There may be no talent the Republican Party and the conservative movement have that is more astounding than the way they are able to take a ludicrous idea with zero relationship to actual facts, light a fuse on it, and turn it into an explosive firework of spin that manages to confuse everyone who tries to look at the issue that started the whole controversy.
Right now we’re getting a look at one of those projects, in the form of the reaction we’re seeing to the news that the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped pay for research that ultimately resulted in the infamous “Steele Dossier.”
We’re going to walk through the actual facts, not only to get clear what’s true and what isn’t but also to understand how the Republican obfuscation effort is being implemented.
The dossier in question compiled research into President Trump’s connections to Russia that was prepared during the presidential campaign by a former British intelligence agent. It became public in January of this year, and it was subsequently found to contain some information that was later confirmed, some speculation that was unsupported, and some salacious rumors about Trump and Russian prostitutes that, while irresistible to comedians, couldn’t be confirmed and ultimately aren’t that meaningful.
Last night, the Post published an article that reported these facts:
The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped fund research that resulted in a now-famous dossier containing allegations about President Trump’s connections to Russia and possible coordination between his campaign and the Kremlin, people familiar with the matter said.
Marc E. Elias, a lawyer representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC, retained Fusion GPS, a Washington firm, to conduct the research.
After that, Fusion GPS hired dossier author Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer with ties to the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community, according to those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Elias and his law firm, Perkins Coie, retained the company in April 2016 on behalf of the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Before that agreement, Fusion GPS’s research into Trump was funded by an unknown Republican client during the GOP primary.
Some of the reporters who worked on this story in the past are saying that Elias had told them previously that he and the campaign were not involved in funding this opposition research. If it is indeed established that he lied to them (as opposed to just giving them some lawyerly misdirection), then that was certainly wrong of him to do; presumably we’ll learn more about that in days to come.
But if Elias did lie about it, it’s not clear why he would have, since every presidential campaign funds opposition research. What’s more, it was already known that Democrats had picked up the cost of Steele’s work.
It’s also unclear how much the Clinton campaign itself knew about the work, since Steele was a subcontractor to a subcontractor to a law firm representing the campaign, and the dossier itself read like an early draft, not remotely like a finished product that would be presented to the campaign.
Nevertheless, the idea that Elias denied that the campaign was the Democratic entity funding the research is the microscopically thin reed on which Republicans are hanging their whole argument about what this story means. That argument is that we now know that the entire investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia is a fraud.
At this point we have to emphasize that we already knew that Steele’s work was funded by Democrats. Or more precisely, at first the project was funded by Republicans, and then when Trump became the nominee it was picked up by Democrats. David Corn of Mother Jones first reported on it in October 2016:
This was for an opposition research project originally financed by a Republican client critical of the celebrity mogul. (Before the former spy was retained, the project’s financing switched to a client allied with Democrats.)
The New York Times corroborated Corn’s story in January, writing that “a wealthy Republican donor who strongly opposed Mr. Trump put up the money” to fund the research, and once Trump became the presumptive nominee, Fusion GPS continued but now with Democratic clients. Now we know that it wasn’t just “Democrats,” but the Clinton campaign and the DNC.
So what exactly is the scandal here? Is it that the Clinton campaign conducted opposition research on Trump? Of course they did, just like the Trump campaign presumably conducted opposition research on Clinton.
Indeed, Trump himself has not only admitted his camp dug for oppo research on Clinton; he dismissed it as completely appropriate and no big deal. When the news broke about the meeting in which his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager hoped to get damaging information on their opponent from representatives of the Russian government, the president said:
“Most people would have taken that meeting. It’s called opposition research … It’s very standard in politics.”
That was just three months ago. So the fact that Clinton camp did opposition research can’t be the scandal.
Is the scandal that there were some wild charges in the Steele dossier? So what? The Clinton campaign didn’t leak them to the press, use them in ads, or make any other use of them. The document came out after Trump was already elected, when Buzzfeed published it on January 10.
But none of that matters to Republicans, who are now trying to argue that this story proves that there’s nothing to the Russia scandal and the whole thing is Hillary Clinton’s fault anyway. “DOSSIER DECEIT” screams the headline on the story at the top of FoxNews.com. There are three separate articles about it dominating the front page of Breitbart. “CLINTON, DNC PAID FOR DIRT; RUSSIAN DOSSIER” says the huge headline on the Drudge Report, illustrated with a photo of Vladimir Putin whispering into Hillary Clinton’s ear.
That photo may tell us something important about what the GOP/conservative media strategy is now. You might watch for Republicans to start referring to it as the “Russian dossier,” as though it were not a dossier about Trump’s connections to Russia but something that Clinton cooked up with Putin.
“The real Russia scandal? Clinton campaign paid for the fake Russia dossier, then lied about it & covered it up,” tweeted White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. “Bombshell: Clinton/DNC funded Russian dossier research” said the RNC. Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush’s Sarah Sanders, made it explicit, linking to the Post’s article and tweeting, “Hard 2read this w/o concluding Clinton campaign colluded w Russia 2interfere in US election.” “Collusion. Dossier of Russian-generated dirt on @realDonaldTrump was paid for by @HillaryClinton & funneled thru Comey. Priceless,” tweeted Laura Ingraham.
If you try hard to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they have something resembling a coherent argument here, it seems to be that since the Clinton campaign was indirectly paying Steele, and since in his attempt to determine the extent of Trump’s dealings in Russia, Steele spoke to Russian sources, then that means Hillary Clinton “colluded with Russia.” That is positively insane.
Of course Steele had to talk to Russians in his inquiry, just as detectives are going to have to talk to criminals when they’re investigating a criminal enterprise. Those are the people who might have information. He gathered enough worthwhile information that Robert Mueller’s team reportedly met with him to discuss what he learned. Here’s the difference between that and what the Trump campaign is alleged to have done: The Trump campaign may have been getting help from the Russian government itself and people acting on the Russian government’s behalf, which was provided because the Russian government wanted Trump to win the election, and not to uncover some connection between Clinton and Russia but simply to undermine Clinton in a variety of ways, ways which we’re learning more and more about all the time.
By contrast, the idea that what the Clinton campaign did represents “collusion” is just nonsense. The most Clinton did was hire an opposition researcher who interviewed sources he knew in Russia to see if her opponent had engaged in any questionable activities there. We don’t even know if she (or anyone else on her staff) even read Steele’s report, since he was a few steps removed from the campaign. Nothing about that even remotely resembles “collusion with Russia.”
But we all know the game here, or at least we should. The Republicans’ point is not to make a compelling, persuasive argument. It’s to create as much confusion as possible. It doesn’t matter whether any of it makes sense.
From this point forward, whenever anything having to do with Trump’s connections to Russia and Robert Mueller’s investigation is raised, Republicans will shout, “What about the Russian dossier Clinton paid for! They all lied about it! She was the one colluding with the Russians! That’s the real scandal!”
And people watching at home will say, “I don’t understand what the hell is going on with any of this.” Which is exactly the goal.