Politics & Policy

Collusion and the Trump Dossier

President Trump speaks to reporters outside the White House, September 29, 2017. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
If the Trump dossier is a tissue of lies, why are the Justice Department and FBI, now controlled by Trump appointees, concealing information about it?

It is an article of faith among the president’s most ardent supporters: The Trump dossier is a completely discredited piece of garbage. Hence, its relevance is limited to one matter and one matter alone: The dossier’s suspected use by the Obama administration (specifically, the Justice Department and the FBI) as a pretext to spy on the opposition party’s presidential campaign — a ruse that included cribbing the dossier’s sensational allegations in secret court applications for wiretap warrants.

It appears that this Trumpist tenet is going to be tested. The dossier that did so much to fuel the collusion controversy is assuming center stage once more.

The dispute over the 2016 election has stalemated. The Trump-deranged are convinced that the president is a Putin puppet; Trump boosters are just as certain that “collusion” is a fictional narrative dreamt up to delegitimize their man and explain away Hillary Clinton’s defeat. For a long time, I’ve thought the latter camp had the better argument. President Trump and the FBI director he fired, James Comey, may not agree on much, but they both say Comey provided repeated assurances that Trump was not a suspect in the FBI’s probe of Russia’s 2016 campaign meddling. It makes no sense that Comey would do that if there had been solid evidence of collusion between Trump and Putin.

That still seems incontestable. But neither do I believe Director Comey would have countenanced an investigation based on nothing — a “collusion” investigation conducted solely to camouflage political spying. Something is not right here. If we’re ever going to figure it out, the dossier is the roadmap.

So, is the article of faith true? If the Trump dossier is just a tissue of lies, why are the Justice Department and FBI, now controlled by Trump appointees, concealing information about it rather than anxiously volunteering disclosure?

If I had to bet on it, I’d wager that the dossier is like many reports compiled by investigative bodies whose motives are dubious and whose sources are of varying levels of credibility — similar to what you get after investigations by politicized congressional committees, law-enforcement agents who are less than first-rate, or private detectives who, lacking subpoena power, often rely on multiple hearsay. That is, I think the dossier will turn out to be a mixed bag of the true, the false, and the shades of gray in between.

Questions about the dossier are pressing for two reasons.

First, it was leaked this week that investigators working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller have interviewed Christopher Steele. He is the former British spy who composed the so-called dossier during and after the 2016 campaign. At the time, Steele was a private contractor conducting political opposition research on behalf of Trump’s adversaries. The dossier, formatted to resemble official spy-agency intelligence reports, is a set of investigative summaries, based on Steele’s interviews with sources.

We don’t know the whole story at this point, but claims from Trump supporters that the dossier is a Clinton campaign project are overstated. Steele runs a private intelligence firm in London (Orbis Business Intelligence, Ltd.) and was retained to dig up dirt on Trump by the Washington-based opposition-research firm, Fusion GPS. Fusion does a lot of work for the political Left, but it was originally hired by anti-Trump Republicans, not the Clinton campaign. Only later, when it was apparent that Trump would win the nomination, was the project handed off to Clinton backers.

By then, Steele had already done a good bit of research. In reading the dossier, one quickly notices that it does not depict Mrs. Clinton in a flattering light. It indicates that the Kremlin possesses Clinton “kompromat.” This compromising information, potentially useful for blackmail, is said to have been assembled over decades, derived mainly from eavesdropping on her conversations. If so, this would be consistent with the FBI’s conclusion, in July 2016, that Clinton is reckless when it comes to communications security. The information, the dossier indicates, could be exploited to make Clinton look hypocritical and foolish. Is this true? Who knows? But we can say one thing for sure: It is not what one would expect to find in a piece of sheer Clinton propaganda.

Prior to his dossier work, Steele seems to have enjoyed a good reputation with the American intelligence and law-enforcement agents with whom he had worked. Some of his dossier information appears to come from well-placed sources; some of it is second- and third-hand, and speculative at that. On the face of things, most of Steele’s sources are anonymous, another reason his claims have been given the back of the hand by Trump supporters. But from an investigator’s standpoint, the sources are identifiable: If Steele cooperated with the FBI (and in some instances, even if he didn’t), the Bureau could pretty easily figure out who the sources are, follow the leads, and determine whether the dossier is a complete fabrication.

The FBI plainly did not dismiss the dossier out of hand. If it used some of the dossier’s information in a FISA-court surveillance application, that would only be problematic if agents failed to verify that particular information before seeking the warrant. That would be highly irregular. For now, we don’t know what happened.

There are hundreds of claims in the dossier. Some of them seem outlandish — so much so that, at Forbes, Russia expert Paul Roderick Gregory debunks the dossier emphatically. Nonetheless, to my knowledge, the only claim that has been discredited with persuasive force is the assertion that Trump’s long-time lawyer, Michael Cohen, had secret meetings in Prague with Russian officials. Cohen denies having ever been to Prague, and he maintains that his passport shows no visits there — a claim that wouldn’t necessarily discount travel to the Czech Republic but could have been refuted easily if false. If the Bureau concluded that the dossier’s claim about Cohen is wrong, one could infer that the inaccuracy is reflective of Steele’s overall reporting — in which case, Trump and his associates have nothing to be concerned about.

On the other hand, it could be that some of the dossier’s information is wrong but some is accurate. On that score, Business Insider’s Natasha Bertrand has been carefully comparing allegations in the dossier with actual events and has found a good deal of alignment. The factual corroboration is circumstantial — no smoking-gun proof of campaign collusion between Trump associates and Putin’s regime. Much of it is nonetheless disturbing — plainly in the category of suspicious activity investigators would deem worthy of investigation.

It could be that some of the dossier’s information is wrong but some is accurate.

Most of the press coverage about the dossier has focused on salacious sexual allegations about Trump. These are usually dismissed by the Trump camp as completely discredited. In reality, we can say only that they are unsubstantiated. That’s saliently different. For example, Steele has three sources who vouch for parts of the most lurid story; a fourth apparently cannot vouch for the story but contends that Russia has collected plenty of “embarrassing material” on Trump over the years. Of course, we want tales of depravity to be untrue, so it is tempting to reject them as false if we can rationalize doing so. Here, not only has Trump exuded confidence in his denials; the apparent falsity of the Cohen-Prague allegation invites us to say, “If Steele is wrong about that, he must be wrong about everything.”

An FBI investigator, however, would want to interview Steele and his sources, and follow up on all the leads, before coming to a conclusion.

The most important American figure in Steele’s reporting is Paul Manafort. For about five months until his August 2016 ouster (i.e., the period during which Trump wrapped up the nomination, was formally nominated at the GOP convention, and began the race against Mrs. Clinton), Manafort was chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign.

As we’ve previously noted, Mueller is clearly squeezing Manafort. The investigation seeks any information Manafort has regarding a cooperative venture between the Trump campaign and the Putin regime: Russian assistance in the campaign in exchange for Trump policy concessions on Russia. Mueller obviously sees it as his task to determine whether such a venture (a) truly did exist, (b) was spearheaded by Manafort, and (c) was known to Trump. Patently, if Mueller’s investigators are talking (or at least have talked) to Steele, that turns up the heat on Manafort.

That brings us to the second reason to focus on the dossier — the one I find most disturbing. The FBI and Justice Department are thwarting Congress’s efforts to get to the bottom of it.

As the Washington Examiner’s Byron York has been reporting, the FBI, backed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who appointed Mueller), has been ignoring an August 24 subpoena for information about the dossier issued by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.). Concurrently, DOJ and the Bureau are stonewalling Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), who has inquired about the dossier in a probe of suspected investigative irregularities. And then there is the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the main congressional collusion probe. On Wednesday, Chairman Richard Burr (R., N.C.) groused that the committee had “hit a wall” because Steele refuses to discuss the dossier with its investigators.

In a nutshell, then, the Justice Department and FBI are citing the Mueller investigation as their rationale for ignoring congressional demands for information, and Steele won’t talk to the Senate while he is talking to Mueller and the FBI.

In trying to wrap my brain around this, here’s what I don’t get: The Justice Department and the FBI now answer to President Trump, not to President Obama. The key players, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein (in place of recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions) and new FBI director Christopher Wray, are Trump appointees. So . . . if the Trump Dossier really is a completely discredited piece of garbage, who on earth has a greater incentive than Trump to expose it? Why are the Trump Justice Department and FBI impeding congressional probes? If the information is false, you would think they couldn’t shovel it out fast enough.

Why are the Trump Justice Department and FBI impeding congressional probes?

But what if the information — or at least some of it — were true? Under those circumstances, the White House would make a political calculation: Trump would be better served by simply continuing to complain about a purported witch-hunt and politicized abuses of surveillance authority; there would be too much downside risk in directing the Justice Department and FBI to disclose all relevant information to Congress forthwith.

If at least some of the dossier’s more important allegations had been corroborated, we would also expect the Justice Department and the FBI to refuse to cooperate with anyone other than Mueller. That would not be due to corruption — quite the opposite. It would owe to the ongoing investigation: Disclosing what the FBI has done to corroborate Steele would expose to danger (particularly of Russian retaliation) the witnesses who have provided information.

In other words, if some of the dossier had been substantiated by investigators, things would look . . . just like they look at the moment.

This is another iteration of the curiosity I’ve raised in connection with the related “unmasking” controversy. President Trump runs the executive branch. He is in charge of classified information. He gets to decide what may be disclosed. If he wanted us to have all the facts about Obama administration use of foreign-intelligence-collection authority to monitor the Trump campaign, disclosure would already have been made. Congress and the public would know what Trump associates had been monitored, which ones had their identities revealed in intelligence reporting, how many times, by which Obama national-security officials, and why.

Instead, the administration complains about unmasking, but never takes the steps Trump could easily take to expose it as an abuse of power.

Just like it complains about the dossier, but never takes the steps Trump could easily take to expose it as a fraud.

None of this would prove collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. It does suggest, however, that there were good reasons to conduct an investigation.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.


The Latest