Politics & Policy

Withhold Judgment on the New York Times’ Latest Russia Scoop

(Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)
There is no way to evaluate the trustworthiness of anonymous sources and unpublished documents, so why try?

At this point, it’s safe to say the publicly available reports muddle the Mueller investigation so much that the only thing we “know” is all sides have more than enough circumstantial evidence to justify their pre-existing hopes and dreams.

Left-wing partisans would have you believe that Mueller has the goods on Trump, and that conservative critiques of Mueller’s team or the Clinton campaign’s role in creating the so-called Steele dossier are nothing more than bad-faith attempts to discredit the investigation and undermine faith in the FBI.

Right-wing partisans would have you believe that the Mueller investigation is a partisan sham. They take the facts that the Steele dossier was a bought-and-paid-for product of the Clinton campaign, and that “Steele approached the FBI” just before agents initiated their investigation of the Trump campaign, as proof that the Bureau was blinded by partisan bias in its senior ranks and by its previous positive working relationship with Christopher Steele — that there was never any “there” there.

This weekend, the New York Times published a report that purported to blast a huge hole in the conservative narrative. In reality, according to the Times, George Papadopoulos was the “improbable match that set off a blaze that has consumed the first year of the Trump administration.” In May, one month before the Democratic National Committee announced that Russian hackers had penetrated its files, Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, that “Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.”

As we know from the Statement of Offense articulating the basis of Papadopoulos’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI, he’d been told on April 26, 2016 — weeks before his meeting with Downer — that Russia had “thousands of emails” exposing “dirt” on Hillary. When Wikileaks began publishing emails from the DNC hack, Downer told American officials about his conversation with Papadopoulos, and it was that information, rather than the Steele dossier, which “so alarmed” the Obama Department of Justice that it began its investigation into the Trump campaign, according to the Times.

If you step back and look at the larger timeline of the investigation, there does seem to be a pattern of Russians attempting to offer the Trump camp “dirt” on Hillary before the release of the Wikileaks emails. In addition to the April conversation with Papadopoulos mentioned above, we also know that Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met in June with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya after being promised “official documents and information” that would “incriminate” Hillary. This information was allegedly part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

In addition, the Times reports that the investigation was “also propelled by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch. A trip to Moscow by another adviser, Carter Page, also raised concerns at the F.B.I.” These various “strands” were enough to trigger an internal debate about “how aggressively to investigate the campaign’s Russia ties.”

To hear the Times tell it then, the Trump/Russia investigation wasn’t triggered by a salacious piece of Clinton opposition research but instead by conventional intelligence reports relaying empirically troubling information. Case closed, and a right-wing talking point blown out of the water, right?

Well, maybe. The article is based on the usual combination of unknown, anonymous sources and “documents” not available to the reader. That doesn’t mean it’s false. A number of stories about the Russia investigation have been based on anonymous sources and later proven to be entirely or largely correct. Others have been hotly disputed. Remember this report from the Times, published last February? Its allegations were explosive:

Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

Former FBI director James Comey testified in June that the story, “in the main . . . was not true.”

As the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel argues, one doesn’t retract concerns about partisan foul play in the absence of proof more concrete than unsubstantiated, anonymous assertions. Moreover, as Byron York asked on Twitter, if Papadopoulos was central to the probe, did the FBI seek a surveillance warrant on him? After all, it had reportedly obtained a warrant on Carter Page, and it was Page who was implicated in the Steele dossier. In other words, the report should arouse skeptical curiosity. It should not, however, end the debate.

Some might wonder why these questions matter. After all, if the Mueller probe reveals real wrongdoing — and he’s already secured two indictments and two guilty pleas for lying to the FBI — then why does it matter what prompted the probe in the first place? Or, to put it another way, if a normal and proper investigation of Russian efforts to meddle in the election would have revealed the contacts outlined above between Trump officials and Russians, then wouldn’t the FBI have investigated the Trump campaign for collusion anyway?

The answer depends greatly on the outcome of the investigation. If the Mueller probe reveals meaningful, independently corroborated “collusion” — in other words, cooperation between senior Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence operatives to influence the outcome of the 2016 election — then, as a practical matter, questions about the origin of the investigation would become a mere sideshow. The dossier would be reduced to a footnote to one of the worst political scandals in American history.

But so far evidence of actual collusion is thin on the ground. Neither Mueller’s indictments nor his guilty pleas have disclosed any evidence of actual cooperation between Russians and the Trump campaign. Yes, there is disturbing evidence that Donald Jr., Manafort, and Kushner seemed willing and eager to receive damaging information from the Russians even after being told it was part of a Kremlin plan to help their candidate. But so far there’s no publicly available evidence that anything came of those contacts.

If it also turns out that this drama was truly triggered not by proper intelligence work but rather by the Hillary campaign’s discredited opposition research, then the partisanship of 2017 will pale in comparison to the political detonation of the new year.

If the Mueller investigation results in a series of indictments or convictions that are based not on underlying collusion but largely on lies about legal activity — like Michael Flynn’s proper, transition-period contacts with Russian officials — then American politics would have been turned upside-down on the basis of various cover-ups of no crime at all. If it also turns out that this drama was truly triggered not by proper intelligence work but rather by the Hillary campaign’s discredited opposition research, then the partisanship of 2017 will pale in comparison to the political detonation of the new year. Partisans on both sides will have ample reason for fury, and the public will wonder if there is anyone left to trust.

As Strassel rightly notes, the dossier is already “one of the dirtiest tricks in U.S. political history.” It has “yielded a vast payoff.” It colored perceptions of Trump in the press and in the public, and it may have colored perceptions of Trump in the highest echelons of American law enforcement. If it is proven to have been instrumental in triggering one of the most divisive investigations in modern American history, then we may have to coin a new term. “Dirty trick” won’t do it justice.

My colleague Andrew McCarthy has called for President Trump to “order the FBI and Justice Department, led by his appointees, to cooperate with Congress’s investigations” regarding the origin of the Russia investigation. The New York Times report only makes cooperation more important. Absent overwhelming national-security considerations — such as preventing disclosures that would undermine vital, ongoing intelligence operations — the administration should heed this call. Until then, the American public operates in a dangerous fog, with no way to know if reports like the Times’ are true and accurate or worse than no report at all.


The Papadopoulos Case

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

Was the Steele Dossier Used to Obtaina a FISA Warrant Against Trump’s Campaign?


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