The Steele Dossier Looks More Credible Than Ever

On January 11th, 2017, right after BuzzFeed published the Steele dossier, reporter Scott Shane of the New York Times published a piece called: What We Know and Don’t Know About the Trump-Russia Dossier. What Mr. Shane already knew was that “in September 2015, a Washington political research firm, Fusion GPS, paid by a wealthy Republican donor who did not like Mr. Trump, began to compile ‘opposition research’ on him.” Additionally, Shane knew the following: “After it became clear that Mr. Trump would be the Republican nominee, Democratic clients who supported Hillary Clinton began to pay Fusion GPS for this same opposition research.”

What the Washington Post is reporting today is that the Democratic client who paid for the Fusion GPS research was Perkins Coie, a law firm that was under contract to both the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Specifically, their lead election attorney, Mark Elias, made arrangements with Fusion GPS in April 2016 to pay for ongoing opposition research after the original Republican client stopped paying for the work. The way the report is written is vague, but the clear implication is that the Clinton campaign and DNC funded the research indirectly by making payments to the Perkins Coie law firm.

Here is how the New York Times is describing this revelation:

The presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee paid for research that was included in a dossier made public in January that contained salacious claims about connections between Donald J. Trump, his associates and Russia.

A spokesperson for a law firm said on Tuesday that it had hired Washington-based researchers last year to gather damaging information about Mr. Trump on numerous subjects — including possible ties to Russia — on behalf of the Clinton campaign and the D.N.C.

I suppose that there’s a more direct connection here than was suggested by the original reporting that stated only that the work was paid for by “Democratic clients who supported Hillary Clinton.” Functionally, however, I don’t see much of a difference.

First of all, the DNC is obviously Democratic and clearly supported Hillary Clinton, so they were never ruled out by the initial characterization. Secondly, the Clinton campaign was at least one step removed from the dossier in the sense that they authorized a law firm to solicit opposition research but did not have any further or closer connection to Fusion GPS. It’s not at all clear that the campaign knew who Christopher Steele was or that he had been retained to look into Trump’s Russian connections, or even that they were privy to what Steele produced.

There’s no evidence beyond what we already knew to suspect that Steele had an incentive to skew his reports. And Steele’s behavior is certainly curious if he thought he was working in close cooperation with the Clinton campaign. For example, when he felt that the information he was providing to Fusion GPS was too explosive to leave to them, he made the decision to contact the FBI:

Steele dutifully filed his first incendiary report with Fusion on June 20, but was this the end of his responsibilities? He knew that what he had unearthed, he’d say in his anonymous conversation with Mother Jones, “was something of huge significance, way above party politics.” Yet was it simply a vanity to think that a retired spy had to take it on his shoulders to save the world? And what about his contractual agreement with Simpson? Could the company sue, he no doubt wondered, if he disseminated information he’d collected on its dime?

In the end, Steele found the rationale that is every whistle-blower’s sustaining philosophy: the greater good trumps all other concerns. And so, even while he kept working his sources in the field and continued to shoot new memos to Simpson, he settled on a plan of covert action.

The F.B.I.’s Eurasian Joint Organized Crime Squad—“Move Over, Mafia,” the bureau’s P.R. machine crowed after the unit had been created—was a particularly gung-ho team with whom Steele had done some heady things in the past. And in the course of their successful collaboration, the hard-driving F.B.I. agents and the former frontline spy evolved into a chummy mutual-admiration society.

It was only natural, then, that when he began mulling whom to turn to, Steele thought about his tough-minded friends on the Eurasian squad. And fortuitously, he discovered, as his scheme took on a solid operational commitment, that one of the agents was now assigned to the bureau office in Rome. By early August, a copy of his first two memos were shared with the F.B.I.’s man in Rome.

“Shock and horror”—that, Steele would say in his anonymous interview, was the bureau’s reaction to the goodies he left on its doorstep. And it wanted copies of all his subsequent reports, the sooner the better.

Why didn’t it occur to him to call up Robby Mook or John Podesta or someone else at the Clinton campaign and give them the information he’d unearthed? Why was he mulling how he could go around his contractual obligations to Fusion GPS if he thought they were hardwired to the Clintons?

I suppose the connection of the DNC and the Clinton campaign to the Fusion GPS contract could have been divulged prior to now, but I can’t really see how it matters that it wasn’t. Sure, the Trump folks will try to milk this revelation for all it’s worth, but I doubt it will impress Robert Mueller. Steele is actually more credible in light of this information, because if he were a political hack he would have been asking why the Clinton campaign wasn’t using his information rather than going to the FBI.

Now, I don’t know who was leaking the dossier to reporters, and at a certain point it’s clear that Steele grew frustrated with the FBI’s lack of action and started pitching his information to folks like David Corn. After the election, he got the dossier to John McCain. This also makes him more credible, because he clearly thought what he had was so alarming that he should continue to disseminate it after the election was over.

What I don’t see here is any evidence that the Clinton campaign directed Steele’s work or that Steele considered the Clinton campaign to be his customer.

The credibility of the dossier, far from being undermined, seems bolstered to me.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.