Each time she addressed the dossier, she was careful to alert viewers that it was unverified. But she had espied some developments that appeared to support the dossier’s nitty-gritty. So she asked Schiff: “When you cited … that dossier, should we stop describing that as an uncorroborated dossier? Has some of the information of that been corroborated?”
Schiff sidestepped the question.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz did not. Over a nearly two-year investigation released on Dec. 9, Horowitz and a team of investigators reviewed at least a million records, interviewed more than 100 individuals and otherwise probed the actions of the FBI and the Justice Department in the Russia investigation. In so doing, they reached an answer to Maddow’s question.
Claims in the 35-page dossier fell into three pails, according to the report: “The FBI concluded, among other things, that although consistent with known efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, much of the material in the Steele election reports, including allegations about Donald Trump and members of the Trump campaign relied upon in the Carter Page FISA applications, could not be corroborated; that certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location and title information, much of which was publicly available.”
The Horowitz team didn’t attempt an independent fact-check of the dossier, opting instead to report what the FBI had concluded about the document. Unflattering revelations pop up at every turn in the 400-page-plus report. It reveals that the CIA considered it a hodgepodge of “internet rumor”; that the FBI considered one of its central allegations — that former Trump attorney Michael Cohen had traveled to Prague for a collusive meeting with Russians — “not true”; that Steele’s sources weren’t quite a crack international spy team. After the 2016 election, for instance, Steele directed his primary source to seek corroboration of the claims. “According to [an FBI official], during an interview in May 2017, the Primary Sub-source said the corroboration was ‘zero,’” reads the report.
The ubiquity of Horowitz’s debunking passages suggests that he wanted the public to come away with the impression that the dossier was a flabby, hasty, precipitous, conclusory charade of a document. Viewers of certain MSNBC fare were surely blindsided by the news, if they ever even heard it.
Name a host on cable news who has dug more deeply into Trump-Russia than MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. She’s read hundreds, maybe thousands, of court filings; she’s read the plume of literature on Russia-Trump; and she’s out with a new book on the bane of petro-states: “Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.”
As part of her Russianist phase, Maddow became a clearinghouse for news increments regarding the dossier. Just days after BuzzFeed published the dossier in its entirety, she reported on the frustration of congressional Democrats with then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who was declining to divulge whether his people had opened an investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.
Sorting through the silence from the FBI and the unverified claims in the dossier, Maddow riffed on her Jan. 13, 2017, program: “I mean, had the FBI looked into what was in that dossier and found that it was all patently false, they could tell us that now, right?” said Maddow. “I mean, the dossier has now been publicly released. If the FBI looked into it and they found it was all trash, there’s no reason they can’t tell us that now. They’re not telling us that now. They’re not saying that. They’re not saying anything.”
That line of analysis has gained some important context via the Horowitz report. The FBI did, in fact, find “potentially serious problems” with Steele’s reporting as early as January 2017. A source review in March 2017 “did not make any findings that would have altered that judgment.”
It was dossier season, in any case, for Maddow.
In March 2017, the host glommed onto recent reporting by CNN and the New Yorker to the effect that U.S. authorities had confirmed that “some of the conversations described in the dossier took place between the same individuals on the same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier,” according to CNN. The New Yorker wrote that U.S. intelligence had confirmed “some of its less explosive claims, relating to conversations with foreign nationals.” The “baseline” claim of the dossier — that the Trump campaign and Russia participated in a towering election conspiracy — hadn’t yet borne out, conceded Maddow. “But even if that is as yet in itself uncorroborated and undocumented,” she said, “all the supporting details are checking out, even the really outrageous ones. A lot of them are starting to bear out under scrutiny. It seems like a new one each passing day.”
So it went. Here’s a timeline:
On May 3, 2017, Maddow cited a CNN report that “parts of this dossier passed muster even in federal court when the dossier was used in part to justify a secret FISA court warrant for U.S. surveillance on a Trump campaign adviser.” Thanks to Horowitz, we now know that officials misused the dossier in this process, failing to disclose to the FISA court dossier-debunking information. Never place blind faith in the FBI!
“The Republican claim today was that the dossier has been increasingly discredited. That’s not true in terms of the public record about the dossier. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. As time goes on, more and more pieces do get independently corroborated,” Maddow said.
On Aug. 23, 2017, Maddow said: “[Even] though the White House and people from the Trump campaign and the Trump administration keep denouncing it as like this dodgy dossier, reporters routinely talk about it as unverified and uncorroborated. You know what? That’s less and less true all the time.” The comment followed a Senate Judiciary Committee interview with Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS, the research firm that engaged Steele to compile the dossier.
On Oct. 5, 2017, Maddow said that Steele had “a lot” of the dossier “dead to rights.”
On Dec. 8, 2017, Maddow aired a special report on the dossier. “Above all else, we know this about the now famous dossier: Christopher Steele had this story before the rest of America did. And he got it from Russian sources,” said the host, who used the term “deep cover sources” to describe Steele’s network. According to the Horowitz report, the “Primary Sub-source” for the dossier told the FBI that the information he/she passed along amounted to “word of mouth and hearsay.”
On April 16, 2018, Maddow cited the McClatchy story by Greg Gordon and Peter Stone that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had evidence that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had traveled to Prague in 2016. The scoop would appear to have supported a key claim in the dossier that Cohen made the trip to meet with Russians for collusive purposes. According to the Horowitz report, the FBI determined that the claim about Cohen’s travels was “not true.”
On Oct. 17, 2018, Maddow played a clip of then-Fox News correspondent Catherine Herridge posing questions to Joshua Levy, counsel to Fusion GPS and its co-founders. Pressed on whether the dossier had been substantiated, Levy responded, in part: “The central thesis to the first memo Mr. Steele wrote said that the Russians were helping President Trump win the presidency and give him information to win the presidency. The U.S. intelligence community has since found that that was the case.”
The release of the Mueller report in April provided a kick in the derriere for backers of the dossier. As Glenn Kessler pointed out in The Post, the central allegation of the dossier — an “extensive conspiracy between campaign team and Kremlin, sanctioned at highest levels and involving Russian diplomatic staff based in the US” as well as an "Agreed exchange of information established in both directions” — found no corroboration from Mueller’s investigation, even though the special counsel’s team was charged with probing just this matter.
Several days after the Mueller report emerged, Maddow addressed not the dissonance between Mueller and the dossier, but a point of possible corroboration. In perhaps its most famous allegation, the dossier claimed that Trump had rented a suite at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow and “employed” prostitutes to perform a perverted ritual for him. It suggested that there were tapes of the show, the better to amass kompromat against Trump.
A footnote in the Mueller report, noted Maddow, bore a possible connection to this part of the dossier. It turned out that Russian businessman Giorgi Rtskhiladze had sent a text message to Cohen on Oct. 30, 2016, saying, “Stopped flow of tapes from Russia but not sure if there’s anything else. Just so you know…” Those tapes were “compromising,” Rtskhiladze told the special counsel. However, he also said “he was told the tapes were fake, but he did not communicate that to Cohen.”
Seizing on the revelations, Maddow commented: “[According] to Mueller, Cohen then told Trump about that before the election. So that means Trump knew that somewhere in the former Soviet Union, a business buddy of his had taken action to make sure tapes, supposedly from Trump’s trip to Russia, those tapes weren’t getting out. Don’t worry, all taken care of. I took care of that for you, right?” she said.
With that, the dossier ceased performing its role as a central character on “The Rachel Maddow Show.” On the day Horowitz released his punishing report — with all its assertions about the dossier’s dubiety — Maddow chose not to focus on the integrity of the document that she’d once claimed was accumulating credibility on a nearly daily basis. She said this: “The inspector general debunks that there was any anti-Trump political bias motivating these decisions. They debunked the idea that the Christopher Steele dossier of opposition research against Trump was the basis for opening the FBI’s Russia investigation. It absolutely was not, and ‘Oh, by the way, no, there was no spying on the Trump campaign.’”
All legitimate points. Conspiracists including Fox News host Sean Hannity had indeed argued that the dossier triggered Crossfire Hurricane. But as the New York Times first reported in late 2017, the precipitating circumstance was intelligence from Australia indicating that a Trump campaign adviser had claimed Russia had damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
Since that Dec. 9 mention, the dossier has gone in hiding from “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Perhaps a full inventory of the dossier has yielded to coverage of President Trump’s impeachment — clearly a humongous story.
The case for Maddow is that her dossier coverage stemmed from public documents, congressional proceedings and published reports from outlets with solid investigative histories. She included warnings about the unverified assertions and didn’t use the dossier as a source for wild claims. There is something fishy, furthermore, about that Mueller footnote regarding the “tapes.” In their recent book on the dossier, “Crime in Progress,” the Fusion GPS co-founders wrote that Steele believes the document is 70-percent accurate.
The case against Maddow is far stronger. When small bits of news arose in favor of the dossier, the franchise MSNBC host pumped air into them. At least some of her many fans surely came away from her broadcasts thinking the dossier was a serious piece of investigative research, not the flimflam, quick-twitch game of telephone outlined in the Horowitz report. She seemed to be rooting for the document.
And when large bits of news arose against the dossier, Maddow found other topics more compelling.
She was there for the bunkings, absent for the debunkings — a pattern of misleading and dishonest asymmetry.
In an October edition of the podcast “Skullduggery,” Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News pressed Maddow on her show’s approach to Russia. Here’s a key exchange:
Isikoff: Do you accept that there are times that you overstated what the evidence was and you made claims and suggestions that Trump was totally in Vladimir Putin’s pocket and they had something on him and that he was perhaps a Russian asset and we can’t really conclude that?Maddow: What have I claimed that’s been disproven?Isikoff: Well, you’ve given a lot of credence to the Steele dossier.Maddow: I have?Isikoff: Well, you’ve talked about it quite a bit, I mean, you’ve suggested it.Maddow: I feel like you’re arguing about impressions of me, rather than actually basing this on something you’ve seen or heard me do.
After some back and forth about particulars of the Mueller report and the dossier with Isikoff, Maddow ripped: “You’re trying to litigate the Steele dossier through me as if I am the embodiment of the Steele dossier, which I think is creepy, and I think it’s unwarranted. And it’s not like I’ve been making the case for the accuracy of the Steele dossier and that’s been the basis of my Russia reporting. That’s just not true.”
Asked to comment on how she approached the dossier, Maddow declined to provide an on-the-record response to the Erik Wemple Blog.
Read more from this series by Erik Wemple: