First thing Monday morning — before we learned that Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort had been indicted and before we learned that a former campaign adviser had lied to the FBI about contacts with Russian agents — President Trump wanted to draw the nation’s attention somewhere else.
“Report out that Obama Campaign paid $972,000 to Fusion GPS,” Trump tweeted, referring to the company that hired former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele to investigate Trump’s interactions with Russia. That investigation led to the so-called Trump dossier, a collection of individual reports written by Steele after conversations with Russian government officials and people close to Trump.
The implication from Trump — an implication that was rampant over the weekend as word that indictments were imminent in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation — is that the dossier was somehow funded by then-President Barack Obama as well as the campaign of Hillary Clinton (as The Post reported last week). By extension, the implication is that the document was politically motivated and an unfair attempt by Democrats to undermine the Republican nominee for the presidency.
But an Obama link to the dossier is far less robust than Trump implies. There’s no real reason, in fact, to think that one exists.
Trump was picking up a story from the conservative site the Federalist, which wrote over the weekend that a law firm called Perkins Coie had been paid nearly $1 million by Obama for America, Obama’s campaign committee. Perkins Coie was the same law firm that had hired Fusion GPS to look into Trump on behalf of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee in April 2016. (Fusion GPS had begun investigating Trump at the behest of the conservative news site Washington Free Beacon earlier that year.)
So, first of all, it wasn’t that Obama’s campaign had given that money to Fusion GPS. It had, instead, given the money to Perkins Coie, which had paid Fusion GPS for Steele. Trump (and the Federalist) imply that there’s a connection between those two things, but there’s no evidence at all that there was one.
What’s more, the Federalist left out of its report that it wasn’t unusual for the Obama campaign committee to give money to Perkins Coie, because Perkins Coie was the campaign’s attorney.
Since 2007, when the Obama campaign sprang into existence, OFA has paid the law firm $8.7 million. Much of that was in the years of the 2008 and 2012 elections, for obvious reasons.
It’s important to know that Perkins Coie provided legal services to far more than the DNC, Hillary Clinton and the Obama campaign. Here is a list of Perkins Coie clients in 2016. It includes 266 individual clients, including a slew of Democratic lawmakers, various political action committees and state and national Democratic Party committees. There is as much evidence that each of those other 260-plus committees were paying money to Perkins Coie to pass-through to Fusion GPS as there is that OFA was. Which is to say: There is no evidence to that end.
That said, there was a spike in spending from OFA last September — the largest single-month expenditure of the past 10 years. That month, 52 separate items are included in OFA’s FEC report, totaling just shy of $700,000.
Why? It’s not clear. (A request for information sent to the former president’s office was not returned.) It’s worth noting that late 2016 was also during the period in which the Obama administration was preparing to leave the White House.
That there were 52 payments also seems to undercut the idea that the spending was related to Fusion GPS — a claim for which, again, there is no actual evidence.
There’s one bit of evidence that suggests that a link to the dossier is unlikely. Below, we’ve contrasted the dates of payments from OFA to Perkins Coie to the dates that Steele filed reports that were included in the dossier.
Most of the reports filed by Steele were completed before OFA made those September payments to its legal firm. Before the reports, there were payments in April totaling less than $50,000. By late September, when those 52 payments were made, most of the reports in the dossier had already been written.
So, to summarize:
- Obama’s campaign paid Perkins Coie for years for legal advice.
- There’s no evidence that the 2016 payments had anything to do with Fusion GPS.
- Most of the reports in the dossier had been completed by the time that OFA paid Perkins Coie in September 2016.
Then why did Trump tweet that Obama had paid Fusion GPS? The most obvious answer is probably the correct one: Because he hoped to bolster a misleading story that ran counter to the bad news he knew was imminent from the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
His tweet, though, was an incorrect summary of a thoroughly speculative story.