Senate Judiciary Republicans refer dossier author Chris Steele to DOJ for criminal investigation

  • Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham on Friday sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department about Christopher Steele, the author of the so-called Trump-Russia dossier.
  • The referral, sent along with undisclosed classified attachments, accused Steele of making false statements about speaking to the press about the dossier's claims.
  • Legal experts said the referral seemed politically motivated insofar as it did not appear to provide information to the FBI that it did not already have.


Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham on Friday issued a criminal referral to the Justice Department, urging it to examine whether the former British spy Christopher Steele made false statements to the FBI "about the distribution of claims" contained in a dossier he wrote about alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Chris Wray, Grassley and Graham wrote: "Attached please find a classified memorandum related to certain communications between Christopher Steele and multiple US news outlets regarding the so-called 'Trump dossier' that Mr. Steele compiled on behalf of Fusion GPS for the Clinton Campaign and the Democratic National Committee and also provided to the FBI."

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A man enters the building housing the offices of Orbis Business Intelligence where former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele works, in central London, Britain January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
A camera man stands outside the building housing the offices of Orbis Business Intelligence where former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele works, in central London, Britain January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
A police car drives past an address which has been linked by local media to former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who has been named as the author of an intelligence dossier on President-elect Donald Trump, in Wokingham, Britain, January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
People stand outside the building housing the offices of Orbis Buiness Intelligence (C) where former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele works, in central London, Britain, January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12: Journalists gather outside the headquarters of Orbis Business Intelligence, the company run by former intelligence officer Christopher Steele, on January 12, 2017 in London, England. Mr Steele has been named as the man who compiled the intelligence dossier on US President-elect Donald Trump, alleging that Russian security forces have compromising recordings that could be used to blackmail him. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
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The senators, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, continued: "Based on the information contained therein, we are respectfully referring Mr. Steele to you for investigation of potential violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1001, for statements the Committee has reason to believe Mr. Steele made regarding his distribution of information contained in the dossier."

The criminal referral does not pertain to the veracity of the dossier's claims and "is not intended to be an allegation of a crime," a press release from the committee says.

"I don't take lightly making a referral for criminal investigation," Grassley said in a statement. "But, as I would with any credible evidence of a crime unearthed in the course of our investigations, I feel obliged to pass that information along to the Justice Department for appropriate review."

Graham said in a separate statement that "after reviewing how Mr. Steele conducted himself in distributing information contained in the dossier and how many stop signs the DOJ ignored in its use of the dossier, I believe that a special counsel needs to review this matter."

The senators did not disclose what led them to believe that Steele had misled the FBI. It is unclear why the Justice Department would not have moved to charge Steele if the bureau had found evidence of wrongdoing in its interviews with him.

Steele's relationship with the bureau long predated his role in collecting information in the dossier, and the FBI took his intelligence seriously as it corroborated aspects of the investigation it had already opened into Russia's interference in the 2016 US election.

There is no evidence that Steele was ever under FBI investigation or gave a formal interview to the bureau, raising questions about whether his comments to federal agents about the dossier were material.

"I cannot understand why it would be necessary for members of Congress to make a criminal referral to the FBI concerning information we know the FBI already has," said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who also sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee's ranking member, said, "I wasn't consulted about this referral, nor were any of my Democratic colleagues."

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Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) speaks during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., April 3, 2017.

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U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley talks to a supporter at Big Barn Harley Davidson before the Joni Ernst?s 3rd Annual Roast and Ride in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., June 3, 2017.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) speaks to reporters about recent revelations of President Donald Trump sharing classified information with Russian Officials on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S. May 16, 2017.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Sen. Dianne Feinstein talk during a hearing on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation" featuring testimony from FBI Director James Comey on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 3, 2017.

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Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch as Senator Orrin Hatch (L) listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017.

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U.S. Supreme Court judge nominee Neil Gorsuch is greeted by ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) while Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) looks on as Gorsuch arrives at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017.

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Senate Judiciary chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., shake hands with former clerks of Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch before their news conference in support of confirming Gorsuch as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.

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Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) attend President Donald Trump address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress focused on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, listens as former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testify during the Senate Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing on Russian Interference in the 2016 United States Election on Monday, May 8, 2017.

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Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) speaks to constituents at a town hall meeting in Iowa Falls, Iowa on February 21, 2017.

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UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 1: President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court Judge Neil Gorsuch, looks on as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks to reporters following their meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 24: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) participate in a mark up session in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. The committee delayed the vote on Sen. Jeff Session's nomination to be U.S. attorney general by a week at the request of Feinstein. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 03: Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is administered an oath by Vice President Joe Biden, as his wife Barbara looks on, during swearing-in ceremony in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, January 03, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 29: Senate Judiciary chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, left, meets with fellow committee member and Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in his Capitol Hill office on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
FBI director nominee James Comey (2nd R) appears with Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) (L), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) (2nd L) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) (R) before testifying at the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
Senator Chuck Grassley talks to supporter Allan Frandson before the Republican Party of Iowa's Regan Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa September 17, 2010. REUTERS/Brian C. Frank (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
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From left: US Vice President Joe R. Biden, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), US President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wait for a meeting about the Supreme Court vacancy in the Oval Office of the White House March 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) speaks before Republican nominee Donald Trump arrives at "Joni's Roast and Ride" in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., August 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo AllegriU.
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Senator Charles 'Chuck' Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, smiles as he arrives to a confirmation hearing for Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 7, 2017. The confirmation hearing for Rosenstein began with Republicans and Democrats squaring off over who should lead probes into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential contacts between Moscow and Trumps campaign team. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 07: U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) participates in a news conference at the Capitol after a vote April 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Senate has confirmed President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch with a vote of 54-45. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
John Kasich, governor of Ohio and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, left, speak with Senator Charles 'Chuck' Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, while being introduced during a town hall meeting at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. In the chaos that is the New Hampshire Republican primary, one candidate is steering clear of the bumper-car madness and quietly creeping ahead of his rivals. Last week Kasich placed second in New Hampshire in five out of six recent polls, behind longstanding front-runner Donald Trump. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 27: From left, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, applaud President Barack Obama as he speaks about earmark reform during his first State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
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A political stunt?

Legal experts said the referral seemed politically motivated because it did not appear to provide the FBI information it did not already have.

"A referral that offered evidence of lying to Congress would be more likely to give the FBI something new and would be more likely to carry some weight," said William Yeomans, a former deputy assistant attorney general who spent 26 years at the Justice Department.

"If they are giving the FBI information it already has that suggests Steele lied to the FBI, the referral has little import. The bottom line is that the referral only matters to the extent it gives the FBI relevant evidence or otherwise unknown and credible allegations," he said. "Otherwise, it should be viewed as a political act."

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, largely agreed.

"This is either a PR stunt or an attempt by senators who control DOJ funding to undermine the investigation," Mariotti said in an interview. "Either way, it's problematic, because it seems like an attempt to influence DOJ charging decisions."

Matt Miller, a former DOJ spokesman who served under President Barack Obama, said: "Every person in Congress has a decision to make right now, and Graham and Grassley have apparently decided they want to be remembered for carrying Donald Trump's water rather than getting to the bottom of how Russia interfered in our election."

Grassley sent letters to the Justice Department in October seeking more information about Peter Strzok — an FBI agent who sent text messages during the campaign that were critical of President Donald Trump and other political leaders — among others.

A spokeswoman for Grassley said last month that the Judiciary Committee's majority was focused on examining "improper political influence" within the FBI and Justice Department "spanning two administrations."

Feinstein, meanwhile, said Democrats' focus was "obstruction of justice and whether there was cooperation/collusion between the Trump administration and Russia."

'We should all be skeptical'

The opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which hired Steele in mid-2016 to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, accused Grassley of refusing to release the transcripts of its interview with the Judiciary Committee in August.

The firm's founders, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, said in a New York Times op-ed articlethis week that Republicans on the committee were "selectively" leaking details about the testimony "to media outlets on the far right."

Josh Levy, a lawyer for Fusion, said Friday that "publicizing a criminal referral based on classified information raises serious questions about whether this letter is nothing more than another attempt to discredit government sources, in the midst of an ongoing criminal investigation."

"We should all be skeptical in the extreme," Levy said.

Simpson and Fritsch wrote that it told lawmakers they should investigate Trump's history with Deutsche Bank and real-estate deals with "dubious Russians in arrangements that often raised questions about money laundering." The founders said they warned of Paul Manafort's "coziness with Moscow" as well as the former campaign chairman's "financial ties to Russian oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin."

Grassley shot back, saying Fusion did not want the transcripts made public at the time of the testimony. But the firm said in a later statement that after reviewing the transcript and making sure it did not reveal private client information, it wanted it to be released.

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