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BuzzFeed wins case; judge IDs new anti-Trump dossier recipients

December 20, 2018

A federal judged handed dossier publisher BuzzFeed a victory on Wednesday, dismissing a libel suit and in the process disclosing new details on how Christopher’s Steele’s unverified charges found their way to the corridors of power.

The ruling contains names that add to the list of Washington power brokers who received dossier sections, or briefings, from Mr. Steele and a surrogate. They include Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a second Republican congressman, an Obama national security adviser and a senior State Department official. It was previously reported he provided a copy to the late Sen. John McCain.

Russian entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev filed the suit days after BuzzFeed on Jan. 10, 2017, posted Mr. Steele’s entire 17-memo dossier. The final memo in the dossier, dated Dec. 13, 2016, accused Mr. Gubarev of hacking Democratic Party computers under pressure from Russian intelligence. He denied he ever took part and no evidence has surfaced in any Russia investigation that he did.

But U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro in Miami ruled BuzzFeed was permitted to publish under a legal concept known a “fair report privilege.” BuzzFeed was protected from libel because the dossier by Jan. 10 had become the focus of government action, she said.

The FBI was investigating Mr. Steele’s charges and intelligence officials had briefed the White House. Those facts came out on CNN hours before the BuzzFeed posting which contained a hyperlink to that story.

The judge said BuzzFeed accurately reflected what the dossier said. She didn’t rule on the truth of the Gubarev charge.

Mr. Steele, who was financed by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, leveled a number of felony charges against President Trump and associates. The targets have all denied his assertions, none of which have been proven publicly more than two years later.

In the Gubarev suit, there have been a number of confidential depositions, including a session with Mr. Steele in London. Some details showed up in Judge Ungaro’s decision.

David Kramer, an associate of Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, was a key dossier player. He is the person who leaked the 35-page dossier to BuzzFeed reporter Ken Bensinger on Dec. 29, 2016. Mr. Kramer has been the chief suspect because he was one of the few known to have actually possessed a hard copy, based on a May 2017 court filing in London.

Mr. Kramer had met with Mr. Steele in Great Britain and orchestrated a dossier transfer to the senator. Mr. Kramer also advised Mr. McCain to give the document to the FBI, which the senator did in a Dec. 9 meeting with then-FBI Director James Comey. By that time, the FBI already had acquired the dossier via Mr. Steele and Fusion GPS, which handled the ex-British spy.

Mr. Kramer also met with Victoria Nuland at the State Department and Celeste Wallender, an Obama national security adviser on Russia, to see if they were taking the dossier charges “seriously,” the decision said. He gave the 17th memo to Ms. Wallender.

Judge Ungaro’s ruling also says that Mr. Steele provided the 17th memo to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s chief of staff Jonathan Burks and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican.

“The record does not reveal what, if anything, these people did with the report,” the judge said.

Ashlee Strong, Mr. Ryan’s spokesperson, said, “Burks has never met Christopher Steele nor received any document directly from him. However, he was aware of and had read the dossier prior to its publication.”

Mr. Gubarev was cast in the memo with Trump people as Mr. Steele threw around charges of Russian collusion, payoffs and secret meetings. Because those subjects were being eyed by government officials the entire memo was covered by “fair report privilege,” the judge said.

In the Dec. 13 memo, Mr. Steele repeated his charge that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen traveled secretly to Prague to meet with Vladimir Putin aidesan allegation Mr. Cohen has consistently denied and for which there is no public evidence.

Mr. Steele also made allegations against Trump campaign associates Paul Manafort and Carter Page that have not been publicly verified and which both deny.

Mr. Gubarev, a Cypress-based computer server developer known for Webzilla, had no links to any of the Trump people mentioned.

Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief who made the decision to publish and was named as a defendant, issued a statement:

“When we published the Steele Dossier in 2017, we were met with outrage from many corners -- a major news anchor and President Trump both deemed it ‘fake news’ and several Russian businessmen, plus Michael Cohen, sued for defamation. Today, almost two years later, a federal judge has vindicated our decision. As Judge Ungaro affirmed in her ruling, a key principle underlying the First Amendment is that the public has a right to know about actions taken by its government. As we have said from the start, a document that had been circulating at the highest levels of government, under active investigation by the FBI, and briefed to two successive presidents, is clearly the subject of ‘official action.’ Moreover, its publication has contributed to the American people’s understanding of what is happening in their country and their government. We are thrilled by today’s outcome, and thank Judge Ungaro for taking the time to consider this case on the merits.”

Val Gurvits, Mr. Gubarev’s attorney, said,

“First and foremost, nothing in today’s ruling by the Court suggests in any way that the allegations concerning Mr. Gubarev, Webzilla, or XBT Holding were true. Instead, the Court ruled on a narrow legal issue, finding that BuzzFeed had a privilege to publish the information even if it was false.

“The Court’s ruling was primarily based on its finding that a hyperlink to a CNN article was sufficient for the average reader of the BuzzFeed article to believe that BuzzFeed was reporting on some ‘official action.’ We obviously disagree.

“When we started this case, we knew that it would be a marathon and not a sprint. We remain convinced that, after appeal, this matter will be presented to a jury and that we will succeed in vindicating the Plaintiffs’ good names.”

Mr. Gurvits immediately filed a notice of appeal to the 11th Circuit.

Judge Ungaro wrote that Mr. Steele found his Dec. 13 memo credible.

In a London court, where he is being sued by Mr. Gubarev for defamation, Mr. Steele said the memo was based on “raw intelligence” that was “unsolicited.”

“Such intelligence was not actively sought; it was merely received,” he said.

Mr. Steele told a Justice Department contact that he was “desperate” to destroy the Trump campaign.

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