Donald Trump’s Republican allies have always sought to discredit the Russia investigation by going on offense. (It’s impossible to defend a president who’s constantly beset by written emails by his associates accepting invitations from Russians offering election help and cackling “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” and other comically incriminating revelations.) Their first attempt at offense focused on Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice, who Republicans spent days attacking as a sinister “unmasker,” until the charges against Rice quietly collapsed earlier this month.
They have found a new target: the famous dossier on Donald Trump compiled by British intelligence agent turned private investigator Christopher Steele, which they hope to use to discredit former FBI director James Comey.
The House Intelligence Committee’s Republican staff has sent a series of subpoenas to the FBI related to the bureau’s involvement with Steele’s investigation. Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Kimberly Strassel, a reliable unfiltered conduit for congressional Republicans, contains the talking points that are likely to dominate the new line of defense. Republicans, Strassel writes, believe “documents might show the FBI played a central role in ginning up the fake dossier on Mr. Trump.” Since James Comey ran the FBI until recently, this charge would, they hope, prove Comey was biased against Trump.
What makes this strategy potentially effective is the strange place the Steele dossier has occupied in the media landscape. Steele’s findings had circulated among some reporters and other Washington insiders for months in 2016. Nobody knew quite what to make of them. The revelations were so utterly mind-blowing and grotesque — and, once Trump won, their implications so disturbing — that they defied normal standards for scandalous charges.
BuzzFeed published the dossier shortly before Trump’s inauguration. It took care to note that the allegations it contained were “unverified,” and some of them were outright erroneous. But the combined weight of the dossier’s inherent unreliability and BuzzFeed’s lack of legacy-media credibility put far more pressure on the claims than they could bear. The Trump administration used the dossier as an opening to attack the entire mainstream news media as biased, and reporters scrambled to disassociate themselves from charges they could not verify independently.
The dossier, left defenseless, became the “salacious, unverified Steele Dossier,” the epitome of irresponsible speculation. That is what enables somebody like Strassel to casually deride it as “fake.”
But unverified does not mean false. And, as CIA veteran John Sipher recently argued, several months of revelations have confirmed a number of Steele’s findings.
Sipher explains that Steele’s reporting was never intended to be a finished intelligence product. He gathered a wide array of source material, and sought to confirm that the sources themselves believed what they were passing on to him, but did not confirm that everything the sources believed was correct. The most memorable charge in the dossier, that Russia has sexual-blackmail leverage over Trump, has not been confirmed anywhere.
That said, as Sipher notes, Steele is a highly respected investigator, and as time has passed, his dossier has looked better and better. He outlined the contours of a Russian plot to help elect Trump, and many of its detailed elements. Steele discovered that Russia had offered the Trump campaign compromising material on Hillary Clinton, a fact that has subsequently been confirmed by the New York Times. Steele accurately described, among other things, the involvement of Russian embassy staff in the plot, Paul Manafort’s off-the-books payments from a pro-Russian party in Ukraine, and Trump’s stalled negotiations to receive licensing payments for projects in Russia. (The latter was recently bolstered by a 2015 letter of intent from the Trump Organization, obtained by CNN, outlining an unconsummated deal that would have given Trump a $4 million upfront fee at no risk.)
Steele found out a lot of detail about Trump’s dealings with Russia before the rest of the world caught on. All this implies that the still-unproven elements of Steele’s reporting, including sexual blackmail, are more likely to be correct than skeptics may have once assumed.
The FBI reportedly used Steele’s reporting in some capacity. Strassel seizes upon the relationship to imply a sinister conspiracy against Trump. “Who was Mr. Steele’s friend at the FBI?” she asks. “Did the bureau influence the direction of the Trump dossier? Did it give Mr. Steele material support from the start?”
Working from the premise that Steele’s dossier is discredited, Republicans hope to attach Comey to it, and thereby sink his reputation. But it’s possible their argument will do something else entirely: They might prove Steele was right after all.