The Mueller investigation has concluded, and Mueller’s declaration has now entered the public record: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” But it’s worth reflecting on how the contrary view — the firm conviction that Trump did coordinate with Russia — became so deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. And it’s worth reflecting on why another set of Americans could look at actual, troubling evidence of Russian contacts and simply not care at all.
The answer is complex, but at its heart is a set of documents compiled into a collection known as the “Steele dossier.” The dossier, characterized by James Comey under oath as “salacious and unverified,” consisted of opposition research compiled by a former British intelligence officer and commissioned by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Taken as whole, it undermined the credibility of American intelligence agencies, corrupted elements of the media, and distorted the public debate. It may well be one of the most malignant documents in modern American history.
I’m not going to link to the dossier, but it’s worth remembering its core claim. As explained in this December analysis in Lawfare, the document not only contained claims that Russia possessed lurid, compromising information on Donald Trump, it also made the sensational allegation that there existed a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between [Trump and his associates] and the Russian leadership,” including an “intelligence exchange [that] had been running between them for at least 8 years.” The very existence of this allegation detonated like a bomb in the American body politic.
It had an obvious distorting effect on the intelligence community and parts of the American government. To be clear, I believe that the Trump-Russia investigation would have existed even without the dossier — I’m with Trey Gowdy on that point. As Devin Nunes wrote in his famous February 2018 memorandum alleging FISA abuse, information about George Papadopoulos triggered the opening of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016. Moreover, the multiplicity of problematic Trump-team contacts with Russians or Russian operatives justified an investigation regardless of the dossier’s contents or the dossier’s use by the FBI.
The dossier was used to form a crucial part of the Carter Page FISA-warrant applications, however: The Nunes memo notes that “Deputy Director McCabe testified . . . that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the dossier information.” In addition, elements of the dossier made it to lawmakers including Harry Reid and John McCain, and the FBI ultimately even briefed then-president-elect Trump about its contents. While the summary it provided Trump is still largely redacted, it is easy to imagine how the existence of such a document could enrage the president.
I urge you to read Chuck Ross’s well-reported account of the comprehensive efforts to “seed the dossier with reporters and government officials.” The efforts were in fact so comprehensive — and the existence of its allegations such an open secret with the press — that I even heard about it in Tennessee during the later stages of the campaign. I was flat-out told that there was evidence Trump had been “compromised” by Russian intelligence.
Salacious rumor-mongering is par for the course in politics. I’ve heard the wildest stories about even the most staid politicians. And when politicians aren’t staid, well, there are no boundaries. To this day, there are folks lurking around the dark quarters of the Internet absolutely convinced that the Clintons are responsible for a string of murders in Arkansas.
But even in the face of widespread rumors, responsible journalists — or journalists who aspire to responsibility — do not print the rumor, at least not without verifying or debunking it. They should not print the rumor even if they know that law enforcement is looking into it.
Let’s try a hypothetical. Imagine if you’re a reporter and you know that local police are investigating a wild claim against a prominent local figure. You’ve started to look into the claim yourself, but so far everything you’ve learned contradicts the allegations. Do you dump it into the public domain anyway, heedless of the impact on the public or the person?
Well, if you’re BuzzFeed, that’s exactly what you do. While it may well be newsworthy that the FBI is looking into claims that Trump is “compromised,” there’s a vast difference between that factual report and just tossing a raw opposition-research file into the public square and telling people to “make up their own minds.”
That makes no sense. None. Between taking kids to soccer practice and dance lessons, parents aren’t able to determine whether Michael Cohen went to Prague. As I wrote at the time, “individual Americans aren’t free-standing intelligence agencies, ready and able to investigate alleged Russian operations in Moscow.” If a journalist hears a claim, he should investigate. Not punt to the public.
BuzzFeed’s decision had two immediate effects. First, it demonstrated the extent to which an influential media outlet would depart from best practices when it possessed negative allegations against Trump. Second, the instant the claims were published, millions of Americans became convinced they were true. Combine the recent pain of a shocking electoral loss, Russia’s intervention in the campaign to help Trump and sow chaos generally, Trump’s incredibly odd behavior toward Putin, and the emerging reports (some overblown) of unusual contacts between Trump’s team and Russians or Russian assets, and Democrats were primed to believe the worst. Moreover, the dossier’s memo formats, which looked like movie versions of intelligence reports, enhanced their public credibility. They were official-looking.
And so we were off to the races. An odd sort of consensus developed on the left and the right. In essence, it was this: The dossier is the scandal. On the left, a kind of blind faith emerged that the purpose and ultimate inevitable outcome of the Mueller investigation were to prove the core claims (if not all the specifics) of the dossier. People weren’t singing songs to Mueller with the expectation and hope that he’d simply lay out the facts. They believed that they already knew the facts, it was up to Mueller to come through with the proof.
On the right, when the dossier became the scandal, that meant that misconduct — even lies about contacts with Russians or Russian assets — that fell far short of the dossier’s grandiose claims was treated simply as no big deal. If a meeting with a Russian lawyer with the intention of getting damaging information about Hillary Clinton or alleged efforts to establish back-channel communications with WikiLeaks through Roger Stone fell far short of the dossier’s claims, then they were nothing to worry about — a distraction from the “real” scandal of the “Russia hoax.”
Moreover, a veritable industry sprang up that attempted to tie the entire Trump-Russia investigation to the dossier, to somehow prove that absent the dossier, there never would have been a comprehensive investigation of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, much less a special counsel. Troubling conduct and contacts by Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and others were swept aside as meaningless. The dossier was the chief weapon in the effort to delegitimize the investigation itself, and it was a potent weapon indeed.
For all of their other accomplishments, the Clintons are leaving American public life with a legacy of lies and lawlessness. Bill Clinton’s shameless behavior, perjury, and obstruction of justice led to his impeachment. Hillary’s serial deceptions and her grotesque mishandling of classified information led to her defeat. The dossier, however, in its sheer negative impact on American public life, may be her most infamous “achievement.” Her campaign — and ultimately Hillary herself — bears responsibility for the chaos it sowed.
But key members of the media and the government share in that responsibility. The dossier redefined the debate. It was a cancer, and it sickened American culture and politics. Our nation is weaker because that document entered the bloodstream of the body politic.