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Opinion Dear CNN: What parts of the Steele dossier were corroborated?

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Capitol Hill last month. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Eighth in a series on the media’s handling of the Steele dossier. Read the rest of the series here.

Cable news analysis is no match for a huge, complicated, controversial and unverifiable document.

For proof of this dynamic, sample a conversation from CNN’s “New Day” morning program in January 2018. Co-hosts John Berman and Poppy Harlow chatted with Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) about President Trump’s attacks against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who was at the time investigating whether Trump’s 2016 campaign had coordinated with Russia.

As the discussion progressed, Stewart chose to attack the dossier of memorandums compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. “We now know that the dossier, which was so famous and really the foundation for many of these accusations — asking the FBI, tell me anything in that, that’s true. And they can’t . . .” said Stewart.

“Look, what was true: Russian election meddling,” responded Berman, “all of the intelligence agencies say is true.” Then Berman moved from the general to the semi-specific: “Many of the meetings that the dossier discusses were corroborated, of course.”

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Into the weeds they dove, with Berman mentioning alleged meetings between Russians and former Trump campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos:

Berman: Number two, there are meetings between Russians, Carter Page, meetings with Russia. George Papadopoulos, meetings with Russia.
Stewart: Well, of course, U.S. citizens meet with Russians every day.
Berman: But that was in the dossier.

Recent history frowns upon this exchange.

Yes, the dossier’s passages on Russian meddling exist. But before Steele submitted his first memorandum to research firm Fusion GPS, The Post had already reported in June 2016 that Russian government hackers had infiltrated the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee — netting emails that would be leaked in the following months. As EmptyWheel’s Marcy Wheeler noted last year, “The Steele report remained way behind public contemporaneous reporting on the hack-and-leak” operation.

As for the meetings: The dossier doesn’t even mention Papadopoulos. “None of Steele’s sources had ever reported on him,” write Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, co-founders of the firm that commissioned the dossier, in their book “Crime in Progress.”

The dossier does mention the alleged activities of Page, against whom the feds secured warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) with information from the dossier. However, the report released Dec. 9 by Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, says this about the dossier and Page: "We determined that prior to and during the pendency of the FISAs, the FBI was unable to corroborate any of the specific substantive allegations against Carter Page contained in the election reporting [i.e., dossier] and relied on in the FISA applications.”

Dossier-deflating references such as that populate the Horowitz report. Its global assessment is blunt: “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.”

Here’s a guide to how elements of the Steele dossier match up with the Mueller report. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

The findings create a problem for many media figures, including CNN, whose anchors and guests repeatedly defended the Steele dossier on the grounds that it had been corroborated in some fashion. Here’s a look at some examples:

  • “You ask your intel community. Your intel community has corroborated all the details.” — CNN host Alisyn Camerota to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), 12/8/2017
  • “That takes you back to the infamous Steele dossier . . . that information collected by a former British intelligence officer about some of the allegations about the president’s activities in Moscow with women there. If that turns out to be true — and I think we have information that suggests the FBI has corroborated some of that — I could see a national security implication.” — Phil Mudd, CNN counterterrorism analyst, 3/26/2018
  • “Of course, we now know that the DNC did pay for this Steele dossier drafted by that British agent, Christopher Steele, containing allegations of coordination and the like with Trump and Russia. Some of those have been corroborated. Some of those have not been substantiated in that dossier.” — CNN correspondent Manu Raju, 12/18/2017
  • "A lot has been been verified.” — CNN anchor John Vause, 1/19/2018
  • “Listen, so we haven’t reported here on CNN the salacious details of that dossier, but much of the dossier has been corroborated.” — CNN anchor Don Lemon, 11/15/2017

CNN’s prism for viewing the dossier emerges from a story by CNN’s Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez on Feb. 10, 2017. It was titled, “US investigators corroborate some aspects of the Russia dossier.” So what “aspects” had CNN corroborated? Michael Cohen’s alleged trip to Prague? Those Trumpian “moles” inside the DNC? The wide-ranging and mutually backscratching alliance between the Trump campaign and Russia?

No, the “aspects” were “conversations between foreign nationals,” reported Sciutto and Perez. The story continued: “The dossier details about a dozen conversations between senior Russian officials and other Russian individuals. Sources would not confirm which specific conversations were intercepted or the content of those discussions due to the classified nature of US intelligence collection programs.” Though the story was silent on which particular allegations in the dossier drew strength from these findings, CNN indicated that the intercepted communications fostered “greater confidence” in the dossier among the authorities.

At the time, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, “We continue to be disgusted by CNN’s fake news reporting.” It is here that some hindsight-assisted dossier accountability falls on the Erik Wemple Blog. After Spicer’s blast, we wrote a post criticizing the White House for its “authoritarian” response to the CNN story. Though the White House’s conduct was typically bush-league and anti-democratic, the Erik Wemple Blog should have spread some of the skepticism to CNN for its vague story. We did not — a pathetic media-criticism failure.

We have asked CNN to point us to any subsequent reporting — by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, for instance, or the Horowitz report — that shores up the Sciutto-Perez story about confirmed communications from the dossier. Weeks after the CNN story surfaced, the New Yorker reported, too, that authorities had confirmed some of the dossier’s “less explosive claims, relating to conversations with foreign nationals.”

In any case, CNN dined out on the Sciutto-Perez story. On May 30, 2017, for instance, anchor Anderson Cooper said, “And regardless of the sourcing, it’s not accurate to say that dossier has been discredited. We’re not reporting on the details of it because some of it has yet to be confirmed or disproven. . . . To say, however, that it’s been completely discredited in part or in whole is simply not true. In fact, CNN reported in February, some parts of that dossier have been corroborated. For instance, the U.S. intelligence agencies found that some of the meetings and communications contained in the dossier indeed took place on the dates and . . . locations as described.” On June 7, 2017, anchor Wolf Blitzer said, “CNN, by the way, has corroborated some elements of that dossier.”

Roughly a month later, CNN exploded over the release of emails involving Donald Trump Jr. and that famous meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer, among others. Emails showed that Trump Jr. had reason to expect dirt on Hillary Clinton. In a July 11, 2017, appearance on CNN, Sciutto spotted good news for the dossier: “We already know and we have reported that the intelligence community has corroborated some of what was contained in that dossier,” said Sciutto, whom the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross named the dossier’s foremost defender. “Some of those meetings took place. Here you have something that corroborates at least one of the main propositions of the dossier, right, was that there were meetings between Trump world and Russia with the intent to cooperate on releasing damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Upon further investigation, the Trump Tower meeting fell short of the “extensive conspiracy" allegations of the dossier. As the Mueller report put it: “Although damaging opposition research is surely valuable to a campaign, it appears that the information ultimately delivered in the meeting was not valuable.” One of the participants — Georgian-American businessman Ike Kaveladze — provided his daughter this assessment: “meeting was boring. The Russians did not have any bad info on Hilary.”

While Mueller and media figures investigated what happened — and didn’t happen — in that meeting, the dossier “corroboration” claims continued spilling from CNN airwaves.

Given the frequency of such commentary, the Erik Wemple Blog posed a question to the network: Just which parts of the dossier, in CNN’s view, have been corroborated? It’s an important question not only because of CNN’s claims, but also because the dossier itself is so vast, containing in excess of 100 paragraphs spread across 35 pages. Does CNN believe that there was an “extensive conspiracy between [Trump’s] campaign team and Kremlin, sanctioned at highest levels and involving Russian diplomatic staff based in US”? Does CNN believe there was a two-way exchange of intelligence and that one “mechanism for transmitting . . . intelligence involves ‘pension’ disbursements to Russian emigres living in the US as cover . . .”

We didn’t receive an on-the-record response to that particular inquiry. The network, however, has issued this statement about its overall coverage: “CNN stands by our reporting. Our approach to the dossier has been consistent since day one. CNN only reported details when they were corroborated, part of a government filing, or publicly discussed by officials or those mentioned.”

Perhaps a more detailed answer lies in CNN’s January 2019 story under the headline, “Revisiting the Trump-Russia dossier: What’s right, wrong and still unclear?” Deference to Steele permeates the story. For instance, the CNN assessment says, “The dossier said that the hacks against Democrats, which were publicly released by WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign, were part of a wider Russian hacking effort. That has since been confirmed in Mueller’s court filings.” Again, The Post — days before the first dossier report — made that clear. (In fact, an early Steele report plays up an alleged dossier against Hillary Clinton, consisting of “bugged conversations” and other eavesdropping on the veteran politico during her visits to Russia over the years. What happened to that?)

The CNN story also pads the dossier with this claim: “Another allegation that’s proven true: Steele’s sources noted that the Russian government had indirectly paid Michael Flynn to travel to Moscow, a reference to his attendance at a gala honoring the state-run broadcaster RT.”

Well. Flynn’s gala participation in December 2015 was promoted by RT and drew some coverage in the media as well, so the trip itself was no secret. As for the payment, Flynn himself confirmed it during an interview with Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News in July 2016. “Top Trump adviser defends payment for Russian speaking engagement,” reads the Yahoo News headline.

So, by July 2016, the world knew that Flynn had traveled to Russia for the gala, and that he’d been paid for it. The dossier memorandum containing this same claim about Flynn — and others — is dated Aug. 10, 2016. Therefore, Steele’s claim about Flynn appeared to be an aggregation job.

There’s a contradiction deep in CNN’s record on the dossier. On the one hand, its journalists talked about its alleged corroboration for years. On the other hand, the network was careful not to parrot particular claims from the dossier, as its own statement notes. That restraint stemmed from start of the dossier drama, after CNN itself — behind reporting from Perez, Sciutto, Jake Tapper and contributor Carl Bernstein — scooped in January 2017 that then-President-elect Trump had been briefed on the dossier. “At this point, CNN is not reporting on details of the memos, as it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations,” noted the story.

The FBI, as it turned out, didn’t independently corroborate key, specific allegations, either — as the Horowitz report found. Based on a massive document review as well as interviews with more than 100 witnesses, the Justice Department inspector general’s team discovered that the FBI had built a spreadsheet of Steele claims — as John Solomon reported in July — with very few, if any, checkmarks. The 400-plus page Horowitz report brims with credibility-diminishing information on the dossier and the methods used to compile it.

So how did CNN handle the news of the dossier’s non-corroboration? “There was no spying and many parts of that dossier were later corroborated," said CNN anchor Christine Romans on Dec. 11, two days after the Horowitz report hit the streets.

The problem with such chatter lies in its suggestiveness. The dossier is best known to the public as a set of allegations alleging conspiracy with Russians by Trump campaign aides. By hyping small-bore “corroboration” — about “meetings" or “communications” or whatever — CNN programming bathed the dossier’s large-bore claims in credibility that they turn out not to deserve.

Read more from this series by Erik Wemple:

‘So this is all about collusion’: An inventory of media remarks on the Steele dossier

Come clean, CNN

‘Yeah, I briefly chased the pee tape’ — New York Times reporter talks Steele dossier, Horowitz report and more

A much-cited defense of the Steele dossier has a problem

Rachel Maddow rooted for the Steele dossier to be true. Then it fell apart.

CNN lands an interview with its own contributor

‘Disinformation’ claim ‘galls’ dossier author Christopher Steele

Horowitz report confirms John Solomon’s scoop on FBI ‘spreadsheet’ regarding Steele dossier

‘The story stands’: McClatchy won’t back off its Michael Cohen-Prague reporting