Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jorge Silva/AFP via Getty Images
the national interest

No, the Steele Dossier Did Not Invent the Russia Scandal

The report was faulty, but Trump was very, very guilty.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jorge Silva/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s attorney has written a letter threatening to sue the Pulitzer Committee unless it revokes the awards given to the Washington Post and the New York Times for their coverage of Trump’s secretive ties to Russia. Trump, of course, will probably never actually file this suit. If he did, he would certainly lose, because the Times and the Post in fact uncovered enormous amounts of damning evidence against Trump and did not, contra Trump, rely on the Steele dossier, the report compiled by the British spy Christopher Steele. Trump’s lawsuit threat is a publicity vehicle to advance the message he has never stopped making: that the entire Russia scandal is a “hoax,” ginned up by Democrats and the Deep State, of which he and his allies are innocent, and the crimes are all on the other side.

The novel development is that the entire conservative movement apparatus is now singing from the same hymnal. National Review, which in the past has wandered from the pro-Trump line on some matters, now alleges the FBI “relied on the shoddy document to surveil an American citizen in an investigation that produced the Mueller probe and a two-year-long obsession with Trump and Russian built on a preposterous foundation.” You can find the same line in organs like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the Washington Examiner, not to mention the ordinary houses of Trump worship like the Federalist.

The pretext for this chorus of new complaints that Trump has been treated very unfairly is new revelations about the Steele dossier. The tip sheet was always seen as unproven, even by those of us who gave it some credence. Steele himself estimated the tips were only around 70 to 90 percent accurate, and almost nobody would put the percentage anywhere near that high; many of the allegations he compiled came through interested parties or second- and thirdhand gossip.

The mainstream media did not treat Steele’s allegations as facts. Not even opinion journalists claimed his allegations should be considered factually true. What some analysts and opinion journalists (like me) did was speculate that Steele’s claims may well be true, using verified facts to assess the possibility of Steele’s unverified claims. The most famous is the alleged pee tape, the potential existence of which I speculated about quite a bit, citing factors like Russia’s demonstrated use of honey-trap tactics against visiting dignitaries and the shakiness of Trump’s denials.

Opinion journalists are free to engage in speculation that is labeled as speculation, but we should also be held accountable for the quality of our speculation. I’ve written numerous columns suggesting the lab-leak hypothesis, while unproven, might be true. If that hypothesis turns out to be wrong, and the sources behind the claim turn out to be less credible than I believed, I won’t retract my conjecture that it might be true, but I would feel at least somewhat chastened.

In 2018, I wrote a story laying out an array of possibilities for where the Trump-Russia story might go, ranging from probably to unlikely. That story was rigorously fact-checked — and no, I couldn’t have cited Steele as a source for a factual claim even if I wanted to. As expected, not all the possibilities I described have proven true. I suggested the story “followed the contours of what Steele’s sources told him,” and now we’ve learned Steele was mostly wrong and had little insight into the scandal. But on the whole, the thrust of my argument has proven true: Trump’s relationship with Russia turned out to be deeper and more incriminating.

Knocking down Steele’s unfounded speculation is a real public service by the Trump administration–appointed special prosecutor John Durham (who in general seems to have gone pretty far off the deep end). But conservatives are not satisfied with merely correcting the record on Steele. They want to make Steele the underpinning of both the FBI investigation and the journalistic narrative about Trump and Russia.

But the Trumpist argument that Steele’s allegations formed the “foundation” of the FBI investigation is obviously false. The FBI began looking into Trump’s ties to Russia because Trump foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos boasted that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton to an Australian diplomat, who duly informed the U.S. government. That is obviously a very good reason to begin a counterintelligence investigation. The FBI did try to run down Steele’s leads, but it also had other sources for its investigation (and, indeed, uncovered a great deal of incriminating information).

The notion that the media started questioning Trump’s ties to Russia because of the Steele dossier is even more preposterous. While some insiders saw Steele’s reports, his dossier was not made public until January 2017. But nearly a year before that, the suspicious alliance between Trump and Putin was already playing out before our eyes.

In March 2016, Trump hired a campaign manager who had previously run a pro-Kremlin presidential campaign in Ukraine and appeared to be indebted to Russian oligarchs. In May, reporters noticed that the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus was openly cheering on Trump, who in turn was lavishing Vladimir Putin with fawning praise. In July, Franklin Foer wrote a long Slate story putting Trump’s relationship with Russia in the context of both Trump’s murky financial ties to the country and Russia’s well-established habit of courting and paying off right-wing politicians in other nations; a few weeks after that, Trump asked Russia to hack Clinton’s emails on live television. This extremely unusual fact pattern raised the antenna of the national media before any of us heard of Christopher Steele.

While the right-wing press has asserted over and over that Trump was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, the opposite is true. The Mueller investigation was orthogonal to the questions raised by the media: It was a criminal investigation, not a counterintelligence probe. Even so, it incidentally established, and Mueller testified to Congress, that the most damning suggestion raised by the critics was in fact true. Russia had leverage over him, in the form of dangling a lucrative, no-risk contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars, at a time he was falsely telling the public he had no business dealings with Russia. (This deal closely mirrored other payoffs Russia has made to its right-wing political allies overseas, which are frequently disguised as investments.) This deal gave Putin both a carrot for Trump and a stick — he could easily expose Trump’s lie — should Trump have ever angered him.

The most conclusive investigation into the counterintelligence danger posed by Trump’s ties to Russia — that is to say, the noncriminal ways Trump was implicated in, and compromised by, Russia — was conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee. That bipartisan report is extensive and damning. It identifies two channels of cooperation between the Trump campaign and its Russian allies. First, campaign manager Paul Manafort, who communicated regularly with Russian agent Konstantin Kilimnik, including giving him regular supplies of campaign polling data. And second, working through adviser Roger Stone, the campaign “took actions to obtain advance notice about WikiLeaks releases of Clinton emails; took steps to obtain inside information about the content of releases once WikiLeaks began to publish stolen information.”

Neither Manafort nor Stone cooperated with investigators or federal prosecutors, calculating correctly that Trump would reward them with pardons for keeping silent. Thus, the committee was left with suggestive but not conclusive evidence of the full extent of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. It said “some evidence suggests Kilimnik may be connected to the GRU hack-and-leak operation related to the 2016 election.” Likewise, Stone held conversations with Trump that other members of the campaign believed were about his back channel to WikiLeaks, but, since neither Stone nor Trump ever testified, this cannot be proven.

And while the report says it “did not establish” that Russia had sexually compromising information on Trump, it compiled a vast amount of circumstantial evidence, ranging from numerous contemporaneous reports that he had romantic encounters in Russia to noting that “the Ritz Carlton in Moscow is a high counterintelligence risk environment. The Committee assesses that the hotel likely has at least one permanent Russian intelligence officer on staff, government surveillance of guests’ rooms, and the regular presence of a large number of prostitutes, likely with at least the tacit approval of Russian authorities.”

The sexual aspect has naturally claimed an outsize role in the public imagination. Those of us who used Steele’s version of the sexual-blackmail claim were wrong, because Steele was simply passing on gossip. But the reason that gossip existed in the first place is not that Trump’s enemies invented it to stop his campaign, but because the possibility was a serious concern to counterintelligence professionals.

Even limiting the evidence to the parts that can be proven yields an extraordinarily damning indictment. For that reason, conservatives have almost entirely ignored the Senate Intelligence Committee report. None of the conservative columns I linked to above even mention the Senate Intelligence report; indeed, the conservative media has almost uniformly refused to acknowledge it at all. The source is simply too credible (the investigation was begun under Republican control, and its findings had bipartisan support on the committee) and its conclusions too incriminating for conservatives to spin away.

Better to ignore the report and pretend the whole Trump-Russia scandal was ginned up by Steele and the Democrats. This National Review headline is representative of the right-wing line: “Yes, Hillary Clinton Orchestrated the Russia-Collusion Farce.” This claim is more absurd and provably false than the wildest conjecture Steele dug up.

The mainstream media is currently beating itself up over Steele precisely because it holds itself to higher standards than the conservative media. The right’s ability to form an echo chamber that blocks out confounding evidence and avoids any accountability is what allows cranks like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi — who denied even such foundational elements of the story as Russia’s role in hacking Democratic emails — to pose as vindicated crusaders of truth.

The truth is that Steele was a fraud, but Trump was very, very guilty.

No, the Steele Dossier Did Not Invent the Russia Scandal