During a closed-door impeachment meeting on Capitol Hill, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) brought up a topic that surprised some attendees: the Steele dossier. The context, according to three sources familiar with the episode, was his effort to explain why President Trump might be “upset” about Ukraine.
Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee that is leading the impeachment probe, said some of the dossier’s contents dealt with Ukraine, and that the Clintons paid for it. Some attendees said it seemed oddly divorced from the topic at hand–namely, whether Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate one of his political opponents.
“It was nutso,” said one person familiar with the exchange. “It was awkward.”
That source added that Ambassador Gordon Sondland—America’s envoy to the European Union, who was questioned at the meeting—appeared perplexed by Nunes’ commentary.
A Nunes spokesperson said the congressman has made the argument described above in public.
The dossier is at the crux of Republicans’ argument that the intelligence community conspired to take down Trump in 2016, and the president has tweeted about it dozens of times. Democrats view their focus on the document as conspiratorial and odd.
Democrats called Sondland to Capitol Hill to answer questions about his role helping Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, develop a shadow foreign policy on Ukraine focused on pressuring its government to investigate the Bidens. Democrats were particularly interested in a series of text exchanges, which former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker gave them last week, that reveal alarm from the top American diplomat in Ukraine over the possibility of a quid pro quo involving $400 million in U.S. security aid.
Sondland testified that Trump directed him to send a message to Volker and Bill Taylor, the charge d’affaires in Kyiv, explicitly stating there was “no quid pro quo.” He also discussed his high opinion of ousted Amb. Marie Yovanovich and his discomfort with Giuliani’s Ukraine work.
Given the focus on Trump’s relationship with Ukraine, Nunes’ decision to bring up the dossier generated some raised eyebrows. But, in Nunes’ view, the dossier’s connection to Ukraine helps explain Trump’s frustration with the fragile Eastern European democracy. The dossier discussed, among many other things, Paul Manafort’s work in Ukraine. (Manafort was later convicted on tax and bank fraud charges, along with a charge of failing to disclose a foreign bank account.)
The dossier is a series of documents assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele, working on contract for the research firm Fusion GPS. Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, in turn, funded some of that Fusion GPS work. The dossier made a host of allegations, including that the Russian government had compromising material on Trump. Many of the dossier’s claims are unverified. But it circulated among high-level U.S. government officials, and alarmed them. Then-FBI Director James Comey discussed its contents with Trump two weeks before his inauguration. The counterintelligence investigation scrutinizing Trump associates for Russia ties was already underway when the dossier began circulating in government.
The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court cited Fusion GPS’ work when it authorized surveillance of people affiliated with the Trump campaign. Republicans argue that this is evidence that the Intelligence Community conspired with the Clinton campaign to surveil Trumpworld and boost Clinton’s candidacy. The claim is widely rejected. Conservative talk show hosts, especially Sean Hannity, have made a cause célèbre of investigating the origins of the Russia probe, as well as the dossier itself. Attorney General Bill Barr has dispatched John Durham, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, to scrutinize the matter.