Democrats Embraced a Flawed Dossier—And Gave Republicans an Opening (POLITICO Magazine)

Democrats Embraced a Flawed Dossier—And Gave Republicans an Opening

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Democrats Embraced a Flawed Dossier—And Gave Republicans an Opening

How the Democratic Party backed itself into a corner on Russiagate—even though the scandal is all too real.

By MARCY WHEELER

Sometime around May 2016, according to the New York Times, the long-time law firm for the Democratic Party, Perkins Coie, engaged the private research firm Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research on Donald Trump. While the engagement might have been better handled (say, by insulating the official party apparatus better from Fusion), the act of commissioning the firm should not shock us—opposition research is a pretty standard feature of modern politics. Indeed, months earlier in September or October 2015, the Washington Free Beacon, which is funded in part by billionaire Paul Singer, had engaged Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on Trump. And while Democrats were working with Fusion, Republicans were working with a Steve Bannon enterprise to dig up financial dirt on Hillary Clinton and expose the alleged influence-peddling of her family’s foundation.

Fusion, of course, then took its research in a new direction by hiring Christopher Steele, a former top British intelligence official with deep ties in Moscow who was held in high regard in Washington. He produced a series of salacious, but unverified reports that are now universally referred to as “the Steele dossier,” and their publication 10 days before Trump’s inauguration supercharged claims on the left that the president or his team may have conspired with Russia to win the 2016 election.

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Yet, in part because of the way Democrats have handled the aftermath of the leak of the dossier, that very typical act of hiring an oppo research firm has turned into one of the biggest manufactured scandals of the Trump administration, one Republicans are trying to use to undermine an investigation into the growing evidence of Trump ties to Russia. But Steele’s dossier forms only a small portion of the putative case against Trump—which is why it has been such a mistake for Democrats to rally behind it. Reporters, two congressional committees and Special Counsel Robert Mueller have sifted through reams of other material suggesting that something fishy was indeed going on, and very little of it came from Steele.

Yet Democrats continue to invest in the intelligence dossier they funded as a key piece of evidence against Trump. They do so even while other, far more damning evidence — such as the report that George Papadopoulos learned Russians had “dirt,” in the form of Hillary emails even before the DNC figured out they had been hacked, or the meeting Donald Trump Jr. set up six weeks later to learn what kind of dirt some other Russians had to offer (“If it’s what you say I love it,” he wrote in an email) — has come to light. Well after both those damning details were public, for example, Rachel Maddow dedicated an entire show to the dossier. In November, former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta claimed the dossier was “looking better and better with age.” In that same time frame, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, complained, “Those who attack the dossier and Christopher Steele would like you to believe that if they can discredit the dossier, then you should ignore everything else that we’ve learned,” even while insisting, “A lot of it has turned out to be true.” Yet this week, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat told Politico, “little of that dossier has either been fully proven or conversely, disproven.”

As far as is public, however, key claims in the dossier amount to near misses rather than corroborated facts. The dossier notes the contemporaneously reported fact that sometime Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page traveled to Moscow in July 2016, for example. But it describes him as meeting with different Russians, Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin, than those he has admitted to meeting, Arkadiy Dvorkovich and Andrey Baranov. The dossier describes Trump lawyer Michael Cohen cleaning up matters with the Russians in an August meeting in Prague, when he is instead known to have traveled to a different European city, London, in October. Cohen says he was elsewhere in August, and there’s no evidence he traveled to Prague.

On the key issue of computer hacking, the dossier is particularly weak. Even after Guccifer 2.0, believed to be a persona working on behalf of Russia, started leaking stolen documents, a dossier report stated that any compromising information Russia might leak consisted of “bugged conversations she [Clinton] had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls,” not stolen emails. A report on Russia’s hacking efforts released after WikiLeaks had already dumped emails stolen from the DNC claimed that, “a senior government figure reported that [Russia had had] only limited success in penetrating the ‘first tier’ foreign targets … like G7 and NATO governments.” This, in spite of the fact that an April 2015 report revealed that, “Russian hackers have ‘owned’ the State Department system for months and it is not clear the hackers have been fully eradicated from the system” and from there had compromised unclassified White House systems. A widely read September 2015 technical report also described Russia’s success targeting Western governments.

The dossier may be worse than just uncorroborated. In an op-ed this week, former CIA officer Daniel Hoffman wrote that the near misses in the dossier bore the mark of Russian disinformation, “accurate basic facts provided as bait to convince Americans that the fake info is real.” That’s the same intriguing theory floated by the British journalist Ben McIntyre, an expert on intelligence who has described the idea like so: “They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong.”

Trump’s associates are even using the near misses in the dossier to dismiss real evidence of their involvement with Russia. When Cohen showed that his passport bore no sign of European travel in August 2016 and therefore he couldn’t have attended the Prague meeting described in the dossier, he treated that as a denial he had ever worked to clean up matters with the Russians. Even after evidence surfaced that Cohen had discussed branding a Trump Tower in Moscow in late 2015—at the height of the Republican presidential primary—as part of a deal that sometime Trump dealmaker Felix Sater said, “will get Donald elected,” Cohen dismissed claims he colluded with Russia with a letter that mostly stated “he has never traveled to Prague” over and over.

And if the dossier is disinformation, it may have led Democrats to make poor decisions. In testimony to Congress, Fusion founder Glenn Simpson described how, as Democrats learned they had been hacked, the dossier became “an effort to help my client manage a, you know, exceptional situation and understand what the heck was going on.” If Democrats used the dossier to decide how to respond to the hack, they would have been lulled into complacency, because Steele’s reporting said any dirt being dealt to Republicans consisted of old intercepts, not recently stolen emails.

Still, if it weren’t for how the Democrats hid their own actions in the dossier for most of last year, the quality of the dossier, which after all was compiled by a former spook with a good track record, might not matter.
For months, Democrats misled reporters about the role of their presidential candidate and the party in funding the research. While it had been reported that, first, a GOP rival to Trump and, then, someone acting on behalf of Clinton had funded the dossier, it wasn’t until October that Perkins Coie admitted its role in funding the dossier on the Democrats’ behalf. It took months of legal wrangling — in lawsuits filed on both sides of the Atlantic by Russian-owned companies described in the dossier, in a fight over the extent of Simpson’s testimony to congressional committees, and in Fusion’s effort to quash a subpoena for its financial records — before Democrats made the admission. The delay only ratcheted up the interest in information that otherwise would be quite routine.

Presumably, Democrats hid details of their funding of the dossier to hide how Steele shared his research, as well as a companion dossier done by long-time Clinton oppo researcher Cody Shearer, with the FBI.
Again, there’s nothing unusual about that. Steele has shared his intelligence work with both the FBI and State Department in the past, most successfully in DOJ’s pursuit of corruption in FIFA.

According to a New York Times report, the FBI even used the Bannon-backed book, Clinton Cash, to develop leads for an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Many of the leads in the investigation into Bill Clinton during his presidency came out of Republican oppo research.

Even FISA applications, which is what is at issue in a House Intelligence Committee memo complaining about an abuse of the process, can rely on dubious sources, including intelligence informants with far more selfish motives than those Steele is reported to have had when, out of worry that the U.S. might be compromised, he first shared his findings with the FBI. And, as self-described Fourth Amendment nerd (and constitutional lawyer) Orin Kerr laid out this week, “when federal judges have faced similar claims [of informant bias] in litigation, they have mostly rejected them out of hand.”

Ultimately, the Democrats’ reluctance to own this oppo research has created an opportunity for Republicans to attack the dossier as a stand-in for the entire special counsel investigation.

Ironically, according to a Politico report from last May, the initial architect of that strategy may have been Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chair during that June 9 meeting entertaining offers of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from well-connected Russians. In the weeks after the dossier first got leaked, Manafort called Reince Priebus, then the chief of staff, and “suggested the errors in the dossier discredited it, as well as the FBI investigation, since the bureau had reached a tentative (but later aborted) agreement to pay the former British spy to continue his research and had briefed both Trump and then-President Barack Obama on the dossier.”

According to a mid-January status report in the case against Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, the government has turned over “more than 590,000 items” to his defense team, “including (but not limited to) financial records, records from vendors identified in the indictment, email communications involving the defendants, and corporate records.” He and Gates have received imaged copies of 87 laptops, phones, and thumb drives, and copies off 19 search-warrant applications. He has not received, however, a FISA notice, which the government would be required to provide if they planned to use anything acquired using evidence obtained using the reported FISA warrant against Manafort. That’s evidence of just how much of a distraction Manafort’s strategy is, of turning the dossier into a surrogate for the far more substantive case against him and others.

And it’s not just Manafort. Not a single thing in the George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn guilty pleas—for lying to the FBI—stems from any recognizable mention in the dossier, either. Even if the Steele dossier were a poisoned fruit, rather than the kind of routine oppo research that Republicans themselves had pushed to the FBI to support investigations, Mueller has planted an entirely new tree blooming with incriminating details.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist covering national security and civil liberties.

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February 1, 2018 at 10:57AM