Politics & Policy

Beating a Hasty Retreat from the Steele Dossier

Trump speaks at a campaign event rally in Atlanta, Ga., in February 2016. (Reuters file photo: Tami Chappell)
Fusion GPS and the New York Times want to disassociate the dossier from the collusion narrative they labored to create.

The New York Times’ Russian Reset continues.

My weekend column argued that the Democrats and the media are scrambling to pull together a new origination account of the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. The original origination account has become a political liability because it centered on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser who featured prominently in the so-called Steele dossier. The dossier, a compilation of Russia-sourced reports authored by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, is now known to have been a Clinton campaign-funded opposition-research project. Though its key allegations seem never to have been verified by the FBI, the dossier was apparently used by the Obama Justice Department in applying to the FISA court for a surveillance warrant targeting Page as a Russian agent enmeshed in a corrupt plot against the 2016 election.

On cue, the Times has now published a defensive op-ed by the two founders of Fusion GPS, the research firm that produced the Steele dossier. What is most striking about this offering by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch is what it studiously avoids addressing: the specific allegations in the dossier.

Simpson and Fritsch, former Wall Street Journal reporters, decry “the Republicans’ fake investigations” of the Obama Justice Department’s use of the dossier. Indeed, they lead with the obligatory Watergate comparison to Republicans seeking to protect Richard Nixon — notwithstanding that a more apt comparison would be to the Nixon administration’s efforts to use intelligence agencies to spy on political adversaries. Yet, while the authors attest to the sterling reputation of Steele, they elide any mention of his claims — i.e., of the sensational allegations of a traitorous conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that Fusion GPS, while working for the Clinton campaign, generated and tried mightily to publicize through the Clinton-friendly media.

Instead, Simpson and Fritsch erect a strawman: What their work has really been about, they now say, is “decipher[ing] Mr. Trump’s complex business past.” This includes scrutinizing financial ties between Trump’s business conglomerate and Russian interests. It is from this effort that Republicans and other Obama administration critics are supposedly trying to deflect attention.

Nonsense. Unlike the Obama-Clinton Left, many of us on the national-security right believed that the murderous, anti-American Putin regime was a threat to U.S. interests long before the wee hours of November 9, 2016, when Trump was declared the winner of the election and Democrats suddenly decided Russia was the evil empire. We were saying Putin was a problem back when Obama was mocking Mitt Romney for saying so; when Mrs. Clinton was running around with her “Reset” button; when the Clinton Foundation was lapping up Russian money; when Obama was whispering to Putin’s factotum, Dimitri Medvedev, about all the “flexibility” he’d have to accommodate Russia after the 2012 election; and when the Obama administration was permitting the transfer of U.S. uranium-mining rights to a Putin regime–controlled energy company at a time when the Obama Justice Department chose not to bring a prosecutable racketeering case against that company’s U.S. affiliate.

If Simpson and Fritsch have information about alarming Trump financial ties to the Kremlin, we’re all ears. Trump’s campaign blandishments toward Putin were sufficiently offensive that they made it difficult for many Republicans — and for some, impossible — to back him. (Indeed, had it not been for the Clinton ties to Russia, and Obama’s years of appeasing Russia, this issue would surely have gotten more traction.) Congressional Republicans and conservative commentators have supported a comprehensive investigation of Russian treachery — in connection with the 2016 election and whatever else. We’ve said from the start that if there is evidence of real criminality and other corrupt dealing between the Kremlin and Trump, it should be investigated and exposed.

What we object to, however, are (a) the lack of even-handedness in the Justice Department and FBI’s manner of conducting the Clinton and Trump investigations, which can only be explained by partisanship; and (b) the politicized inflation of what appear to be non-criminal contacts with Russia — the kind of unsavory contacts that the Obama administration and the Clinton Foundation tried to normalize — into a “collusion” narrative aimed at convincing the public that Trump and Putin engaged in an espionage conspiracy.

Which brings us to a remarkable aspect of the op-ed: If Simpson and Fritsch have evidence of criminal or otherwise corrupt Trump-Russia contacts, why don’t they just tell us what it is. Why do they write a lengthy column caterwauling about how the Republican-controlled committees are supposedly withholding the information they’ve provided? We are not talking about classified information here; we are talking about Fusion’s own investigation. They say the Republicans refuse to release their testimony. Why wait for the Republicans? There’s nothing stopping Simpson and Fritsch from fully disclosing what their testimony was. Why don’t they tell the story instead of complaining about its not being told?

Could it be that the story is not what they purport it to be?

Consider this whopper in the op-ed: In intimating that they were the very soul of discretion in keeping the Steele dossier quiet (leaving it up to Steele whether to share his findings with the FBI), Simpson and Fritsch assert, “We did not . . . share the dossier with BuzzFeed, which to our dismay published it in January.” Of course, the issue is not that the dossier was published in all its dubious glory in early 2017. The issue is that, during the stretch run of the 2016 campaign, the dossier was (a) used by the Obama Justice Department to obtain a FISA warrant and (b) shared with select Clinton-friendly media by Fusion to fuel a collusion narrative against Trump for the benefit of Clinton’s campaign.

The New York Times itself has reported, based on British court filings by Steele (who is being sued for defamation), that the Fusion principals and Steele began briefing the Times in September 2016. Steele has elaborated that his press briefings were done at the instruction of Fusion GPS (i.e., Simpson and Fritsch). Besides the Times, Steele briefed the Washington Post, the New Yorker, CNN, and Yahoo News. (See Byron York’s Washington Examiner report.) These briefings just happen to coincide with the Obama Justice Department’s application to the FISA court for a surveillance warrant targeting Carter Page as a Russian agent supposedly engaged in clandestine, potentially criminal activities.

What were these activities? We don’t know because the warrant is classified. We do know, however, that the Justice Department applied for the warrant shortly after the FBI received Steele’s reports alleging sinister activities by Page during a trip to Russia. Specifically, Steele claimed that Page was complicit in a Trump campaign conspiracy with the Putin regime — a conspiracy that included hacking Democratic emails, corrupt arrangements to drop sanctions against Russia, and Page’s meetings in Moscow with two top Kremlin operatives.

As noted above, Fusion GPS and Steele briefed Yahoo News about the dossier claims — specifically, reporter Michael Isikoff. I discussed Isikoff’s report, including its timing and his sources, in a recent column:

Reporting indicates that sometime in September 2016, the DOJ and FBI applied to the FISA court for a warrant to surveil Carter Page, and that the warrant was granted.

Interestingly, on September 23, 2016, Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff reported on leaks he had received that the U.S. government was conducting an intelligence investigation to determine whether Carter Page, as a Trump adviser, had opened up a private communications channel with such “senior Russian officials” as Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin to discuss lifting economic sanctions if Trump became president.

It is now known that Isikoff’s main source for the story was Fusion’s Glenn Simpson. Isikoff’s report is rife with allegations found in the dossier, although the dossier is not referred to as such; it is described as “intelligence reports” that “U.S. officials” were actively investigating — i.e., Steele’s reports were described in a way that would lead readers to assume they were official U.S. intelligence reports. But there clearly was official American government involvement: Isikoff’s story asserts that U.S. officials were briefing members of Congress about these allegations that Page was meeting with Kremlin officials on Trump’s behalf. The story elaborated that “questions about Page come amid mounting concerns within the U.S. intelligence community about Russian cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee.” Those would be the cyberattacks alleged — in the dossier on which Congress was being briefed — to be the result of a Trump-Russia conspiracy in which Page was complicit.

Isikoff obviously checked with his government sources to verify what Simpson had told him about the ongoing investigation that was based on these “intelligence reports.” His story recounts that “a senior U.S. law enforcement official” confirmed that Page’s alleged contacts with Russian officials were “on our radar screen. . . . It’s being looked at.”

In his Times op-ed, Simpson doesn’t say whether he was as “dismayed” about Isikoff’s report as he says he was about BuzzFeed’s publication of the dossier.

For his part, Steele told Mother Jones that he forwarded the information he had uncovered to the FBI shortly after he began sending it to Fusion GPS. The FBI, he recalled, reacted with “shock and horror.” Agents asked him for information on his sources and their reliability, in addition to requesting that he continue sending the Bureau his reports. His perception was that the FBI judged the information highly significant, though he was not told how the information was used.

Like the Times, Simpson and Fritsch now want to disassociate the dossier from the collusion narrative they labored to create. They want to reset the collusion narrative: No longer about Page and the dossier, now it’s all about, yes, George Papadopoulos.

Thus, the authors assure us, “We don’t believe the Steele dossier was the trigger for the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russian meddling.” Instead, the dossier that Simpson, Fritsch, and Steele were trumpeting as a smoking gun during the 2016 campaign is now portrayed as having merely “corroborated reports the bureau had received from other sources, including one inside the Trump camp.” That one source? Why, Papadopoulos, of course. (The op-ed here links to the Times’ blockbuster Papadopoulos report this past weekend.)

Just one problem: What did the Justice Department and FBI do when the FBI received reports from these sources? They got a FISA warrant for Carter Page.

If the FBI had such information about Page, it certainly did not get that information from Papadopoulos.

As I explained in my aforementioned column, to get a FISA warrant to surveil an American citizen, the government has to show the FISA court probable cause that the citizen is engaged in clandestine activities on behalf of a foreign power (here, Russia), which activities may involve violations of federal criminal law. If the FBI had such information about Page, it certainly did not get that information from Papadopoulos — that’s clear from the Statement of the Offense filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller when Papadopoulos pled guilty a few weeks ago. To date, the only source we know of for such allegations against Page is the dossier. And at present, there is no basis to believe such allegations were ever verified by the FBI (wholly apart from the fact that they are highly unlikely on their face, and that Page has both vigorously denied them and filed a libel suit over them).

In light of the significant questions that have been raised about the Obama Justice Department’s use of the dossier, it is understandable that the Fusion GPS founders who produced the dossier would want to downplay its significance in triggering the FBI’s Russia investigation. But that was not the tune they were playing at the time the FBI’s investigation was actually triggered. Back then, they couldn’t say enough about the Trump treachery Steele had purportedly uncovered, and with Election Day fast approaching, they wanted that story told far and wide.

Now . . . not so much.

READ MORE:

As the Dossier Scandal Looms, the New York Times Struggles to Save Its Collusion Tale

Was the Steele Dossier the FBI’s ‘Insurance Policy’?

It Is Now an Obstruction Investigation

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