A High Court judge in London has dismissed a lawsuit brought by former US President Donald Trump seeking damages over alleged misuse of private information in the controversial Steele dossier.
The dossier, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, contained explosive and unverified allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia and his conduct during visits there. Trump sued Steele’s private intelligence firm Orbis Business Intelligence for breach of data protection laws, arguing the firm spread the dossier when it knew the information was false.
But in a ruling on Thursday, Judge Mark Warby said Trump’s claim would have failed on multiple grounds and dismissed the case. The decision is a blow to Trump’s years-long effort to challenge the origins and accuracy of the dossier. But questions still remain over how much of the lurid material in the documents is true.
Background of the Steele Dossier
The Steele dossier refers to a collection of 17 memos compiled in 2016 by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer.
Steele was initially hired by political research firm Fusion GPS, which was working for a law firm connected to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The objective was to uncover connections between Trump and Russia.
Over several months in 2016, Steele used his intelligence contacts to put together multiple reports alleging an elaborate conspiracy between Trump’s inner circle and the Kremlin to swing the election in his favor. Some of the more shocking claims included:
- That Russia had been cultivating Trump as an asset for 5+ years with bribes and blackmail material, including a supposed “pee tape” video of Trump with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.
- Members of the Trump campaign were actively cooperating with Russia’s election meddling.
- Trump engaged in sexual activities during past visits to Moscow that would leave him vulnerable to blackmail by Russia.
The memos eventually made their way to the FBI and other government agencies. Though treated cautiously, they provided part of the basis for opening investigations into Trump’s Russia links.
Details of the dossier were published by Buzzfeed News in January 2017, causing an immediate political firestorm. Trump has long decried the document as “fake news” and a “witch hunt” against him.
Trump’s Lawsuit and the Judge’s Ruling
In filing his lawsuit in 2019, Trump claimed Steele and Orbis spread false information about him contained in the dossier, violating British laws on data protection and privacy.
His lawyers argued that Orbis recklessly created and distributed the dossier to media outlets and the FBI when there were valid reasons to doubt the accuracy of Steele’s sources and claims.
In making his ruling to throw out the case, the judge agreed Trump would likely fail on several fronts if it went to full trial, including:
- Most of the dossier’s memos included a disclaimer that the content was unverified raw intelligence, which weakens claims that Orbis tried passing it off as indisputably factual.
- Media outlets that published parts of the dossier would likely be covered by public interest defences in British law.
- Orbis and Steele had good reason to believe the memos merited serious investigation and took adequate steps to validate information where possible.
- The fundamental accuracy of key allegations in the dossier has not been disproven and so proving defamation and “malice” would be challenging.
While not ruling on the substance of the dossier’s claims, the judge effectively decided Trump faced too high of a bar to successfully sue over private data and accuracy issues. However, avenues for appeal remain open to Trump if he wishes to continue pursue the matter.
|Background & Role
|Former US President who filed lawsuit over Steele dossier
|Ex-British spy who compiled dossier on Trump-Russia ties
|Judge Mark Warby
|UK judge who dismissed Trump’s lawsuit
|Orbis Business Intelligence
|Steele’s private intelligence firm, the defendant in the case
Unresolved Questions Around the Steele Dossier
The dismissal of Trump’s lawsuit does not settle the debate around the factual accuracy of the Steele dossier and to what degree US law enforcement relied on it.
Some specific claims have been proven false or remain completely uncorroborated years later. For example, the alleged “pee tape” video has never publicly surfaced.
However, the US intelligence community has confirmed other broad strokes, including that Russia actively interfered in the 2016 election to aid Trump and that several Trump associates had suspicious contacts with Russian operatives.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and resulting prosecutions later established that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s help and expected to benefit from their activities.
But Mueller found insufficient evidence to charge anyone on the campaign with criminally conspiring with Russia, leaving questions on whether Steele’s more salacious suggestions about explicit cooperation and coordination were exaggerated or incorrect.
With the lawsuit now dismissed, Trump is running out of options to directly challenge the basis of the dossier through the courts. However, the documents will remain a subject of intense partisan disagreement.
Trump and his Republican allies can continue claiming the entire set of memos has been disproven as a political hit job. But with no definitive ruling or revelation discrediting the core allegations, the Steele dossier seems set to remain a lingering cloud over Trump’s legacy.
What Happens Next
Trump’s legal team says it is considering appealing the dismissal of the case. But his prospects may be dim given the High Court judge’s stern view that the lawsuit is fundamentally flawed.
Attention may turn to a related defamation case Trump brought against Christopher Steele himself, though it faces similar hurdles.
Without definitive new evidence or revelations from US or UK investigations, the claims in Steele’s memos can likely never be fully proven or disproven.
The Steele dossier will remain a subject of intense partisan disagreement in the US – hailed by Trump critics as early evidence of his problematic Russia ties and dismissed by allies as “fake news.”
With Trump out of power, energy around pursuing the origins and accuracy of the Steele dossier may gradually dissipate over time. But it remains a key part of the history around alleged foreign interference in the contentious 2016 US election.
So while Trump’s legal avenue for recourse over the dossier’s publication now seems largely shut off, many questions raised by Steele’s explosive allegations against Trump and his circle remain unanswered. The dismissed lawsuit is unlikely to be the last chapter around the memos that sparked one of the biggest US political scandals in decades.
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