With the explosive news on Monday morning from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and two associates have been indicted on various charges, the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election has shifted into high gear. But we shouldn't lose sight of the central role played by the "Steele dossier," a controversial secret report compiled by a former British spy named Christopher Steele, who now works as a freelance researcher.
Both Republicans and Democrats have been trying to use the dossier and the circumstances surrounding its creation to their political advantage, and it's no wonder. Last week we learned that Fusion GPS, the company which hired Steele was first paid by the conservative Washington Free Beacon news site, presumably at the behest of Paul Singer, a libertarian billionaire who opposed Trump during the 2016 Republican primaries.
After Trump clinched the GOP nomination, the Free Beacon dropped the project, which was completed with funds funneled through a law firm by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. The conservative site has claimed that it was not involved with Steele's work.
One could argue that the overall winner in all this is neither Republicans nor Democrats but the Kremlin’s intelligence services, through their long-standing “active measures” strategy to destabilize and discredit Western democracy, regardless of who benefits in the short or medium term.
Last week, Republicans and their allied media outlets feverishly promoted a Washington Post report revealing that the DNC and Clinton campaign had indirectly paid for Steele’s work (which David Corn of Mother Jones had reported a full year earlier). For Trump supporters, this was evidence that the multiple congressional and law enforcement investigations into Russian efforts to influence American politics were unwarranted and that the "real" scandal lay on the Democratic side.
Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to draw attention to particularly explosive allegations in the Steele dossier, even as some aspects of the report have proven untrue or impossible to corroborate. Following the Post report, of course, Democratic officials and contractors have been forced to defend their involvement with funding the dossier and their misleading comments about it in the past.
President Donald Trump has led the way for his party, criticizing the research last week during a conversation with reporters. "I think it's very sad what they've done with this fake dossier, it was made up and I understand they made a tremendous amount of money, and Hillary Clinton always denied it, the Democrats always denied it," Trump said. "And now, only because it's going to come out in a court case, they said yes, they admitted it and they are embarrassed by it. I think it's a disgrace, it's a very sad commentary on politics in this country."
Trump further suggested that the latest revelations supported his claims that Democrats "made up the whole Russia hoax" as a means of distracting attention from a 2010 business deal involving a Russian-state-owned company that was approved by the Barack Obama administration.
"Now it's turning out that the hoax is turned around and you look at what's happened with Russia and you look at the uranium deal and you look at the fake dossier. So that's all turned around," he said.
Republicans allege that Clinton, then the secretary of state, intervened on behalf of the Russian-owned Rosatom corporation’s efforts to acquire the American company Uranium One because of donations that Uranium One executives made to the Clinton Foundation, a nonprofit charity operated by her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
There is little or no evidence to support this claim. It is true that Clinton and Obama were interested in a “reset” with Russian leaders during the early part of Obama's presidency. But by the end of his second term, a variety of factors had led to a breakdown in relations between the two countries. While the timing of the uranium deal and the Russian donation to the Clinton Foundation appear related on surface examination, a closer look reveals they are not. It's not even clear that Clinton knew about the uranium deal or was involved with it in any way. Jose Fernandez, the former assistant secretary of state who oversaw the regulatory process for the merger, told The New York Times that “Mrs. Clinton never intervened with me.”
While Republican complaints about the Uranium One deal have proven unsubstantiated, the creation and funding of the 35-page Steele dossier, particularly the shadowy company that paid for its creation, is a much more interesting subject.
As mentioned above, the British ex-spy’s research was funded by Fusion GPS, a commercial research firm which also does political opposition investigations.
During the general election, Steele’s research for Fusion was directly funded by Perkins Coie, a law firm that counted the Democratic National Committee as a major client. Earlier this year, Marc Elias, a Perkins Coie partner, apparently lied to New York Times reporter Ken Vogel when he was asked about the firm’s involvement. According to a report last Thursday from Vogel, Clinton and other high-level officials within the DNC or her campaign were not aware of payments made to Fusion GPS or Steele.
Likewise, most senior Democratic officials appear to have been unaware of the dossier until after the election, even as both Fusion GPS and Steele tried to pitch the information surreptitiously to journalists and various Washington insiders. Steele's full research product remained hidden from public view until Jan. 10 of this year, when BuzzFeed published the entire dossier, a decision widely condemned by other media organizations since none of them had been able to verify any of its more sensational allegations.
A number of the assertions made by Steele appear to have been true, including his claim that the now-indicted Paul Manafort, who was Trump's campaign manager during the spring and summer of 2016, was heavily involved with corrupt Russian oligarchs and other authoritarian regimes. Even so, considerable doubt hovers over Steele’s report, since it contains errors and references to unnamed sources that congressional investigators have been unable to identify, according to the Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.). Steele has reportedly spoken with Mueller's investigative team, however.
Instead of shrinking from Steele’s many titillating contentions — including the accusation that Trump once paid Russian prostitutes to urinate on a bed previously slept in by Obama — the president has used the dossier as yet more “proof” that he was the victim of the “fake news media,” a rhetorical trope that has been a staple of his public pronouncements ever since.
Before it was released to the public, Steele’s record as a reliable source and the then-secret investigation of Russian-sponsored hacking attacks on Democrats appear to have motivated the FBI to reimburse some of Steele's expenses, as CNN reported in February.
Some of those expenditures included payments made to current and former Russian intelligence operatives for uncorroborated information, a practice that Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA under Obama, has said raises significant accuracy concerns.
Further questions emerged about Steele’s research in July, when it was revealed that Natalia Veselnitskaya — the Kremlin-connected lawyer who was introduced to Donald Trump Jr. in June 2016 as someone who could provide opposition research on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump” — had been accused of hiring Fusion GPS to mount a public relations campaign against the Magnitsky Act, a set of sanctions against Russia which that nation's government has sought to repeal since its passage in 2012.
In July of 2016, before the Trump-Russia story had broken, a hedge fund run by two vociferous critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Fusion of working for the Russian government to undermine the Magnitsky Act. Fusion GPS has denied any knowledge of the 2016 Veselnitskaya-Trump meeting before The New York Times disclosed it in April, even as it has confirmed that it did work on behalf of Prevezon, a Russian holding company.
Fusion GPS has also come under fire for its willingness to work with any entity willing to pay the bills, including dictatorial governments. Founded in 2009 by former Wall Street Journal reporters Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, it has proven to be successful at stepping into the void created as funding for investigative reporting has collapsed within the media industry. Relatively few journalists have the editorial support to dig deeply into stories, and often find themselves forced to carry water for sources with their own agendas. (The serial reappearance of “Trump is finally getting his act together” stories would be a perfect example.) So third-party opposition research firms like Fusion GPS have made a killing by providing secrets given to them by clients to reporters desperate for a scoop.
“It is rare to read stories about comms shops like Fusion GPS because traditional news organizations are reluctant to bite the hands that feed them,” veteran foreign policy writer Lee Smith wrote in a lengthy July article, accusing the company and its rivals of collaborating with a number of authoritarian regimes to package news for dissemination in the American media.
Commercially and state-funded journalism has increasingly (and with little public discussion) become the norm, ever since the "Arkansas Project" of the 1990s that was the source of so many accusations against Bill Clinton. Another practitioner of the form beyond the Washington Free Beacon is former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who set up a nonprofit to dig dirt on Hillary Clinton and former Florida governor Jeb Bush and then get that information circulated as widely as possible.
How much of the Steele dossier is true is an issue that even future historians will not be able to answer in full. As this week's indictments and the guilty plea of former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos make clear, however, Mueller's team is looking into its many larger allegations. So are congressional investigators.
The willingness of Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and presidential adviser Jared Kushner to meet with Veselnitskaya under such dubious circumstances is one of several damning pieces of evidence that exist independent of Steele's research. The fact that veteran Washington power broker Tony Podesta was willing to resign on Monday from his lobbying firm also indicates that the scope of Mueller's look into Manafort's work on behalf of Ukrainian and Russian clients is likely to hit a little too close to home for the corporate-friendly wing of the Democratic Party.
It may be comforting for Republican and Democratic partisans to believe the facts will ultimately benefit them and damage their opposition. But it looks increasingly likely that an anonymous Russian’s characterization of the separate 2016 social media trolling operation is also true about the Putin regime’s activities regarding Steele: “There was no task to support Trump,” the propagandist told the independent Russian media outlet RBC earlier this month. Instead, trolls were directed to “uncover and highlight existing problems and social issues in the United States.”
This core aspect of the Russian hacking and propaganda campaign is what has largely gone missing from the national discussion about it. No one thought Trump was going to win, including himself. The point was to undermine confidence in a future Hillary Clinton administration and the larger American political system. The "beautiful" thing about active measures campaigns is that they can still work even after they are exposed. They may work even better, as the current scandal has been demonstrating.
The only antidote to all of the half-truths, lies and inconvenient truths is for our increasingly inept political leaders to put aside their differences to find out what really happened with regard to Russia and 2016, even if that may lead to uncomfortable conclusions.
Such a rigorous inquiry may seem an unlikely prospect during the Trump era, but it's worth noting that almost all Republicans in both the Senate and House were willing to defy the president by voting for increased sanctions against Russia in July. In the Senate, Rand Paul of Kentucky was the sole GOP vote against the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. He was joined by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a pairing that doesn't happen often. Only three Republicans opposed that law in the House.
The message those overwhelming votes sent may be the reason Trump has so far declined to fire Mueller, despite his obvious desire to do so. Congressional Republicans who now claim they are willing to stand up to Trump are sure to have similar tests of their proclaimed independence in the months ahead, especially as some GOP partisans are trying to prepare the ground for the Trump to terminate Mueller on literally the same grounds that former president Richard Nixon did during his infamous "Saturday Night Massacre" during the Watergate scandal.