Epstein’s decision in the lawsuit did not consider whether the dossier was accurate or inaccurate. But his conclusion offered the first authoritative response to questions that have been raised by President Donald Trump’s Republican allies about the propriety of Steele discussing the dossier with reporters prior to the 2016 election.
Trump’s relentless assault on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia as a “witch hunt” begins with the dossier, which the president and congressional Republicans consider the probe’s proximate cause. They characterize the document as a scurrilously inaccurate attack funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
According to Epstein, the dossier “as a whole plainly concerns an issue of public interest … because it relates to possible Russian interference within the 2016 election.” Steele has made a similar argument with regard to his decision to pause his coordination with the FBI and brief the media directly on his findings in September and October 2016, according to people familiar with his thinking: While he never intended for the dossier itself to be made public—he has said he was “horrified” when BuzzFeed published it in full—he believed the public had a dire need to know the broad outlines of a potential conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the FBI had no plans to make such details known. “The Steele dossier generated so much attention and interest in the United States precisely because its content relates to active public debates here,” Epstein wrote.
Alfa and its founders, Fridman, Aven, and Khan, played a fairly limited role in the dossier. Steele devoted a small section to outlining what his source—a “trusted compatriot” of a “top level Russian government official”—had described as Alfa’s “close relationship with” Russian President Vladimir Putin and the “significant favors” exchanged between them, including Alfa’s allegedly “illicit” cash deliveries to Putin throughout the 1990s.
The dossier goes on to say that Fridman and Aven gave “informal advice to Putin on foreign policy, and especially about the U.S.” throughout 2016, but stopped short of linking Alfa to Russia’s election interference. Alfa and its founders have denied engaging in any improper conduct.
In court documents, the Alfa plaintiffs argued two seemingly contradictory points: first, that Steele implied they had been involved in a Trump-Russia conspiracy, and second, that the section of the dossier dealing with the bank was not in the public interest because it did not mention a specific candidate or the 2016 presidential election. Epstein caught this, and wrote that Alfa could not on the one hand contend that Steele accused them of cooperating with Russia’s election interference, while on the other hand saying such an explosive revelation would not be in the public interest.