The former British spy who wrote the infamous "Trump dossier" reportedly told special counsel Robert Mueller's team that Russia intervened to dissuade President Donald Trump from nominating Mitt Romney as secretary of State.
The New Yorker reported Monday that Christopher Steele spoke with the special counsel's investigators last September as part of Mueller's investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election. The magazine cited unidentified sources.
Mueller was appointed in May 2017 to probe Russia's potential links with the Trump campaign, as well as "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." On Feb. 16, the special counsel obtained indictments against 13 Russian operatives, accusing them of involvement in a long-term campaign of misinformation against the U.S. to help Trump and disparage his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The New Yorker reports that Steele warned Mueller that Russia lobbied Trump after the election to appoint someone less hawkish on Russia than Romney and more amenable to easing sanctions for Moscow's actions in Ukraine.
The magazine, without citing its own source, said Steele made the allegation during a September 2017 meeting with Mueller in which the former spy presented a memo that relied on information from "a senior Russian official."
In his 2012 presidential run, Romney called Russia "our No. 1 geopolitical foe."
The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on the New Yorker article.
Romney was seen as a top contender to become secretary of State during Trump's transition into the White House, despite his harsh criticism of Trump during the campaign.
Trump eventually nominated Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for the role. Tillerson entered the job with long-held ties to Russia. In 2013, Putin bestowed a Russian state honor on Tillerson, mentioning the CEO's work "strengthening cooperation in the energy sector."
Trump has repeatedly described Mueller's probe as a "witch hunt," and has lambasted President Barack Obama both for initiating the investigation and for supposedly being feckless in the face of Russia meddling.
But Obama himself didn't learn about Russian hacking until August 2016, and wasn't briefed on the Steele dossier until after the election, the New Yorker reported. Multiple Obama administration officials briefed on the allegations of Russian malfeasance were reportedly reluctant to act on the intelligence out of concern that doing so would create the appearance of political bias.
When Obama later attempted to win bipartisan condemnation against Russia, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly refused to sign it. Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff under Obama, told NBC News over the weekend that McConnell "watered down" a warning about Russian interference in the election. In turn, McConnell's office pushed back on McDonough's characterization.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were briefed on the information including the dossier by former FBI Director James Comey in the Oval Office on Jan. 5, 2017, according to the New Yorker's account. Comey did not name Steele but told Obama and Biden that the dossier's author had been proven to be a credible source in the past.
The report was shocking to the senior administration officials. "If this is true, this is huge!" Biden said, according to the magazine.
Correction: This story was updated to clarify that the sanctions were against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.