Johnson and May ignored claims Russia had ‘likely hold’ over Trump, ex-spy alleges
- Exclusive: Christopher Steele claims May government turned blind eye to Trump allegations
Boris Johnson and Theresa May ignored claims the Kremlin had a “likely hold” over Donald Trump and may have covertly funded Brexit, the former spy Christopher Steele alleges in secret evidence given to MPs who drew up the Russia report.
In testimony to MPs, the MI6 veteran accused the government led by May and in which Johnson was foreign secretary for two years of turning a blind eye to allegations about Trump because they were afraid of offending the US president.
Steele first presented a dossier about Trump to senior UK intelligence figures in late 2016, who he says took it seriously at first. But, he writes, “on reaching top political decision-makers, a blanket appeared to be thrown over it.”
“No inquiries were made or actions taken thereafter on the substance of the intelligence in the dossier by HMG [Her Majesty’s government],” Steele says in the critical document.
The allegation is contained in a short summary of a larger file of information presented in August 2018 by Steele to parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC), inquiring into Kremlin infiltration into British politics and public life.
Steele accuses May’s government of selling British interests short by not taking matters further: “In this case, political considerations seemed to outweigh national security interests. If so, in my view, HMG made a serious mistake in balancing matters of strategic importance to our country.”
The Russia expert concluded: “A prospective trade deal should never be allowed to eclipse considerations of national security.”
Steele’s confidential testimony is revealed for the first time in a book by the Guardian journalist Luke Harding, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West, to be published next week.
Downing Street said on Monday it could not comment on the Russia report or its evidence until it was published. The cross-party committee finished the report in October 2019 but, ahead of December’s general election, Johnson refused to release it. After the election, he cleared the report for publication in principle, but doing so would require the ISC to be reconstituted.
The committee is yet to be formed amid growing speculation that there is a row about who will chair it. Downing Street has indicated it wants the former transport secretary Chris Grayling to do so.
But No 10 needs the Conservative nominees to the nine-strong committee to agree to support Grayling because the opposition minority want to vote for somebody else. In law the appointment of the chair is a matter for the committee. As a result the long-awaited document is still yet to be released, prompting complaints in Westminster and accusations from Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats of an attempted cover-up.
“We increasingly think the real reason this is all being held up is because of No 10,” said an SNP source. The Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said the delay was “utterly reprehensible.”
Steele’s summary evidence is likely to raise concerns that Downing Street may have suppressed the ISC’s final Russia report to avoid embarrassing questions in the run-up to the election, and afterwards, as Britain left the EU, although No 10 has consistently denied that is the case. These include whether Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 EU referendum in support of Brexit and whether Vladimir Putin holds compromising information on Trump, Johnson’s ally.
“My understanding, arising partly from personal experience with the ‘Trump-Russia dossier’, is that this government perhaps more than its predecessors is reluctant to see (or act upon) intelligence on Russian activities when this presents difficult wider political implications,” Steele writes in his testimony to MPs.
“Examples of this include reporting on the Kremlin’s likely hold over President Trump and his family/administration and indications of Russian interference in and clandestine funding of the Brexit referendum.”
Steele was one of several Russia experts who gave evidence to the ISC. He spent 22 years working for MI6 and led its investigation into the 2006 polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Later Steele went into private business intelligence.
In 2016, he wrote a dossier on Trump’s links with Russia on behalf of the Democratic party under Hillary Clinton. It alleged the Kremlin had been cultivating Trump for at least five years and had mounted an extensive espionage operation to back his campaign for the White House. Last year, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, described Russian government interference as “sweeping and systematic.”
Steele’s dossier also featured claims that Putin’s FSB spy agency filmed Trump in a Moscow hotel room with two sex workers in 2013. Trump has denied the allegations.
It is unclear how much of Steele’s testimony and the information he provided is reflected in the Russia report. The document has a public section and a classified annexe. Some of those who have read it hint that its public part is discursive and does not include recommendations.
It is expected to say there is no evidence of any successful interference by Russia in recent British elections, but will highlight a surprising lack of coordination across Whitehall to examine what Moscow has been attempting to achieve.
In his memo to MPs, Steele also argues that Russia under Putin has become a “powerful rogue state.” A lack of pushback from the UK and others has emboldened its bad behaviour, he writes. This trajectory was not inevitable and, he says, has been driven by a “corrupt political elite” fearful of regime change and seeking to protect its “ill-gotten” wealth.
He cites seven “paradigm shift” moments that have surprised and wrong-footed successive western governments. They include the breakup of the oil company Yukos, the poisonings of Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, and the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. He also mentions Russian election meddling, in particular during the 2016 US presidential vote. In each case the west’s response was limited. Moscow perceives this as “weakness”, he writes.
According to Steele, Putin and his associates have a particular “love-hate” obsession with Britain. Vast amounts of “illegitimate” wealth is hidden in the UK; at the same time London is home to an influential émigré community, which the Kremlin views with suspicion. Putin wanted to embarrass and humiliate the UK in order to “cow” other countries and to further his corrupt and amoral agenda, the ISC was told.
Over the years, Russia’s elite has established a powerful presence in London, the committee heard, thanks to lavish expenditure and investment. Lawyers, accountants, estate agents and lobbyists have all helped oligarchs penetrate “British political and business life.” Not all of these London firms are “bad actors”, Steele says, but many are party to “corrupt and destabilising forces” emanating from the Kremlin.
“This gradual and more subtle erosion of our norms and politics, including our political parties, poses a significant threat,” he told the MPs.
In Steele’s analysis, Putin always had malign intentions but lacked the resources to follow through.
Russia under Putin now represents potentially a greater threat to the UK and its way of life than terrorism, the MPs heard.
“No terrorist group has to date successfully deployed a weapon of mass destruction, either nuclear or chemical, in the UK. Russia has deployed both,” Steele points out, adding: “If not effectively deterred going forward, clearly Putin’s regime will stop at little to achieve its objectives.”
Source: Dan Sabbagh, theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/22/boris-johnson-theres-may-ignored-claims-russia-had-likely-hold-over-donald-trump-ex-spy-christopher-steele-claims