials "familiar with the process," who said that if information from the dossier was used, it would only be after the FBI corroborated the information through its own investigation.
"The officials would not say what or how much was corroborated," CNN reported. "U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials have said U.S. investigators did their own work, separate from the dossier, to support their findings that Russia tried to meddle in the 2016 presidential election in favor of Trump."
In other words, the dossier was part of the reported reason, but we really can’t say how much.
In an interview with PolitiFact Florida, Foley said CNN offered no evidence to support this assertion that the FBI did in fact corroborate the report other than paraphrasing an unnamed source.
"While the CNN report intimates that there may be other sources of information besides the dossier, neither CNN nor any of its sources proffer any clue as to what those sources may be, or even whether there is any reliable evidence that such sources actually exist," Foley said.
As for the New York Times, Foley was referring to a report published on April 19 about Carter’s visit to Moscow that garnered the attention of the FBI. The report does not mention the dossier, but said the investigation spawned after his July 2016 trip to Moscow, in which he was critical of American policy toward Russia.
"It is unclear exactly what about Mr. Page’s visit drew the FBI’s interest: meetings he had during his three days in Moscow, intercepted communications of Russian officials speaking about him, or something else," it said.
The CNN report says the dossier was cited by Comey in some of his briefings to members of Congress, but that doesn’t mean he suggested it was the basis of the probe.
"The dossier has also been cited by FBI Director James Comey in some of his briefings to members of Congress in recent weeks, as one of the sources of information the bureau has used to bolster its investigation, according to U.S. officials briefed on the probe," CNN reported.
When we showed Foley this excerpt showing Comey used the dossier "as one of" the bureau’s sources, she pushed back again, saying "innuendo is not fact."
She said the only facts reported by the CNN story are that the Steele dossier was relied on to justify the collusion investigation and that Comey had relayed information about the dossier, as salient to his agency’s investigation, to members of Congress.
We also looked at transcripts of Comey’s testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 8 to see what he’s said on the record.
Comey would not answer publically whether the FBI was able to confirm anything in the Steele dossier, but he did respond to several questions about it. And in one instance, Comey described some material in the dossier as "salacious and unverified."
"The (intelligence community) leadership thought it important, for a variety of reasons, to alert the incoming president to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified," he said.
Foley said James Comey and news reporting showed the basis of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant for Carter Page was "all based on a dossier."
This is not accurate. CNN and the New York Times never reported that the dossier was the basis for Carter’s probe. CNN reported that it "part of the justification" and the New York Times didn’t even mention the dossier.
We couldn’t find any evidence that proved Comey suggested that Page’s warrant was "all based on a dossier." According to CNN’s unnamed sources, Comey has cited the dossier, but has not confirmed publically how much of it has been verified.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
Email exchange, Elizabeth Foley, a constitutional professor at Florida International University, Jan. 3, 2017
PolitiFact, "What you need to know about newly revealed Trump campaign-Russia ties," Nov. 9, 2017
PolitiFact, "From Russia with love. Was Trump campaign in touch with foreign government?" Dec. 18, 2016
CNN, "FBI used dossier allegations to bolster Trump-Russia investigation," April 18, 2017
New York Times, "Trump Adviser’s Visit to Moscow Got the F.B.I.’s Attention," April 19, 2017
New York Times, "The Trump Dossier: What We Know and Who Paid for It" Oct. 25, 2017
New York Times, "Full Transcript and Video: James Comey's Testimony," June 8, 2017
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