Republican claims to the contrary, Steele’s interest in Trump did not spring from his work for the Clinton campaign. He ran across Trump’s name almost as soon as he went into private business, many years before the 2016 election. Two of his earliest cases at Orbis involved investigating international crime rings whose leaders, coincidentally, were based in New York’s Trump Tower.
Steele’s first client after leaving M.I.6 was England’s Football Association, which hoped to host the World Cup in 2018, but suspected dirty dealings by the governing body, fifa. England lost out in its bid to Russia, and Steele determined that the Kremlin had rigged the process with bribes. According to Ken Bensinger’s “Red Card,” an upcoming book about the scandal, “one of Steele’s best sources” informed him that the Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin—now the C.E.O. of the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft—is suspected of having travelled to Qatar “to swap World Cup votes.”
Steele appears to have spoken anonymously to the Sunday Times of London about the case. An “ex-M.I.6 source” who investigated the bidding process told the paper, “The key thing with Russia was six months before the bid, it got to the point where the country feared the humiliation of being beaten and had to do something. . . . Putin dragged in all sorts of capabilities.” He added, “Don’t expect me or anyone else to produce a document with Putin’s signature saying ‘Please, X, bribe Y with this amount in this way.’ He’s not going to do that.”
Steele might have been expected to move on once his investigation of the bidding was concluded. But he had discovered that the corruption at fifa was global, and he felt that it should be addressed. The only organization that could handle an investigation of such scope, he felt, was the F.B.I. In 2011, Steele contacted an American agent he’d met who headed the Bureau’s division for serious crimes in Eurasia. Steele introduced him to his sources, who proved essential to the ensuing investigation. In 2015, the Justice Department indicted fourteen people in connection with a hundred and fifty million dollars in bribes and kickbacks. One of them was Chuck Blazer, a top fifa official who had embezzled a fortune from the organization and became an informant for the F.B.I. Blazer had an eighteen-thousand-dollar-per-month apartment in Trump Tower, a few floors down from Trump’s residence.
Nobody had alleged that Trump knew of any fifa crimes, but Steele soon came across Trump Tower again. Several years ago, the F.B.I. hired Steele to help crack an international gambling and money-laundering ring purportedly run by a suspected Russian organized-crime figure named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. The syndicate was based in an apartment in Trump Tower. Eventually, federal officials indicted more than thirty co-conspirators for financial crimes. Tokhtakhounov, though, eluded arrest, becoming a fugitive. Interpol issued a “red notice” calling for his arrest. But, in the fall of 2013, he showed up at the Miss Universe contest in Moscow—and sat near the pageant’s owner, Donald Trump.
“It was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower,” Steele told friends.
One subject that Steele is believed to have discussed with Mueller’s investigators is a memo that he wrote in late November, 2016, after his contract with Fusion had ended. This memo, which did not surface publicly with the others, is shorter than the rest, and is based on one source, described as “a senior Russian official.” The official said that he was merely relaying talk circulating in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but what he’d heard was astonishing: people were saying that the Kremlin had intervened to block Trump’s initial choice for Secretary of State, Mitt Romney. (During Romney’s run for the White House in 2012, he was notably hawkish on Russia, calling it the single greatest threat to the U.S.) The memo said that the Kremlin, through unspecified channels, had asked Trump to appoint someone who would be prepared to lift Ukraine-related sanctions, and who would coöperate on security issues of interest to Russia, such as the conflict in Syria. If what the source heard was true, then a foreign power was exercising pivotal influence over U.S. foreign policy—and an incoming President.
As fantastical as the memo sounds, subsequent events could be said to support it. In a humiliating public spectacle, Trump dangled the post before Romney until early December, then rejected him. There are plenty of domestic political reasons that Trump may have turned against Romney. Trump loyalists, for instance, noted Romney’s public opposition to Trump during the campaign. Roger Stone, the longtime Trump aide, has suggested that Trump was vengefully tormenting Romney, and had never seriously considered him. (Romney declined to comment. The White House said that he was never a first choice for the role and declined to comment about any communications that the Trump team may have had with Russia on the subject.) In any case, on December 13, 2016, Trump gave Rex Tillerson, the C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, the job. The choice was a surprise to most, and a happy one in Moscow, because Tillerson’s business ties with the Kremlin were long-standing and warm. (In 2011, he brokered a historic partnership between ExxonMobil and Rosneft.) After the election, Congress imposed additional sanctions on Russia, in retaliation for its interference, but Trump and Tillerson have resisted enacting them. [Continue reading…