When BuzzFeed published that now-infamous dossier of unproven claims about Donald Trump and Russia, in January, former Hillary Clinton campaign aides expressed outrage that news outlets that had obtained the dossier before Election Day did not make its contents public in time to influence voters, and Clinton later aired the same grievance in her book about the presidential race.
It turns out that the reaction of the Democratic presidential nominee and her team was disingenuous. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday night that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped fund the dossier, compiled by a former British intelligence officer, through a law firm hired to conduct opposition research.
The Clinton camp left out its own role in the dossier's creation, as it ripped the media for sitting on information that journalists had been unable to verify. What Clinton and her advisers presented as their judgment that the media had made the wrong call was, in fact, their frustration at having failed to plant negative news reports before ballots were cast.
Recall that BuzzFeed published the dossier in full on Jan. 10, after CNN reported that the FBI had briefed President Barack Obama and then-President-elect Trump on its contents. Many journalists criticized BuzzFeed's decision, arguing that news outlets should not spread claims they can't corroborate, even if the FBI considers the claims significant enough to share with the president and his soon-to-be successor.
But Clinton press aides Brian Fallon and Nick Merrill contended, on Twitter, that the real journalistic malpractice was not publishing information contained in the dossier earlier.
Merrill was referring to the New York Times, which reported on Oct. 31, 2016, that the FBI had “chased a lead — which they ultimately came to doubt — about a possible secret channel of email communication from the Trump Organization to a Russian bank.” Journalist Franklin Foer had reported on the possible secret channel in Slate earlier that day.
Also that day, Mother Jones magazine reported that a “former senior intelligence officer for a Western country” had “provided the [FBI] with memos, based on his recent interactions with Russian sources, contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump — and that the FBI requested more information from him.” The memos comprised the dossier that BuzzFeed later published.
Consistent with the Mother Jones report, the Times reported that “intelligence officials have said in interviews over the last six weeks that apparent connections between some of Mr. Trump's aides and Moscow originally compelled them to open a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Republican presidential candidate.”
“Still,” the Times added, throwing the “cold water” Merrill spoke of, “they have said that Mr. Trump himself has not become a target. And no evidence has emerged that would link him or anyone else in his business or political circle directly to Russia's election operations.”
Clinton complained about the Times report in her post-election book, “What Happened”:
In the summer of 2016, according to The Washington Post, the FBI convinced a special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there was probably cause to believe that Trump adviser Carter Page was acting as a Russian agent, and the received a warrant to monitor his communications. The FBI also began investigating a dossier prepared by a well-respected former British spy that contained explosive and salacious allegations about compromising information the Russians had on Trump. The intelligence community took the dossier seriously enough that it briefed both President Obama and President-elect Trump on its contents before the inauguration.
. . .
Sources within the FBI also convinced the New York Times to run a story saying they saw “no clear link to Russia,” countering Franklin Foer's scoop in Slate about unusual computer traffic between Trump Tower and a Russian bank.
Note that Clinton described the dossier only as having been “prepared by a well-respected former British spy” — as if the spy, Christopher Steele, had acted on his own. Clinton certainly gave no indication that her campaign helped finance his work.
There is a fundamental contradiction here: Clinton wanted the dossier to be viewed as credible yet she did not want to be connected to it. She hoped the media, before Election Day, would publish claims about Trump to which she was unwilling to attach her own name.
Update: Appearing on CNN Wednesday morning, Fallon said he personally did not know that the Clinton campaign helped fund the dossier and said he was unsure whether Clinton did.
“How could you not know that the Clinton team was paying for it?” CNN's John Berman asked. “And didn't someone in the Clinton campaign know this?”
“I'm sure that there's a small group of folks that were aware,” Fallon replied, “but it was kept, for reasons that I can understand, to a very select group.”
According to Fallon, Clinton “may have known, but the degree of exactly what she knew is beyond my knowledge.”
Fallon might be right, but ignorance is a pretty weak excuse here. At minimum, some people within the campaign were aware of funding the dossier, yet the campaign allowed spokesmen and the candidate herself to make public statements that were misleading by omission.