How Russiagate denialists have tried to use the discredited memos to cover up the truth.
Vladimir Putin must be delighted. With the recent indictment of Igor Danchenko, the primary source for former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele’s 2016 dossier that alleged ties between Donald Trump and Moscow, the Trump-Russia denialists have had a field day. They have blasted the media for its reporting on Steele’s memos and claimed that this further undermining of his reports demonstrates the Russia scandal was a hoax.
That last point is disinformation.
Certainly, the credibility of Steele’s memos has been, once more, severely impugned. (I’ve been assailed for having been the first journalist to reveal their existence—more on that shortly). But the controversy over these documents is distinct from the dark and troubling core of the Trump-Russia affair. In fact, it’s a distraction and a deflection. The Steele dossier—and how it was covered by media outlets—is but a sideshow to the main event: how the Kremlin clandestinely attacked the 2016 election to help Trump become president and how Trump and his crew aided and abetted that assault on American democracy.
Let’s start at the beginning. During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s relationship with Putin and Russia was a key question. He often spoke positively—even effusively—about the repressive Russian leader. And in June 2016, the news broke that Russian hackers had penetrated the computers of the Democratic National Committee. Weeks later—at the start of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia—WikiLeaks dumped documents that had been swiped by the Russian cyber-thieves.
Clearly, this was a move by Moscow to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Other dumps designed to undermine Democrats followed in subsequent weeks. Despite the consensus among cybersecurity specialists that the Kremlin was behind these attacks on America’s election, Trump and his top aides stridently denied any Moscow involvement—even as Trump himself publicly encouraged Russian hackers to target Clinton. (Russian hackers hours later tried to break into the servers used by Clinton’s personal office.) Roger Stone, a Trump confidante who claimed to have a backchannel to WikiLeaks, insisted that the paper-thin cover story put out by the Russians—a Romanian hacker was the culprit—was accurate.
The whole Trump-Russia thing was rotten. They were simultaneously denying the obvious and, as we later learned, hiding what they knew. Here’s some of what was kept from the public at the time:
- Trump had been secretly pursuing a tower deal in Moscow that could have earned him hundreds of millions of dollars, and the Trump Organization (via Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer) had privately asked Putin’s office for help in securing the deal.
- Donald Trump Jr. had been informed in early June that the Kremlin wanted to covertly help the Trump campaign. As part of that effort, a Russian operative supposedly bearing dirt on Clinton was soon sent to Trump Tower, where Trump Jr., campaign chief Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met with her. The Trumpers later claimed her information was not significant. But this secret meeting signaled to the Trump campaign that Moscow was aiming to help Trump on the down-low, and it signaled to the Kremlin that the Trump camp did not object to Moscow’s clandestine intervention in the election.
- During the campaign, Manafort was in secret contact with Russian and pro-Russia Ukrainian oligarchs and with a former business partner named Konstantin Kilimnik, who was identified in a 2020 Senate Intelligence Committee report (approved by the Republicans and Democrats on the committee) as a Russian intelligence officer. Manafort passed internal campaign polling data to the oligarchs and Kilimnik. That report noted that Kilimnik possibly was connected to Putin’s hack-and-leak operation that was being waged to bolster Trump. It also stated that the committee had “two pieces of information” that “raise the possibility” that Manafort himself was tied “to the hack-and-leak operations.” The report concluded: “Kilimnik likely served as a channel to Manafort for Russian intelligence services.” In April 2021, the Treasury Department went further and stated, “During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kilimnik provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.”
These serious Trump-Russia interactions were not publicly known. Yet to anyone paying attention, there was a Trump-Russia story to be had—and it seemed important.
In August 2016, Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote to FBI director James Comey and demanded an investigation of the “connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.” This created a bit of a mystery. What was Reid referring to? Unknown publicly at that point was that the FBI had on July 31 launched such a probe, code-named Crossfire Hurricane, and Reid had been briefed by CIA director John Brennan that Moscow was behind the DNC hacks and that there had been suspicious contacts between Trump associates and Russia. Though the FBI’s criminal investigation of Clinton’s handling of emails while she was secretary of state had become a public matter, the existence of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of ties between Trump associates and Russia (which included an investigation of Manafort) was a state secret.
Trump and Russia—there was plenty of smoke. And without the Steele dossier. Intelligence world sources I spoke with at this time said that the word was spreading that national security insiders were worried about this connection, whatever it was. But no one had details. And when Comey was asked by Democratic members of Congress whether the bureau was investigating links between Trump and Moscow, he played it straight and said, “We don’t confirm or deny investigations.”
In early October, a month before Election Day, the Russians struck again. A half-hour after the news hit that Trump had been caught on video boasting that he could “grab” women “by the pussy,” WikiLeaks began disseminating emails that Russian hackers had pilfered from John Podesta, a top Clinton aide. But this time, it wasn’t a dump. WikiLeaks spread the release of the Moscow-swiped documents over the remaining weeks of the campaign. These emails provided Trump potent political ammunition and yielded a steady stream of stories in the press that often impeded the endeavors of the Clinton campaign to present a message of its own. This created a huge obstacle to the Clinton team and, no doubt, had an impact on the ultimate outcome of the election.
This phase of the Russian-WikiLeaks operation looked like—and it was—a brazen attempt to rescue Trump’s presidential bid. The Obama administration had released a statement blaming Moscow for the earlier hack of the Democratic National Committee, but this statement came out hours before the Access Hollywood video and the subsequent Podesta emails release. It was lost in the shuffle. And in the weeks ahead, the Obama White House, for good or bad, opted to play down the Russian attack, out of fear of coming across as trying to influence the election. (Remember how Trump was baselessly charging the election was being rigged against him?) The administration focused instead on making sure the Russians, who had already hacked into a few state voting systems, couldn’t mess with voting and vote-counting. (Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s cyber warriors were mounting a covert social media operation, using Facebook and other platforms, to sow political discord in the United States and assist Trump.)
The Trump-Russia story was still under the radar. Much of the media obsessed over the Podesta emails being spoon fed to them by WikiLeaks and didn’t follow the much bigger story: Putin was subverting an American election to help Trump gain the White House.
Nine days before Election Day—and two days after Comey had temporarily revived the Clinton email case by stating the bureau had stumbled across what might be new emails (but which turned out not to be)—Reid wrote Comey again about the Trump-Russia link: “In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government…The public has a right to know this information.”
That rang a bell. What was the FBI sitting on? What was the public not being told? Enter Christopher Steele and his dossier. At least for me.
Looking for more on the Trump-Russia connection, I contacted Glenn Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had covered Russian corruption and who now owned Fusion GPS, a corporate intelligence firm. I had no idea that he had been working with Steele for months and had been receiving memos from the former spy with hair-raising allegations. He showed me the reports—I was not given copies—and explained they contained unconfirmed leads and snippets of information. He arranged for me to speak with Steele. I was told the FBI had been given the documents and was examining these allegations.
The memos seemed to answer this question: what was Harry Reid referring to? More important, here was confirmation that the bureau was indeed chasing after Trump-Russia interactions. That was the most significant aspect of the story: the FBI was on the case.
The story I published on October 31 emphasized this element. Identifying Steele only as a former Western intelligence officer, I reported that he had shared with the FBI memos “contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump—and that the FBI requested more information from him.” I noted that the FBI wouldn’t confirm whether it was investigating these allegations or whether it found Steele and his memos credible. The article pointed out that Steele’s work for Fusion GPS had been paid for by Democrats.
And I quoted sparingly from the first memo, which noted, “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.” That document maintained that Trump “and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” It claimed that Russian intelligence had “compromised” Trump during his visits to Moscow and could “blackmail him.” I did not quote the specific salacious allegations—such as the soon-to-be infamous “pee tape.” The story noted, “There’s no way to tell whether the FBI has confirmed or debunked any of the allegations contained in the former spy’s memos. But a Russian intelligence attempt to co-opt or cultivate a presidential candidate would mark an even more serious operation than the hacking.”
The article received some attention. But hours after it was posted, the New York Times published a misleading article reporting, “Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” The Times article made it appear that Trump and his squad had been cleared by the FBI. That was not true; a robust bureau investigation was still underway. Still, Trump allies and others in the media seized on the Times story as the definitive word that there was no there there.
When I obtained copies of the memos a day or so later, my editors and I decided it would be irresponsible to publish them in full, given the allegations were unsubstantiated. At this point, I did send a copy of the dossier to James Baker, then the general counsel at the FBI whom I knew socially, and asked if anyone at the bureau would be willing to talk to me about Steele and his reports. I knew the FBI already had received the dossier from Steele, and I thought that the low odds of the FBI telling me anything might slightly improve if it knew I possessed a copy. I never heard back from the bureau. (This simple journalistic act of seeking more information has spurred several bizarre conspiracy theories.)
Days later, the election was over. Trump won. The secret interactions between Trump, his aides, and Russia had stayed secret. The media had failed to uncover that crucial element of the election, and they had failed to cover the Russian attack adequately. Putin had succeeded.
In the weeks after the election, the Steele dossier bounced around various offices within Washington, DC. I chased after some of the allegations—particularly the charge (later declared false by Special Counsel Robert Mueller) that Michael Cohen had taken a secret trip to Prague to meet with Kremlin representatives. I couldn’t nail anything down. The FBI’s continuing investigation of Trump-Russia contacts remained officially unacknowledged. As one narrow part of that probe, the bureau had misused the Steele memos to justify a surveillance warrant of Carter Page, a former Trump foreign policy adviser who had traveled to Moscow during the campaign, but that was also not yet publicly known.
Though the Steele memos have been widely discredited as his weak sourcing has been revealed—Danchenko has been accused of lying to the FBI—it still is noteworthy that the first one, which he wrote in June 2016, alleged facts that were not yet public but that were close to reality. The Russians indeed were working to assist Trump. The Trump campaign had tried to obtain Clinton dirt from the Kremlin. There had been a flow of information from Manafort to Putin-friendly oligarchs and Kilimnik and, according to the Treasury Department, to the Russian intelligence service. Trump had been pursuing a development project in Moscow, as part of a years-long effort to score a lucrative deal there. Perhaps he was being cultivated in that way. In retrospect, it looks as if Steele (with memos not intended to be public) framed—or, at least, sloppily threw unsubstantiated allegations at—a guilty man.
After the election, as far as I was concerned, the most important issue regarding the Trump-Russia controversy was the question of whether there would be an investigation of Putin’s attack on the election. The public deserved to know how a clandestine operation waged by a foreign adversary had manipulated American democracy. And this did pose a political problem for Trump, for he and his advisers had assisted that attack by denying its existence (even after being informed that the Kremlin was looking to secretly aid them). They provided cover to Putin. That was a treacherous act—and it ought to have been a central subject of any post-election inquiry. As Trump feared, any discussion of the Moscow operation could undermine the legitimacy of his electoral victory.
Slowly, political pressure for an investigation developed. Then came the Steele dossier.
On January 6, 2017, Comey and other intelligence chieftains briefed president-elect Trump on a report produced by the intelligence community that concluded Russia had mounted a massive covert influence operation aimed at disrupting the nation’s political system and electing Trump president. At the close of that meeting, Comey handed Trump a two-page synopsis of the Steele memos, explaining that the reports claimed the Russians held compromising material on Trump, including the “pee tape.” The intelligence community, Comey told Trump, merely wanted him to know this material was circulating within the media and could become public.
Four days later, CNN reported that Comey had shared with Trump this two-pager containing allegations Russia possessed “compromising” personal and financial information on him. The news network did not detail the specifics of the dirt Moscow might have. Then the dam burst. Buzzfeed posted the Steele dossier online. I still believed that was not a responsible action. Ben Smith, then Buzzfeed’s editor, contended the public had the right to know what this CNN report was all about. An incensed Trump immediately tweeted his outrage, calling the Steele allegations a “TOTAL FABRICATION.” He blamed the intelligence community for the leak—but by then the dossier was in many hands and Buzzfeed did not receive it as a leak from the spies—and he compared the nation’s intelligence agencies to “Nazi Germany.”
So it began. Trump and his allies would use the Steele dossier and its unproven prurient charges as their best defense against the realities of the Trump-Russia scandal. They would claim that the FBI investigation of the Trump-Russia interactions—which Comey finally acknowledged publicly in March 2017—had been triggered by the phony Steele allegations of direct Trump-Moscow collusion and kompromat, and they would insist that the entire Russia controversy was a hoax manufactured by Trump’s political enemies and the media. That was not true. The Steele memos had nothing to do with the initiation of the investigation, and they did not undermine the evidence of the Russian attack and Trump wrongdoing. But those facts didn’t matter to Trump and his gang.
Media investigations and, eventually, the Mueller probe produced further confirmation of Putin’s assault on the election and revealed Trump’s related actions (the Trump Tower meeting, Manafort’s clandestine communications with Russians, Trump’s secret business dealings in Moscow, and more). The Senate Intelligence Committee report explained how Trump had provided cover for the Kremlin’s attack on the United States: “The Trump Campaign publicly undermined the attribution of the hack-and-leak campaign to Russia and was indifferent to whether it and WikiLeaks were furthering a Russian election interference effort… The Campaign was aware of the extensive media reporting and other private sector attribution of the hack to Russian actors prior to that point.” The GOP-led committee concluded that Trump, Manafort, and others had indeed aided the Russian assault by dismissing its existence.
No matter what emerged, Trump and his comrades kept pointing to the Steele dossier and claiming this scandal was all one big scam. They asserted Trump was the victim of a deep-state conspiracy waged by a hidden cabal that had used the Steele memos to try to bring him down. The Steele dossier became their favorite weapon to ward off consideration and discussion of the Russian operation and any Trump complicity. House Republicans even deployed it as a defense during Trump’s first impeachment, insisting it showed that nefarious forces were aligned against Trump and the Ukraine scandal was a continuation of the Russia “hoax.”
Questions about the Steele memos did mount. As Michael Isikoff and I reported in the 2020 edition of our book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump:
The most sensational allegations in the so-called Steele dossier remained unverified or were undercut by Mueller’s report. No evidence of the so-called “pee tape” had surfaced. Michael Cohen did not, as Steele’s memo alleged, fly to Prague to arrange payments to Russian hackers. The FBI found no evidence that Carter Page had met with Rosneft chief Igor Sechin in Moscow or was offered a 19 percent stake in the giant energy conglomerate in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions. (Instead, Page had met with the company’s chief of investor relations. And Mueller’s report noted that his “activities in Russia…were not fully explained.”) A Justice Department inspector general investigation that was being wrapped up that summer would later deliver a serious blow to Steele’s claim of a “well developed conspiracy” between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. As the report revealed, when FBI agents after the election tracked down Steele’s collector [Danchenko]…this mysterious Russian figure disowned much of the specifics of Steele’s memos, claiming that the ex-British intelligence officer had “misstated or exaggerated” what he had told him and that the headline-grabbing story of Trump consorting with prostitutes in Moscow was no more than “rumor and speculation.”
That same IG report that Trump and his defenders embraced for its criticism of the Steele memos concluded that the FBI investigation of Trump-Russia contacts had been legitimately launched. That is, there was no hoax. (This report blew up the right-wing charge that Trump had been the victim of “Spygate.”) And, of course, the Mueller report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report supplied a tremendous amount of detail regarding Putin’s attempt to sabotage the election and how Trump assisted that effort (even if there was no direct collusion, though the Manafort-Kilimnik interactions raise questions about that). Mueller’s report outlined numerous instances of possible obstruction of justice committed by Trump. Moreover, it suggested that Trump had lied to Mueller about efforts to use Roger Stone as some sort of secret go-between with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
Yet Russia hoax hoaxers—from Trump to Rep. Jim Jordan to Glenn Greenwald—keep asserting there was no scandal. It’s as if Richard Nixon had claimed there had been no break-in at the Watergate. So they gleefully embrace each new story tainting the Steele memos. Writer Matt Taibbi, for one, has done so. And he has dubbed Russiagate “this generations’s WMD”—a reference to the failure of media outlets to challenge the Bush-Cheney administrations false assertions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion and an utterly ridiculous comparison. The Russian attack was real. The Iraq weapons were not—and media promotion of the Bush-Cheney WMD lies led to the deaths of over 4,000 US troops and 200,000 or so Iraqi civilians. Axios’ Sara Fischer calls coverage of the Steele memos, “one of the most egregious journalistic errors in modern history.” One could argue that the media’s failure to sufficiently cover the Russian assault on the 2016 election, while chasing every tidbit of Russian-stolen info released by WikiLeaks in the weeks leading to Election Day, was more egregious because that helped Putin pull off this operation.
One stellar example of deflection-by-dossier is the work of Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal. Following the Danchenko indictment, she harrumphed:
Special counsel John Durham’s indictments have turned any number of narratives on their heads, including the question of which 2016 presidential campaign was in bed with Russians. It wasn’t Donald Trump’s.
For five years, that’s been the story line. The original claim was that Russians had “cultivated” Mr. Trump as an asset and held blackmail evidence over his head. When those over-the-top accusations fell apart, Democrats shifted to arguing that Mr. Trump and his associates had secretly colluded with the Kremlin to win the election. The press strove mightily to unearth nefarious Trump campaign contacts with Russians, though it came up with little of substance.
Manafort palling around with a Russian intelligence officer is of “little” substance? Imagine what Strassel and her friends at the Journal’s editorial page would say if a congressional report revealed John Podesta had been secretly meeting with a Chinese intelligence officer while China was hacking the election to help Clinton? Or that top Clinton advisers had met with an operative sent their way by the PRC? Citing the indictment allegation that Danchenko had received information from a Democratic PR executive named Charles Dolan, Strassel speculates that the Steele memos were Russian disinformation concocted to damage Trump. Not once does she acknowledge the basic fact that the Kremlin attacked the election to assist Trump. She ties herself up into knots over the dossier and ignores the burning fire.
As I’ve recently noted, the Steele dossier has been a godsend for Trump and his henchmen and other Russia-hoax propagandists They have used it repeatedly to distract from the undeniable truths of the Trump-Russia scandal. Raise the matter of Putin’s covert operation, and they will scream about the Steele dossier. Report on how Trump helped that attack, and they will scream about the Steele dossier. They are now fervently rooting for Durham to further discredit the Steele memos, believing that absolves Trump (and them) of complicity in a foreign power’s successful subversion of democracy. Yet nothing Durham has produced has changed the fundamentals of this tale of Trump’s treachery.
It was a clever ploy on the part of the Trump gang: Deny the unfounded—that Trump was caught on tape consorting with urinating prostitutes and that he conspired directly with Putin—to sidestep the damning reality that Trump and his aides betrayed the nation by both encouraging the Russian attack and trying to cover up Putin’s sinister intervention. The dossier has been a convenient foil, their false flag. Critiquing the memos and the reporting of them is fair game. Yet obsessing over the Steele dossier—without equal or greater attention to the larger story—is itself a profoundly dangerous assault upon truth.