BuzzFeed Wants to Force Christopher Steele to Answer Trump-Russia Questions in Deposition

Christopher Steele, the British ex-spy behind the infamous dossier about President Trump's alleged Russia links, has never discussed his explosive report under oath. That could change soon thanks to a massive lawsuit ongoing in Miami's federal courthouse. And if lawyers for BuzzFeed get their way, Steele will have to divulge details about some of the most alarming links the dossier suggests between Trump's campaign and Moscow.

Earlier this month, a London court ordered Steele to give evidence in the Miami civil case, in which Russian tech guru Aleksej Gubarev is suing BuzzFeed for libel for publishing the dossier. But yesterday, BuzzFeed's attorneys filed a motion in Miami notifying the U.S. court they plan to appeal that London ruling — not because they object to Steele's deposition, but because they want him to have more freedom to discuss what he learned about the president and his alleged links to Putin.

"Now that the court has ordered this deposition, we believe Mr. Steele should be able to tell the full story behind his work on the dossier," says a statement from a BuzzFeed spokesperson about the new filing.

In January 2017, BuzzFeed was the first news site to publish Steele's dossier, which the former spy had begun compiling for Trump's GOP enemies before Hillary Clinton's campaign attorney signed him up. Steele's 35-page report relied on Russian sources who detailed numerous alleged ties among Trump, his staff, and Putin's regime — including the supposed "pee tape" that could be used for blackmail.

Gubarev, a 37-year-old mogul who lives in Cyprus, sued BuzzFeed in February 2017 because the report alleged he had ties to Russian state hacking operations. He filed the suit in Miami because Webzilla, a subsidiary of Gubarev's XBT Holdings S.A., is based here.

The two sides have brought A-list local attorneys into the fight, including Roy Black, who is representing BuzzFeed and its founder, Ben Smith. And their legal wrangling could lead to significant revelations about Steele's report.

A London court's March 16 ruling that Steele would have to give testimony in the case made international headlines. Both Gubarev and BuzzFeed's attorneys had asked for the deposition — but in the new filing in Miami, BuzzFeed says the Russian's team persuaded the British court to limit the scope of Steele's questioning so narrowly he'd be unable to talk about some of the most important parts of the dossier.

BuzzFeed says both sides' attorneys agreed last August to ask the London court for permission to question Steele about topics "directly relevant to the issues in dispute" but that when Steele objected, Gubarev's team "abruptly changed their position."

Instead of those relatively broad ground rules, BuzzFeed says, the Russian's team persuaded the court to "narrow enormously the scope of the deposition by limiting questioning to the few sentences in the 35-page dossier that contain the words they allege to be defamatory." In other words, Steele would have to talk under oath only about his small claim related to Gubarev.

That's not nearly enough testimony about the dossier, BuzzFeed argues. The news site would be forbidden from asking Steele "about all of his contacts with the FBI, State Department, and any other U.S. government agencies involving the dossier," its attorneys write in court.

"Defendants may not even be able to question Mr. Steele about the allegations in the dossier regarding President Trump's attorney Michael Cohen," the attorneys note.

That comment alludes to one of the most explosive claims in Steele's report: that Cohen had traveled to Prague in August/September 2016 to meet with "Kremlin representatives" to help "clean up the mess" over revelations about Trump campaign officials, such as Paul Manafort's ties to Russia.

Cohen has denied traveling to Prague and has filed a separate lawsuit against BuzzFeed over those claims in the dossier.

BuzzFeed's lawyers argue that unless the news site can grill Steele about the full extent of his claims about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, his evidence would be too incomplete to use in the Miami lawsuit.

"If Mr. Steele's deposition is allowed to proceed under the terms of that [London court] order, defendants believe that it may well fail to meet the standards of basic fairness under the federal rules that would be required for it to be admissible in the proceeding," the attorneys write.

Gubarev's attorneys have yet to respond in court to the motion. The Russian's attorney in South Florida, Brady James Cobb, didn't immediately respond to a message from New Times.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink