At a November House hearing featuring Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) offered a detailed conspiracy theory tying the Steele dossier to the origins of the Russia investigation. “We know the Clinton campaign and the [Democratic] National Committee paid for . . . the dossier,” Jordan began. “And it sure looks like the FBI was paying the author of that document. And it sure looks like a major political party was working with the federal government to then turn an opposition research document that quoted some National Enquirer story into an intelligence document, take that to the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court so that they could then get a warrant to spy on Americans associated with President Trump's campaign. That's what it looks like.”
At the time, Sessions himself dismissed Jordan's dot-connecting and shunned calls for a new investigation. And now this theory has been dealt another significant blow.
The New York Times on Saturday added to the narrative of how the Russia investigation came to be. And more importantly, it filled in details of how it came to focus on potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.
The Times reported that George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign adviser who recently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with investigators, helped put the focus on the campaign. According to the Times's report, Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat over drinks in May 2016 that Russia had thousands of emails that would hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign. After the DNC's emails were leaked two months later, Australian officials reportedly relayed to U.S. authorities what Papadopoulos had said.
We already knew that the investigation began in July 2016, when WikiLeaks released thousands of hacked DNC emails. But exactly how much it initially focused on the Trump campaign and possible collusion — and why — has remained more mysterious. The FBI at the time only said that it was investigating the hacked emails, but former FBI director James B. Comey testified last year that the early investigation keyed on Russia's role and potential ties to the Trump campaign.
Papadopoulos's earlier contacts with people close to the Russian Foreign Ministry — including a London professor, Joseph Mifsud, and another academic, Ivan Timofeev — have already been reported. (Logic suggests that this could be where Papadopoulos heard about the emails.) The big takeaway here is that Papadopoulos's claim to such information made its way to U.S. authorities as early as July 2016 -- suggesting the investigation involving the Trump campaign was predicated on something independent of the Steele dossier.
Republicans like Jordan have focused on how the dossier, which is full of unverified claims about Trump and Russia, was funded by Democrats. They have seized upon an April CNN report that said information from the dossier formed some of the basis for getting FISA warrants against Carter Page, another Trump adviser wrapped up in the Russia probe. The suggestion is that this is the deep state working with Democrats and exploiting their specious information to justify an effort to take down Trump.
It is difficult to believe that Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that Russia had dirt on Clinton but didn’t mention anything to the campaign he was part of.
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) December 30, 2017
Some have also argued that the new Times report calls into question past Times reporting on the Russia probe. Over at the conservative National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy noted that the Times has previously reported that Page's early July visit to Moscow was “a catalyst for the FBI investigation into connections between Russia and President Trump’s campaign.”
But it's worth emphasizing that the Times called it merely “a catalyst” and not “the catalyst.” The Times also reported even back then that “developments beyond Mr. Page’s trip may have heightened the FBI’s concern about Russian meddling in the campaign.” The Papadopoulos revelation would seem to constitute one of those other “developments” — and one that unlike Page, who is mentioned in the Steele dossier, has no known tie to that document. It seems likely there are other pieces of the puzzle that we don't know about yet, as well.
(Similarly, the CNN report never said the Steele dossier was the only basis for the FISA warrants, but rather that contents from it were "part of the justification" used. The report also emphasized that any such information from the dossier would need to have been corroborated before it could be used.)
The Times's new report, just like many Russia revelations, relies on anonymous sources, which means readers need to decide whether they trust the newspaper and reporters who are, in turn, trusting those sources. But one of the men who reportedly spurred the collusion investigation is presumably sharing with investigators how he came to know about Russia having damaging information about Clinton.
And, presumably, Papadopoulos's cooperation with the investigation will one day help tell us whether and how much the collusion investigation was predicated on something more substantial than the Steele dossier.